Theory of Social Virality. Why certain ideas spread quickly
Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point came out in 2000. The book attempted to explain how social epidemics are spread by a small number of special people, who he calls mavens, connectors and salesmen. It was an instant hit. Except that, according to Jonah Berger, Gladwell’s thesis is not quite correct. More important than the messenger, Berger argues, is the message. Berger, who teaches marketing at the Wharton School, has identified six factors that make anything go viral for which he has created an acronym, STEPPS, derived from the first letter of each of these factors. These stand for:
Just as people need money to buy things, they need social currency to impress others or simply share. Snapple, a beverage, started putting surprising trivia under the bottle cap which would be visible after you open the bottle. (Fact#12 Like Kangaroos cannot walk backwards). The idea is to give user talking points of experience to share easily.
Triggers: Frequent, preferably timely, reminders of the product or the idea. For example: ‘coffee with Kit Kat’ reminded people of Kit Kat each time they reached for coffee, boosting sales of a flagging brand. Cheerios, the cereal, is boring. Disney World is exciting. But Cheerios gets more word-of-mouth publicity than Magic Kingdom simple because so many more people eat the cereal every day than those who go to Disney World. Contrary to conventional wisdom, interesting does not always beat boring.
Emotion: This is the obvious one. Human beings, in fact, react with emotions first. But not all emotions lead them to share, making things catch on. Some studies have shown only those emotions that lead to physiological arousal led to greater sharing. For instance, sadness does not lead to more sharing but anger, humour and awe do.
Public: A highly visible item that advertises itself. For example: white earphones launched by Apple or the distinctive tubular cans of Pringles. When Steve Jobs put the Apple logo on the computer lid, he debated whether the logo should look ‘right-side up’ for the user or the onlookers. Putting it the correct way for the onlooker would mean that the logo would look upside down for the user when the lid was closed. He decided that ‘observability’ to the world was more important even if it looked upside down for the user.
Practical Value: This is another obvious factor. Features of great practical value lead people to share more. This is why five ways to lose weight and 10 dating tips for the New Year always get shared and clicked.
Stories: Narratives are more engrossing than facts. We all know that ads carry a lot of information but are not credible. Therefore, you need stories which may provide the same, or even less, information but in a highly engaging fashion.
As expected, the book is full of examples of what works. Thanks to digital data being available, many are backed by objective analysis. For instance, what kinds of articles are shared the most? A study the author conducted of the most e-mailed articles from The New York Times showed that stories about health and education were among the highest-shared because of their practical value while, and contrary to what you think, it is not music, films or fashion that always goes viral. Even articles on science do because they “frequently chronicle innovations and discoveries” that evoke a feeling of awe (emotion).
Contagious is not a new book; but it is one of those that explain a social trend based on individual and collective behaviour and, therefore, worth discussing. Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2007) has similar ideas.
However, Berger is being disingenuous when he claims, “Anyone can use it (STEPPS). It doesn’t require a huge advertising budget, marketing genius, or some sort of creativity gene.” By following the STEPPS, he claims, “You can make any product or idea contagious.”
Ultimately, like all books based on inductive logic (cherry-picked evidence leading to theory), this book’s theory too faces the problem of failing to explain phenomena that it chooses not to explain. How on earth did the Korean pop star Psy’s wacky, tuneless horse-dance video, Gangnam Style, manage to rack up more than 1.3 billion views on YouTube? You wonder which of the six STEPPS worked here? None. Clearly, there is more to theory of viral-ity than Berger has hit upon.