Why Things Catch On: Interview with Jonah Berger

ContagiousI previously owned a digital and mobile marketing blog- Go-Mash Mobile. When I worked there I was lucky enough to interview Jonah Berger, Marketing Professor at the Wharton School and bestselling author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On about the psychology behind sharing content, and whether mobile technology has changed the way that happens. Go-Mash is no longer online, but I kept hold of some of the best articles, including this one.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On combines fascinating research with powerful stories to show us why certain things are talked about more than others.

Since you wrote Contagious, mobile technology has moved forward a huge amount, smartphone penetration is up, and more people can communicate online whenever and wherever. How do you think this has affected the way we share and send things viral?
Mobile hasn’t changed the underlying psychology of why we share, but it does shift some of the ways it gets expressed. People tend to have less time when they are on mobile, which encourages browsing rather than in-depth reading. We skim rather than read in depth or we share content even without reading it. It encourages shorter attention spans and sound bites over more weighty content. If you’re bored and on the train, you’re more likely to check out clickbait because you know you only have a couple minutes before your stop anyway. Some research also suggests that mobile makes people more self-focused, in part because their devices are so connected to their identities.

Viral content has become something that many marketers have aimed for, but do you feel many of them aim only for views, rather than real engagement? If so, where do you feel they should focus their attention?
“Viral” has been misused. Marketers optimize views rather than metrics which actually matter. Metrics that actually drive sales. People pay to get their content featured on different sites, or design clickbait headlines, but while these tactics generate more views they don’t move the sales needle. Engagement is much more important. Out of 100 people who viewed the content, how many shared it? Shares are free. That’s why contagiousness is more important than views. If you can craft contagious content, you can get lots more people to see and engage with your message at a lower cost.

In Contagious, you discuss the use of stories, and their effectiveness in terms of viral content. Do certain types of stories appear to work better than other types?
Stories are great, but if at the end of the day people can’t remember what company or organization the story is about, they’re not as useful. That’s why valuable virality is so important. Content people share but that also benefits the brand that created it. Building what I call Trojan Horse Stories that carry the brand (or its benefit) for the ride.

Do you believe the STEPPS to viral content as outlined in Contagious are timeless, or as tech and culture changes, will these elements be more or less effective?
Technology is great, but to use it effectively, you have to understand the psychology. Why people share some things rather than others.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the technology. Pinterest this, Yik Yak that, etc. But most of these things come and go. MySpace and Foursquare were really important. Until they weren’t. So rather than getting caught up in the hype of technology, marketers need to understand the psychology. Why are people sharing in the first place? And that’s what the STEPPS are about.

The STEPPS are more about psychology than technology, so they’re unlikely to change over time. Technologies come and go, but the major reasons we share have stayed the same. We’ve shared things that help others, make us look good, generate emotion, or are top of mind for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Sure technology changes that some at the margins, making certain motivations easier to enact, but in general the science of social transmission stays the same.

You can buy Contagious: Why Things Catch On from a number of outlets, including Amazon. Read more about it on Jonah Berger’s Official Site.

About the Author

Patrick is a digital marketing consultant with around 10 years' experience, covering SEO, PPC, social media, email and user experience.

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