Why do some products and ideas go viral, while some don’t?

It’s the question posed by Wharton Professor Jonah Berger, whose informative and entertaining lecture to IVY NYC explained the ingredients necessary to make an idea stick.

Jonah has spent a decade combating the notion that contagiousness is a function of luck. His research shows that “share-ability” is not chance, and it’s not good fortune; there is a science behind what catches on, and if you know it, you can master it.

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“People think it’s all about social media,” Jonah told IVY. “But only 7% of word of mouth is actually online.  Most word of mouth is shared face-to-face.  In fact, face-to-face conversation is the original social media.  So it’s important to think more about the psychology and less about the technology—in other words, WHY people share some things rather than others.”

We often assume that the “why” is proportional to how intrinsically shareable a piece of content is; cute animal videos are more exciting than toiler paper. And yet, clever campaigns across all industries have shown that it’s possible to make a blender and men’s deodorant some of the most shared products in recent history.

What, then, are the key factors that will determine whether someone will want to share content or not? Jonah identifies six requirements, which are detailed in his best-selling book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

  • Social Currency: People care how they look to others. Content will be shared if it makes someone look smart, cool, or in the know. (Think of McDonald’s famously invisible McRib, Starbuck’s Secret Menu, or the Lower East Side’s secret speakeasy, Please Don’t Tell.)
  • Triggers: Some stimuli call to mind certain products, the way peanut butter triggers “jelly” in our minds. NASA’s Mars Pathfinder, for example, caused an unexpected spike in sales of Mars bars.
  • Emotion: Inducing certain emotions in an audience will work toward your advantage, while some will hurt you. Awe, amusement, and anger will increase the desire to share; sadness will accomplish the opposite.
  • Public: Highly visible products advertise themselves. Steve Jobs knew this when he deliberated over which way the Apple icon should face on the cover of a laptop. He decided it was more important for it to be face-up to an outside observer, not to the user.
  • Practical Value: If content is useful or teaches us something new, we will share it. Steve Jobs knew this when he deliberated over which way the Apple icon should face on the cover of a laptop. He decided it was more important for it to be face-up to an outside observer, not to the user.
  • Stories: People will share content if there’s a compelling narrative in which your message lives.

Jonah’s advice?

“There is so much hype out there around social media and big data, but at a basic level, the key is understanding why people do what they do.  You can have all the data in the world, but if you don’t understand human behavior, it will be hard to do much with it.”

Fittingly, Jonah’s book went viral, reaching both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. Check out the book here, and share your thoughts below!