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In today's world, where things seem to rapidly go viral, given the presence of social media, Contagious: Why Things Catch On is a study of the various factors that result in this kind of popularity. Similar to Malcolm Gladwell's, The Tipping Point, which was published in 2000, Contagious differs from it in certain basic ways. Whereas Gladwell argued that things usually become popular because they are adopted by people who are themselves at the center of things, Contagious argues that it is something about the idea itself that makes it go viral.

Author Jonah Berger claims that there are several factors that result in popularity; he sums them up in the acronym STEPPS—Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories. By making use of these factors, it's possible to take any idea and present it in a form that will eventually lead to its popularity. However, some of the things that Berger tells us are astonishing because they go against conventional wisdom. For example, he quotes a study in which people were asked if they would rather get paid $50,000 or $100,000. It seems like a simple question but the people who were getting paid $50,000 were told that everyone else around them would get paid $25,000 whereas the people who were getting $100,000 were surrounded by people who were getting $200,000. In comparison to those around them, the first group was doing better and the second group was doing worse. It turned out that the majority of people chose group A even though, rationally speaking, group B was better. This is an example of what Berger refers to as social currency.

Berger gives many other examples and studies of advertising campaigns which make for fascinating reading. Another interesting point he makes is that we may think that word spreads faster through social media but, in fact, it is person-to-person conversations that really lead to popularity. So the best way to get something to go viral is to make it the kind of thing people will want to talk about.

Jonah Berger is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He has published a number of articles in journals and accounts of his work have been featured in The New York Times, Fast Company, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Harvard Business Review. He teaches a course called Contagious: How Products, Behaviors and Ideas Catch On at Wharton and has been nicknamed the "Iron Prof." He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

What makes things popular?

If you said advertising, think again. People don’t listen to advertisements, they listen to their peers. But why do people talk about certain products and ideas more than others? Why are some stories and rumors more infectious? And what makes online content go viral?

Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger has spent the last decade answering these questions. He’s studied why New York Times articles make the paper’s own Most Emailed List, why products get word of mouth, and how social influence shapes everything from the cars we buy to the clothes we wear to the names we give our children. In this book, Berger reveals the secret science behind word-of-mouth and social transmission. Discover how six basic principles drive all sorts of things to become contagious, from consumer products and policy initiatives to workplace rumors and YouTube videos.

Contagious combines groundbreaking research with powerful stories. Learn how a luxury steakhouse found popularity through the lowly cheese-steak, why antidrug commercials might have actually increased drug use, and why more than 200 million consumers shared a video about one of the seemingly most boring products there is: a blender. If you’ve wondered why certain stories get shared, emails get forwarded, or videos go viral, Contagious explains why, and shows how to leverage these concepts to craft contagious content. This book provides a set of specific, actionable techniques for helping information spread—for designing messages, advertisements, and information that people will share. Whether you’re a manager at a big company, a small business owner trying to boost awareness, a politician running for office, or a health official trying to get the word out, Contagious will show you how to make your product or idea catch on.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “Berger writes in a sprightly, charming style that deftly delineates the intersection of cognitive psychology and social behavior with an eye toward helping businesspeople and others spread their messages. The result is a useful and entertaining primer that diagnoses countless baffling pop-culture epidemics.”

    Publishers Weekly

  • “Throughout the book, Berger provides a number of entertaining, illustrative examples in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell or Freakonomics. A provocative shift in focus from the technology of online transmission to the human element and a bold claim to explain ‘how word of mouth and social influence work…[and] can [be used to] make any product or idea contagious.’”

    Kirkus Reviews

  • “Jonah Berger is as creative and thoughtful as he is spunky and playful. Looking at his research, much like studying a masterpiece in a museum, provides the observer with new insights about life and also makes one aware of the creator’s ingenuity and creativity. It is hard to come up with a better example of using social science to illuminate the ordinary and extraordinary in our daily lives.”

    Dan Ariely, James B. Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and bestselling author of Predictably Irrational

  • “Why do some ideas seemingly spread overnight, while others disappear? How can some products become ubiquitous, while others never gain traction? Jonah Berger knows the answers, and, with Contagious, now we do, too.”

    Charles Duhigg, author of the bestselling The Power of Habit

  • “Jonah Berger knows more about what makes information ‘go viral’ than anyone in the world.”

    Daniel Gilbert, Harvard College professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Stumbling on Happiness

  • “Jonah Berger is the rare sort who has studied the facts, parsed it from the fiction—and performed groundbreaking experiments that have changed the way the experts think. If there’s one book you’re going to read this year on how ideas spread, it’s this one.”

    Dave Balter, CEO of BzzAgent and cofounder of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association

  • “If you are seeking a bigger impact, especially with a smaller budget, you need this book. Contagious will show you how to make your product spread like crazy.”

    Chip Heath, coauthor of Made to Stick and Decisive

  • A New York Times Bestseller
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