Making Ideas Catch On

by Sean Gibbons
The Communications Network

This piece originally appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) as part of Making Ideas Move, a series on the power and potential of social sector communications produced by The Communications Network in partnership with SSIR.

Jonah Berger—an expert on word of mouth, viral marketing, social influence, social contagion, and trends; a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School; and the author of the best-selling book Contagious: Why Things Catch On—recently sat down with the Communication Network’s Sean Gibbons to discuss how to build support for ideas and gain momentum on social change.

Sean Gibbons: Why do some ideas move and capture the public’s attention? Is there a secret sauce to making things go viral?

Jonah Berger: There is. When we see things that become popular, we think these things are random—that there’s no way you can replicate them or be as successful. But as I tell the companies and nonprofits I work with, that intuition is misguided. I’ve spent the last 15 years working in this space, analyzing thousands of pieces of online content, tens of thousands of brands, and millions of purchases.

Again and again we see the same factors show up. It’s not random or luck or chance. There’s a science to way things catch on. Word of mouth is over 10 times as effective as traditional advertising. People trust it more, and it’s much more targeted. To make word of mouth work for you, you have to figure out how to take someone that supports your cause or cares about your issue, and turn them into an advocate—almost a communication channel—to bring in new potential users or new potential supporters.

Is there a key to doing that?

Yes. We find that there are six drivers. In Contagious, I put them in a framework called STEPPS—social currency, triggers, emotion, public practical value, and stories. Each of those is a time-tested principle that causes people to talk about and share information. It leads products to catch on and nonprofits to become popular.

While it’s fun to talk about viral, most organizations don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. Ten or 100 million views for a piece of content is great, but what’s more important is getting 10 percent to 20 percent more new supporters or donations. And that’s what the STEPPS help people achieve: creating enduring value by turning supporters into advocates.

Can and should you measure impact in communications? Is that possible? Followers and clicks seem somewhat like an empty metric when you’re seeking social change.

Definitely. A lot of organizations have just assumed, well, if we amass 10 million followers, we’ll be successful. There’s a great cartoon about this that I show when I give a talk. It’s of a whole bunch of empty seats at a funeral and this person saying, “You know, they had 2,000 Facebook friends. We were expecting a bigger turnout.” And a lot of organizations that just jumped on the social media bandwagon are in this exact spot, expecting a bigger turnout.

If a video has a view, that doesn’t mean the person who viewed it is going to take any action based on the video. Metrics like shares and comments—that track deeper engagement—are better reflections of whether content or a communications message is effective. You don’t want more friends and followers; you want more donations, more supporters. Track active engagement, not passive following. In collaboration with Digitas, I’ve put together a new metric called the Contagious Index that helps organizations track how they are doing more effectively.

This reminds me a little bit of what you hear about in polling. It’s oftentimes the case where you look at something like guns—where there’s majority support for better gun safety or better gun control laws in the country—yet there doesn’t seem to be much political will. That’s because the folks who oppose those measures have a greater deal of intensity. Does that play itself out in this space as well?

You’re talking about an organization’s “heavy supporters.” How do you grow your base?

One of the big benefits of word of mouth is targeting. Word of mouth is more targeted than traditional advertising. If you ask someone, “Hey, can you tell someone else about this cause?” They’re not just going to tell anybody. They’re going to tell the person in their network who they think might find that cause the most interesting or relevant. If you can generate more word of mouth, the people in your network will do the targeting for you. They’ll figure out who your best prospect is and share the information with them.

In a world teeming with information and ideas, how do you break through? Is data—new information, new facts—what compels people to act?

Take social currency from the STEPPS framework. People are more likely to share things that make them look good. The smarter, the more in-the-know, the cleverer something makes them look, the more likely they are to pass it on. How can you make your supporters or followers look smart and in-the-know?” The better you can make them look, the more likely they’ll be to pass your story or information along. The Ice Bucket Challenge is a great example of this.

People who work in the social sector are often tackling long-standing problems. How can you calibrate your communications to compete for attention if you’re working on an issue that’s been simmering in the national debate for ages, and in some respects may seem tired?

That’s always a challenge. How do you reinvent something that’s been around for a long time? One key is to find the inner remarkability. Rather than telling people information, how can you show them how important this cause or issue is? What would happen if the problem wasn’t solved? How would the world be worse as a result?

Emotion is also important. When we care, we share. As I talk about in Contagious, certain emotions in particular—like inspiration, but also anger and anxiety—drive people to share. Understanding how to harness those emotions are important.

If you could offer a nonprofit CEO one piece of advice based on your work and on your research, what would it be?

Which would you rather eat, broccoli or a cheeseburger? Everyone knows that they should eat more vegetables. Broccoli is good for us and we should eat more of it. And yet, when push comes to shove, we often pick the cheeseburger. It’s just tastier, based on how our tongue and stomach are built.

You can say the same thing about messages or ideas. Some are just tastier based on how they fit with people. Not their stomachs or their tongues, but their minds.
Unfortunately, nonprofit communication is often like broccoli. Listeners know it’s the right thing to do, that they should care, and yet they don’t give it the attention it deserves.

If you understand the science of effective communication, though, you can make any message tastier and more likely to catch on. By understanding why people talk and share, you can take your good science, your important cause, your healthy broccoli, if you will, and turn it into something everyone will find tasty. By better understanding your supporters or members, you can make any cause contagious.