"Often, companies start with the product not really thinking about why someone would want that product"

Jonah Berger, professor at the Wharton School, on why social influence matters in marketing

Published 6 years ago on Jan 19, 2018 7 minutes Read

Getting things to go viral is every marketing or campaign manager’s Holy Grail. The idea is to ensure brand awareness and get maximum bang for the buck. Human behaviour though is hard to predict and, hence, the resources at one’s disposal cannot guarantee that outcome. Yet there are umpteen examples of unlikely things or unexpected campaigns going viral. Jonah Berger, who is a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the phenomenon over the years and has figured out why some things go viral and some don’t. His insights have been captured in two books, Contagious, and, Invisible Influence. Berger believes that marketing managers can indeed work on making a campaign viral by focusing on the right variables. In this interview with N Mahalakshmi and Rajesh Padmashali, he explains the how and why behind viral campaigns

What is the secret to crafting viral content?
As I talk about in Contagious, it is not random luck or chance that makes things go viral. Of course, a product or service that provides better functionality or a cheaper price succeeds, but there is a framework that drives all sorts of different things that catch on, whether it is viral content, online or word of mouth, offline. 

That framework is called STEPPS and when expanded stands for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories.  STEPPS cause things to be talked about, shared, and imitated. Each of those factors drive things that catch on and help us understand why things go viral.

Can you share some unlikely examples of things that went viral?
There are plenty of them —Yellow Livestrong wristbands, non-fat Greek Yogurt, six sigma management strategy, low-fat or low carb diets etc. But a very unlikely example is that of Barclay Prime where Howard Wein created the $100 cheesesteak which became the talk of town and generated great buzz for his new steakhouse in Philadelphia. Based on the word of mouth that was generated by a sandwich, which at most cost $5, Barclay Prime has thrived for more than a decade in the restaurant business, which is notorious for its mortality. Then, there is Blendtec, founded by Tom Dickson where marketing director George Wright posted a video on YouTube which showed the power of its blender. It generated 6 million views in the first week and generated great awareness not to mention sales for Blendtec blenders.

What do you think worked for them?
Howard Wein needed a way to help a new restaurant break through the clutter, a way to raise awareness while staying true to the Barclay Prime brand. The hundred-dollar cheesesteak did just that. It not only provided a remarkable (Social Currency), surprising (Emotion) narrative (Story) but also illustrated the quality product that the steakhouse offered (Practical Value). And the prevalence of cheesesteaks in Philadelphia offered ready reminders for people to pass it on (Triggers). The hundred-dollar cheesesteak got people talking and helped make Barclay Prime a rousing success.

George Wright had almost no marketing budget. He needed a way to generate buzz about a product most people wouldn’t ordinarily talk about: a blender. By thinking about what made his product compelling and wrapping that idea in a broader narrative, he was able to generate hundreds of millions of views and boost sales. The ‘Will It Blend?’ clips are amazing (Emotion) and remarkable (Social Currency). But by making the product’s benefits (Practical Value) integral to a broader narrative (Stories), the videos provided a perfect Trojan horse to get people talking about an everyday household appliance and make Blendtec catch on.

What kind of messages generally gets shared and what get ignored?
Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20-50% of all purchasing decisions. The things others tell us, e-mail us, and text us have a significant impact on what we think, read, buy, and do. Word of mouth is more effective than traditional advertising as it is objective and more targeted. Their objectivity, coupled with their candidness, make us much more likely to trust, listen to, and believe our friends.

Emotions drive people to action. They make us laugh, shout, and cry, and they make us talk, share, and buy. So rather than quoting statistics or providing information, we need to focus on feelings. Activating emotion is the key to transmission. Physiological arousal or activation drives people to talk and share. We need to get people excited or make them laugh. We need to make them angry rather than sad. Even situations where people are active can make them more likely to pass things on to others.

Ad timing also matters. Although a show may be generally arousing, a specific scene in that show may be more activating than others. In crime shows, for example, the anxiety often peaks somewhere in the middle. When the crime is solved at the end, all tension dissipates. In game shows, excitement — and, therefore, arousal — is highest when contestants are about to find out how much they’ve won. We may end up talking more about ads that show up close to these exciting moments.

What points do you advise a marketing manager to keep in mind when drawing up a marketing plan, in general, and for effective word of mouth?
When I think about a marketing plan, I always think about the customer. Too often, companies start with the product not really thinking about why someone would want that product and try to sell what they can make than make what they can sell. It is always important to put the customer in the centre; figure out who they are and what do they need. I wish they would start with the traditional STP: segmenting, targeting, and positioning. Segment the markets to figure out the different types of individuals, then figure out which target segment is the best fit for your company based on what you offer, your competition, based on your collaborator, and the traditional 5Cs. Once you have identified the target segment, only then think about how can you position your product/service to that target segment.You can’t think about product, price or distribution until you have really thought about what the customer need is and how you can meet it. The more you understand your customer, the more you can effectively reach them with whatever product or service that you are offering.

…and when you talk about word of mouth?
It is again about understanding the six key steps and how they work and what is relevant in that particular context. You don’t need to use all six, but by understanding what they are and how to use them you can think about the right time to apply one versus another. Certain things are naturally emotional and others aren’t, certain things have social currency and others don’t. It is about really building those things into everything you do, not just in the marketing but the product itself. Think about how you can use product design, for example, to generate social currency. In the United States, Taco Bell has done a great job of releasing new products that make people look special for buying them and they can look different from everybody else. Customer service is a great way to build a story, so it is not just about the marketing, but about building those steps into the DNA of your marketing team.

Are the six steps to be worked on together for a contagion or can they work in isolation?
Some of the principles are easier to apply to certain types of ideas or initiatives. Non-profits usually have a good sense of how to evoke Emotion, and it’s often easier to play up Public visibility for products or behaviour that have a physical component. That said, contagious content often comes from applying principles that originally might have seemed unlikely. Heavy-duty blenders already have Practical Value, but ‘Will It Blend?’ went viral because it found a way to give a blender Social Currency. The video showed how a seemingly regular product was actually quite remarkable.

You don’t need all six. It is like a recipe, the more you have, the better the campaign will do. It is really about understanding what is best for your situation. There are companies who applied all of them while the others didn’t apply them at all. New York’s ‘Please Don’t Tell’ is a great example of a cocktail bar built only on personal recommendation or Rue La La which unleashed the power of friends telling friends. Both used scarcity and exclusivity to make customers feel like insiders. Please Don’t Tell has only forty-five seats and doesn’t allow more people than that in. Rue La La’s deals were available for only twenty-four hours; some are even gone within 30 minutes.

This is the first of a two-part series. You can read part two here.