$100 cheesesteaks, iPhone smoothies and sexy Puerto Rican videos: The secrets of contagious marketing revealed

You’ve seen those crazy videos – the ones that quickly rise to millions of  views. Ever wonder what makes them go viral? Ever wonder why things catch on?

U Penn Wharton School marketing Prof. Jonah Berger answers this question in an entertaining, quick fashion in his book “Contagious – Why things catch on.” It’s a must-read for any marketing professional interested in spreading the word to the masses.

I recently read “Contagious” for an Integrated Marketing Communications continuing education class I’m taking at my alma mater the University of Washington. I spent the first half of my career working as a journalist and the second have as a public relations consultant. With the traditional media landscape shrinking and new media exploding and fragmenting the way we communicate I determined it’s time for me to add marketing to my skillset. This class has opened my eyes to many new ways to communicate and get my clients’ messages to the right people.

The book comes to life with the examples of catchy and memorable marketing campaigns. Some involved huge marketing teams for Fortune 500 companies. Others were created by an individual with virtually no budget. All are noteworthy and offer lessons in brilliant ways to bring in customers and sell products. Here are two of my favorites:

  1. The $100 cheesesteak created by Barclay Prime in Philadelphia – Barclay Prime created this crazy concoction to draw new patrons to its high-end steak house.
  2. Blendtec’s “Will it Blend?” campaign shows off the amazing powers of the company’s blender by blending everything from golf balls to iPhones.

Interestingly, Berger notes that despite so much focus on social media, online conversations reach only 7 percent of people. Word of mouth and real conversations are way better ways to spread the word.

He  outlines his six “STEPP” principles to drive things to catch on.  Here are the steps and some examples of when, how and why they work:

  1. Social Currency – We share things that make us look good

Example: The secret “Please Don’t Tell” bar in New York only for those in the know.

  1. Triggers – Top of mind, tip of tongue

Example: Sales of Mars candy bars increased when NASA’s Pathfinder was on its way to Mars.

Example: Votes in favor of school levies are higher when people vote at a school.

  1. Emotion – When we care, we share

Example: What is the one emotion that creates the most viral videos? Berger’s own research, based on most shared New York Times articles and viral videos, is the emotion of awe – “the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity or might…It encompasses admiration and inspiration and can be evoked by everything from great works of art or music to religious transformations, from breathtaking natural landscapes to human feats of daring and discovery.”  Check out these popular viral videos and see if you agree:

Decpacito, featuring music, scenery and sex

Charlie Bit Me, featuring adorable, hilarious kids

  1. Public – Built to show, built to grow

Example: In 2003 a group of friends from Melbourne, Australia, decided to grow mustaches during November to raise awareness of men’s cancer. The idea caught on and now men all over the world grow facial hair in “Movember” and raise money and support for men’s health.

  1. Practical Value – News you can use

Example: Sharing usable content builds brand. I’m offering usable content in this blog post and I hope you’ll share it to help build my “Flash Media Services” brand.

  1. Stories – Information travels under the guise of idle chatter

Example: Stories are wonderful ways to deliver messages. The most successful message sharing of any of my clients, Providence Mount St. Vincent, came in the form of a story around a nursing home that shared space with a daycare center. A video trailer of a movie about this nursing home has been seen by millions of people and generated hundreds of news stories.

One of the keys to selling products and getting clients involves marketing to the masses. Lessons learned in Berger’s book “Contagious” offer research and examples to help marketers attain success.


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