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Book Summary – Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious - Book summary

Why do some products and ideas spread like wildfire while others fail to catch on? In this book, Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger shares the 6 STEPPS or ingredients for creating viral content that are more likely to spread via word-of-mouth. These insights are relevant for anyone who wants to build awareness, spread ideas or grow a customer base more effectively. In this free Contagious summary, we’ll give a brief overview of the 6 STEPPS.

Contagious: An Overview

Most people believe that products and ideas become successful due to 3 factors: quality, price, and advertising. Although these factors are relevant, they don’t tell the full story, e.g. a free, low-quality YouTube video can still go viral with no advertising. Social influences and word-of-mouth drive 20-50% of all purchasing decisions. These include product reviews, recommendations by friends/colleagues, and so on. Word-of-mouth is more effective than traditional advertising because:

  • It’s more persuasive since we tend to share both the pros and cons of a product or service candidly, making our recommendations more objective and believable.
  • It’s also more targeted since we only share information and stories with people whom we think would be interested in them.

The question is, how can you create contagious content that’s more likely to get passed on via word-of-mouth?

Berger holds a Ph.D. in marketing and spent 10 years studying various types of content—ranging from products to articles, political messages and baby names—to uncover what spread and what didn’t. He collected and analyzed data from many sources (e.g. marketing agencies and news websites), and ran experiments to test different content. In this book, he shares how he proved/disproved various factors/hypotheses to arrive at the 6 ingredients (STEPPS) behind social contagion. By applying these 6 principles, you can make any content more contagious, i.e. to spread from person to person via word-of-mouth.

  • In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that to create virality, you need the right people to spread the message. However, Berger’s research shows that contagious content is so viral in itself that it can spread regardless of who is talking about it. It’s like how a good joke will still be funny even if it’s told by an average person
  • People also tend to over-estimate the level of online virality. A study by the Keller Fay Group found that only 7% of word-of-mouth happens online; most social influence actually happens offline over daily activities like a dinner conversation. Reaching masses of people online isn’t as important as ensuring the content is viral in the first place.

The 6 STEPPS to Creating Contagious Content

Here’s a visual overview of the 6 STEPPS:

Contagious summary - overview of 6 STEPPS

In a nutshell, the 6 STEPPS are:

  • Social currency: People share products/ideas that make them appear smart, cool or informed. Create social currency by (i) making your product/idea remarkable, (ii) leveraging game mechanics and (iii) by using scarcity and exclusivity.
  • Triggers: People tend to talk about whatever’s at the top of their minds. Create effective triggers that meet 3 criteria: (i) Frequency, (ii) Relevance, and (iii) Context.
  • Emotion: Both positive & negative emotions can spur action, so long as they trigger a high level of arousal. Use this principle to find your emotional hook or leverage situational factors for emotional arousal.
  • Public: We’re more likely to discuss and imitate something that’s public and observable. Create Social Proof using (i) self-advertising and (ii) behavioral residue.
  • Practical Value: People like to help others. We’ll pass on content with practical value that’ll benefit the recipients. Highlight incredible value and package your content accordingly.
  • Stories: Stories are a fast and easy way for people to pass on lots of information in a vivid, engaging and persuasive way. Embed your product/idea in a captivating story and ensure your brand/message is integral to the story.

In our complete Contagious summary bundle, we’ll dive into the specific components, actionable tips and examples for each of the 6 STEPPS, including:

  • How to find your inner remarkability, leverage game mechanics/ scarcity/ exclusivity;
  • The difference between immediate vs ongoing word-of-mouth, and how to use effective triggers that are frequent, relevant, and can be found near the desired behavior;
  • The types of positive/negative emotions that are high-arousal vs low-arousal, and how you can kindle high-arousal emotions that get people to share;
  • Ways to create Social Proof by making the private choices/behaviors public and visible (vs how to stop undesirable behaviors);
  • How to make your content’s practical value stand out (e.g. applying the Rule of 100) and packaging it to be more shareable; and
  • The type of narratives to craft, such that people will share about your product/brand/idea as they pass on the stories.

Getting the Most from Contagious

In this article, we’ve briefly outlined some of the key insights and strategies you can use to achieve desired change. For more examples, details, and actionable tips to apply these strategies, do get our complete book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 12-page text summary, and a 27-minute audio summary.Contagious summary - book summary bundleThis book is packed with case studies, real-world examples, and details of research and experiments to show how Jonah Berger discovered the 6 STEPPS behind contagious messages, and how you can apply them to drive social epidemics. These principles can be used to increase word-of-mouth and social influence in any area—be it garnering support for a social cause, getting people to try a product/service, or win votes for a political campaign. You can purchase the book here for the full details, or visit for more details.

[Do check out our complete version of The Tipping Point summary]

About the Author of Contagious

Contagious: Why Things Catch On is written by Jonah Berger–an author, professor and speaker who’s best known for his work on change, word of mouth, viral marketing, and social influence. He holds a Ph.D. in marketing and is currently a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He has published over 50 articles in various academic journals, spoken as the keynote speaker in hundred of events, and consults regularly for organizations such as Google, Apple, Nike, and the Gates Foundation.

Contagious Quotes

“While traditional advertising is still useful, word of mouth from everyday Joes and Janes is at least ten times more effective.”

“Top of mind leads to tip of tongue.”

“Social currency gets people talking, but triggers keep them talking.”

“When we care, we share.”

“If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.

“People don’t just share information, they tell stories.”

“While people focus on the story itself, information comes along for the ride.

Click here to download the Contagious summary & infographic

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