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Contagious: Why Things Catch On

March 26th, 2013

by Justin Kermond

How do you create something so contagious that people can’t stop talking about it? A little-known appliance company did just that with a video of its president grinding up Justin Bieber CDs in a blender. Every advisor hopes to achieve that same contagion with social-media marketing: a presence that “goes viral” and attracts scores of retail investors.

The rewards of a successful strategy are immense, but few will achieve it. Jonah Berger’s book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, provides a formal framework for how to succeed using social media.

About those ill-fated Justin Bieber CDs: George Wright, the marketing director for Blendtec, a small household kitchen blender manufacturer, used his $50 budget to purchase marbles, golf balls, a rake and a white lab coat. Tom Dickson, Blendtec’s president, wore the lab coat while grinding up all of the other items in a blender. The video was uploaded to YouTube, went viral and led to a series of low-budget marketing videos in which Dickson blended and grinded everything from iPhones to Halloween skeletons to those Bieber CDs.

Those videos have been viewed hundreds of millions of times on YouTube and increased Blendtec’s blender sales by 700%.

Don’t assume that the financial services industry is too staid to have its share of viral breakthroughs. The E-Trade baby commercials have achieved iconic status in Super Bowl history. Berger’s book provides a six-principle framework that you can use to create your own contagious messages.

Berger is an assistant marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, where he teaches a course called Contagious: How Products, Ideas, and Behaviors Catch On. He is an authority on the psychology of sharing, the science of social transmission and how one person’s behavior influences another’s. He was strongly influenced by Malcom Gladwell’s 2002 book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Chip and Dan Heath’s 2007 book, Made To Stick.

Berger discovered there was little academic research on this topic. He has spent the past decade devoting his undergraduate and PhD research toward several questions: Why do people talk about and share some things rather than others? Why does content go viral on the internet? Why do some products brands and ideas get more word of mouth? How does social influence work?

In contrast to Gladwell, who believes that contagious ideas are driven by a handful of mavens, connectors and salesmen, Berger argues that the message is more important than the messenger. “Contagious content is like that – so inherently viral that it spreads regardless of who is doing the talking,” Berger writes.

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