Ever wondered what makes certain content go viral? Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On answers this question in six principles or “STEPPS,” as illustrated in the graphic below.
Principle 1: Social Currency
Social currency is obtained by sharing something that makes you look good. One way to provide people with this currency is to make people feel like insiders. Brands with game mechanics, such as airlines with frequent flier points and privilege clubs, make people feel like they are part of something exclusive.
Principle 2: Triggers
“Top of the mind, tip of the tongue” is the premise behind this method. Berger suggests setting up relevant triggers that relate to your brand and will regularly remind people of it. “Friday” by Rebecca Black was a song that went viral on YouTube, not because it was a good, but because people would remember the song every Friday. The triggers must be frequent and strong, and not associated with too many other things.
Principle 3: Emotion
If people care, they will share. Content makes people experience high arousal feelings is more likely to go viral. Just watch the “United Breaks Guitars” video on YouTube that made people feel anger on behalf of Dave Caroll, the man who had his guitar broken by United Airlines.
Principle 4: Public
If something is out in the open, it is easier to discuss and share. “Built to show, built to grow.” The best example of this is Movember, where men take the private matter of prostate and testicular cancer and make it public by growing out facial hair during the month of November.
Principle 5: Practical Value
People like helping others and feeling useful, so content with practical value is often likely to be shared. Most of the communication work I do involves spreading practical information to our university students. For example, we recently completed an Instagram Boomerang safety campaign, to help in case of an emergency in our new building.
Principle 6: Stories
Humans love telling and listening to stories, especially ones that have a moral. In order to use stories as a successful tool, the story and moral must be relevant to the brand. In other words, the you should aim for not just virality, but “valuable virality.” Watch “Never Say No to Panda” for a great example of a simple story with a funny message.
I strongly agreed with the principle of social currency as a contributor to contagiousness. I experienced this in my junior and senior year in high school, when a rule came out that only older students would be given the privilege to go to Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf during breaks. The cafeteria was still available, but of course, my classmates and I chose CBTL every break. Students who showed up late had to-go cups in hand and would use the walk from CBTL as their excuse. People made time to hang out there, even during finals. The café became so exclusive and in-demand that younger students would try to sneak in. This scarcity and exclusivity made word-of-mouth about CBTL spread all over the school.
However, I found the principle of triggers to be logical for brands or products, but difficult to apply to professional organizations. I work for Northwestern University, which already has triggers set up, such as Wildcats and the color purple. These triggers work but likely would not go viral, because Wildcats don’t come to mind frequently enough and the color purple is linked with so many other things. It is difficult to apply the principle of triggers to a professional organization that already has well-established branding.
Netflix and Stories
My team’s client, Netflix, could benefit the most from the stories principle. Recently, I watched the show Narcos. I was surprised to learn that it was based on a real person, Pablo Escobar. The authenticity made it even more entertaining, which caused me to recommend it to friends. Netflix could create a new category titled “Based on a True Story,” where shows like Narcos could be highlighted. People could then watch similar shows and spread the word about all the true stories on Netflix.