Contagious Content: The Secret Behind Why Things Catch On

People love to share stories, news, and information with those around them. We all do it. We write reviews of our favorite restaurants, share videos with our friends on Facebook, and tweet about our historically awful commutes to work (we’re looking at you, MBTA).

People share more than 16,000 words per day and every hour there are more than 100 million conversations about brands. So we all do it…a lot. But why do we talk about and share certain things and not others?

It’s a question that Jonah Berger, the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, spends a lot of time examining. As a scholar in the study of social epidemics, or why products, ideas, and behaviors become popular, Berger has developed a framework for capitalizing on word of mouth.

Just as a recipes often call for sugar to make something sweet, you can find the same six ingredients in the ads that went viral, articles that get shared, or products that receive lots of word of mouth. So, what is this Jonah Berger formula for engineering contagious content, and how does it impact the video advertising landscape? Our team takes a closer look:

1. Social Currency

How does it make people look to talk about a product or idea?

We share things that make us look good

The fact of the matter is that people want to share things that make them seem sharp and in the know. Sharing the best content is the modern-day version of a firm handshake; it’s all about making a good impression. It’s a kind of currency. Just as people use money to buy the latest products, they use content as social currency to make positive, desirable impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues. So to get people talking, you need to give them a way to make themselves look good and feel like insiders in the process.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? This same concept plays a big role in the success of videos: nothing matters unless others witness it, too. Audiences feel included in a special club when they watch and they want others to know about it. Otherwise, does it really matter that it happened at all? By sharing with others, there’s an added social value that gives validity to the experience.

−Nicole Potocki, Product Manager

2. Triggers

How do we remind people to talk about products and ideas?

Top of mind, tip of tongue

If you give someone information “off the top of your head,” you do so from memory, without checking beforehand. This is the greatest sign of recall—what’s important enough to remember, and what’s not. This is also the sign of effective content and exception brands. People often talk about whatever comes to mind, so the more people think about a brand, the more they will talk about it. The concept is simple, but it’s up to the content to create triggers by linking the message to prevalent cues within the audience’s environment.

Triggers are for that “OH YEAH” moment when we’re out with our friends and we want to share something in the moment. When you’re with your friends you’re usually unfiltered, so anything that “pops” into your mind is probably shared instantly. The topic of what’s being shared is largely irrelevant; what’s important is the bond that the conversation creates. Good marketing incorporates triggers into its ads, so when that trigger occurs it compels us to say “OH YEAH” and share the story.

−Dan Levin, Founder, President & COO

3. Emotion

How can we craft messages that make people feel something?

When we care, we share

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: advertising is all about emotion. Okay, I know you have. But at the risk of sounding trite, it’s true: instead of harping on function, you need to focus on feelings. Content without emotion is just a pile of wood. You need to kindle the fire. Sharing emotional experiences helps people deepen their social connections. If you send a coworker a video that leaves both of you inspired, it highlights your similarities. Emotion sharing is the social glue that reminds us how much we have in common with the people around us. Even if we are very different people, we feel the same way and that bonds us together.

People are creatures of emotion and not logic, and that is why when something impacts you emotionally you want to share that experience. Emotions affect how we feel, behave, and think. The content that is most effective taps into those emotions, which influence and persuade feelings such as love, attachment, happiness or sadness.  

−Stefanie Matthews, VP, Customer Success

4. Public

Can people see when others are using our product or engaging in our desired behavior?

Built to show, built to grow

Surprisingly, the psychology of imitation dictates a lot of human behavior. Even if you’ve never heard the term, you’ve certainly seen it in action. If you’ve ever watched the television show Friends, or really any sitcom for that matter, then you’re familiar with the canned laughter trick. This is a deliberate use of social influence: people are more likely to laugh when they hear others laughing. But people can imitate only when they can see what others are doing. The more shareable the content is, the more people see it, and the more likely it is to catch on.

Every person inherently wants to be a part of social experiences—nobody likes to feel left out of the loop within their cultural circles. That’s how any trend starts. Think of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and how quickly that went viral, especially once celebrities started to get involved. People share so they are a part of a cultural phenomenon. 

−Vitor Petrone, Ad Operations Manager

5. Practical Value

How can we craft content that seems useful?

News you can use

At it’s core, sharing practical value is about human nature—we want to help others. Even though I mention above that when we care, we share, the opposite is also true. Sharing is also our way of caring. It’s about saving people time or money, or helping them have good experiences. We care about others and want to make their lives better. This is the easiest approach to apply to advertising; after all, almost everything imaginable has something useful about it. But that also means it will be harder to cut through the clutter of similar content. The key is to find that point at which the value of the message becomes so useful that it compels people to share it.

To understand why people share, you need not look any further than the proverbial water cooler. Whether it’s the score of last night’s big game, a plot twist in The Walking Dead, or general banter, people naturally want to share what they learned or just heard. People want to share information other people can use.

−Colin Haley, Director of Product Management

6. Stories

What broader narrative can we wrap our idea in?

Information travels under the guise of idle chatter

Stories are the original form of entertainment. Maybe it started out of necessity, but narratives always have been, and always will be, inherently more engrossing than basic facts. Even today, with an infinite number of entertainment options at our fingertips, we continue to tell stories. They are a vessel of information. They teach us new things. They help us make sense of the world. And they do it without us realizing it—that’s the magic of stories. Stories are the Trojan Horse of advertising: a carrier narrative that people will share, while talking about the brand along the way.

We are social creatures, and we communicate with each other through stories. Video is quite simply the best storytelling medium ever invented, from its early explosion in television to its reinvention as a medium for conversation in the digital age. We live, love, laugh, and bond through stories.

−Tod Loofbourrow, CEO


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