Book Review – Contagious: How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age

One thing I think all business owners will agree on is that word of mouth is incredibly important. Personal recommendations lead to higher conversion rates than any other form of advertising. Therefore, it's really important that we make sure people talk about our businesses in the right way. But how do we get our message to the right recipients? And above all, why is one message more likely to be talked about than another?

Jonah Berger is a social scientist, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and for the last 15 years has studied how social influence works and how it drives products and ideas to catch on. Fortunately for us, he's also a bestselling author with the talent to convert hard science into language we can all understand. In the book "Contagious: How to build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age" (Simon & Schuster, 2013) he shares his insights and illustrates a bunch of fascinating ways of how and why stories go "viral".

Word of Mouth is a local affair

Looking at our digital age, one would think that a lot of word of mouth is happening online. Here, however, is where we are wrong. While content generation may be happening online, only 7% of all word of mouth is generated digitally (as found by a study by the Keller Fay Group). Seven! If we think about it, this actually makes sense. While we may be spending what feels like a lot of time on social media looking at and occasionally sharing information and stories, we're spending even more time offline, interacting with our environment, having conversations. These conversations are much more in-depth and therefore more meaningful to us.

But as we are having these conversations with friends or at a party, what makes us talk about a new movie? Or the office gossip, someone's new baby or the unseasonably warm weather? Why do we share these specific items with that specific person? These are the exact questions Jonah Berger answers in his book.


Berger breaks the science of sharing information down into easily digestible segments.

There are six principles of contagiousness: products or ideas that contain Social Currency and are Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable and wrapped into Stories."

Each of these six principles, abbreviated into the acronym STEPPS, is a building block for contagious content.  Each STEPP is discussed in detail in its own respective chapter. Using these principles will cause an idea to become more talked about.

Social Currency is possibly the most interesting aspect in STEPPS. The others are more self-explanatory and will probably already feature in a good marketer's toolkit (although that person might call them by different names). Social currency however is a new, eye-opening concept. It goes back to the scientific discovery that self-disclosure (i.e. sharing things about yourself) is intrinsically rewarding. This means that we feel good about sharing aspects of our lives with others. Our behaviour on social media successfully illustrates the fact that people love to share. We are even more likely to share something if it makes us look interesting, clever or entertaining. Word of mouth, the verbal trade of information, then becomes a prime tool of making a good impression. Having something cool to talk about gives you social currency. And it pays forward, because it gives your conversation partner something cool to talk about as well! You can read about how we have been giving people social currency in this blog post.

You can find a short description of all of the mentioned STEPPS in this graphic on Berger's twitter feed:

Science first

What I find amazing about this book is that it is completely based on scientific research. In it you'll find none of the vagueness that often characterises online content. Throughout, you feel that this is information you can trust. That it is tested and has been studied for years, rather than following somebody's hunch. Berger explains every aspect of contagiousness and shores them up by case studies. As a result, you finish this book with the distinct feeling that each of us can spark an idea which will catch fire and spread, which is a really cool thing. This book gives you the toolkit to turn your marketing messages on their head and do something which will stay in people's minds, something that's so amazing that they will tell their friends.

The case studies are fascinating. It's a gripping read. And it contains graphs!


Find out more about contagiousness in stories on Jonah Berger's website or Twitter

jonah berger contagious how to build word of mouth in the digital age book review   Buy Contagious: How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age on the Book Depository