Home > Marketing > 5 Takeaways from the Book Contagious by Jonah Berger [Book Review]

5 Takeaways from the Book Contagious by Jonah Berger [Book Review]

Five Takeaways from the Book Contagious

If a brand commissions a man to jump into a pool during the Olympics while wearing little but a tutu will the story go viral?

PR stunts like this are just one example of the case studies examined in Jonah Berger’s book Contagious:  Why Things Catch On.  I’ll share the answer to this question at the end of the post.

The Thesis of the Book Contagious

There is value in a message.  Indeed there may be value in a medium too, but it’s the message that Berger focuses on in this book.

His thesis is fairly simple:  Some people are more influential than others:  They have more friends, are more popular, excel at telling jokes or perhaps stories and more importantly, have greater influence at persuading people to buy a given product.

Brands spend a lot of money finding these people — influencer marketing — and attempting to persuade them to endorse their products.  When “virality” is discussed in brand marketing circles, it tends to center on these people, these influencers.

Berger suggests this causes brands to miss the value of a message.  That is to say, content that is so funny, so interesting or so amazing that it compels people to want to share it.   In other words, focus on good content rather than the influencers.

5 Lessons from Contagious

I didn’t read the book – I listened to the 6.5-hour long audio version over the course of several long drives and took notes via voice memos.  There were five points interesting enough to compel me to record memos on my iPhone.

1. Measurement is the root cause of overestimation.

Berger says that people spend just two hours a day online and as a result, just 7% of viral marketing happens on the web.  While I imagine with the explosion of mobile devices, the hours spent online is growing rapidly, Berger’s point is that the majority of word-of-mouth happens offline – those water cooler conversations where experiences with brands are shared.

2. Online media is exponentially powerful.

This will be obvious to the student of digital marketing – online people can connect with 100 or even a 1,000 people at a time.  Of course there are people that can connect with even greater headcounts.  Offline, people connect with a smaller audience, but it’s these number that perhaps contribute to the overestimation cited earlier.

3. Make them look smart.  

Berger says people are more likely to share content that makes them look smart, so the content marketing creates ought to consider how it reflects on the intended audience if it were shared.

As a side note, the author says, content that makes people feel sad is 16% less likely to be share.  I’d add this is why charities and nonprofits fundraising for good causes should focus on how donors can make a difference, rather than visualizing the desperation of those these organizations serve.

Update:  There’s a growing body of research that supports Berger’s thesis; see: The Reason People Search for Content is Different than Why they Share it on Social Social Media [UML]


Also see these related book reviews:
15 Takeaways from Killing Marketing [Book Review] 
8 Epic Takeaways from Joe Pulizzi’s Epic Content Marketing
Book Review: 7 Takeaways from Jay Baer’s YOUtility


4.  Mirroring and the herd mentality.

Comedy shows often use canned laughter in recordings and broadcasts because studies show real listeners tend to mirror this activity and laugh too.  For the same reasons, pedestrian patrons will pass up an empty restaurant for a full one, because obviously, the full restaurant must be worth the wait.

To this, I’d add that’s also why you’re local NPR affiliate plays the sound of a telephone ringing during their (incredibly annoying) fundraising campaigns – and also why social sharing facilitates more social sharing:  Facebook likes beget more Facebook likes.

5. Embedding the brand in the story. 

Berger calls this the “Trojan horse.” In effect, it is subtly embedding a brand in a storyline that is sharable. He provides several examples with which marketers ought to be familiar:

  • Blendtec’s sensational “Will it blend?” series
  • Dove’s exposure of the cosmetic industry – that women “need to be fixed”

Each of these examples embeds the brand in the context of a bigger story. While familiar with each of these examples, in considering Berger’s point, I came to the conclusion it is this concept that puts PR pros in direct confrontation with marketing that traditionally seeks a hard call to action (also see: Your Brand is Not the Hero…Your Customer is the Hero).


There’s a fool in the pool:  Just before the Chinese diving team was scheduled to compete, streaker Mark Roberts dove into the pools wearing a tutu.  On his bare chest written in ink were the words GoldenPalace.com – a casino noted for PR stunts.

The Olympics is a world stage – there could be no better place to pull a stunt.  Berger, however, points out the stunt had little connection with a casino or the brand.  The ensuing conversation centered on whether or not Roberts would get jail time or if the stunt affected the performance of the Chinese athletes.

The answer to the question at the beginning of this post is – yes, a stunt like that will go viral, but it has little effect for a brand:  It became the fool in the pool.

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