It’s the dream of every marketer: to create a product, a video, or an idea that “goes viral” and becomes instantly recognizable. Some claim the phenomenon is more art than science – but according to Wharton professor Jonah Berger, there are predictable steps you can take to increase the chances your product will catch fire.
In his new book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger argues there are six common factors that can lead to virality – social currency (does it make you look good?), triggers (are you reminded of it often?), emotion (does it make you feel something?), publicness (are others seeing it?), practical value (is it useful?), and stories (is there a memorable narrative?). “There’s not 100% certainty” that a given product or concept will go viral, says Berger. “It’s like a batting average in baseball; no one hits a home run every time. But it’s also not luck. By understanding the science of word of mouth, you improve your average.”
The smartest companies, he says, have baked these concepts into their initial product design. He cites Apple’s decision to make their headphones a distinctive white – publicly branding the user as a trendsetter – or social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn, which “allow us to connect with others and give us stats that tell us how well we’re doing compared to others, with regard to followers and friends. And in the case of LinkedIn, it says, ‘this many people have looked at your profile.’ That makes us feel special and gives us social currency; we want to get [those numbers] higher.”
Obviously, it’s easier to imagine a funny commercial for soda, rather than cement, going viral. But Berger raises two caveats. First, “virality” is a useful frame, because it means that people are paying attention, but in most cases, you don’t need to rack up 10 million views to succeed. “We all love viral, but most companies and organizations don’t need that many [social network] shares,” he says. “They just want 10-20% more customers, to get each customer to tell just one additional friend. ‘Viral’ is a fun and easy way to talk about these ideas, but I think particularly for small businesses and entrepreneurs, that’s not necessarily what you should be shooting for. Rather, it’s about building more word-of-mouth and the steps to help you get there.”
Second, Berger notes that even in unlikely industries, “your product may not naturally be contagious, but understanding why people talk and share can allow you to create a campaign” that generates excitement, a notable example being the Blend-Tec “Will It Blend?” videos, which succeeded in making blenders sexy.
The right message is crucial, says Berger. “I think the message is much more important than the messenger…there are many people who don’t have 10,000 followers, but they have a lot of friends and their word of mouth influences what others do. It’s about building a message that everyone can share, rather than finding special people and convincing them to talk about your product.”
Finally, Berger points out that discussions of “virality” and “word-of-mouth marketing” often center around social media. That’s certainly important, and will become more so in the future. But for now, its influence is wildly overstated. “At the moment, 7% of word-of-mouth is online,” says Berger. “It’s clear why marketers like shiny new toys and the next big thing, but most word-of-mouth is offline, face-to-face communication.”
What are your strategies for increasing virality – both online and off?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on June 23, 2013
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.