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Introduction: Why Things Catch On
Why $100 is a good price for a cheesesteak . . . Why do some things become popular? . . .
Which is more important, the message or the messenger? . . . Can you make anything
contagious? . . . The case of the viral blender . . . Six key STEPPS.

1. Social Currency
When a telephone booth is a door . . . Ants can lift fifty times their own weight. . . . Why frequent
flier miles are like a video game . . . When it’s good to be hard to get . . . Why everyone wants a
mix of tripe, heart, and stomach meat . . . The downside of getting paid . . . We share things that
make us look good.

2. Triggers
Which gets more word of mouth, Disney or Cheerios? . . . Why a NASA mission boosted candy
sales . . . Could where you vote affect how you vote? . . . Consider the context . . . Explaining
Rebecca Black . . . Growing the habitat: Kit Kat and coffee . . . Top of mind, tip of tongue.

3. Emotion
Why do some things make the Most E-Mailed list? . . . How reading science articles is like
standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon . . . Why anger is like humor . . . How breaking guitars
can make you famous . . . Getting teary eyed about online search . . . When we care, we share.

4. Public
Is the Apple logo better upside down than right side up? . . . Why dying people turn down kidney
transplants . . . Using moustaches to make the private public . . . How to advertise without an
advertising budget . . . Why anti-drug commercials might increase drug use . . . Built to show,
built to grow.

5. Practical Value
How an eighty-six-year-old made a viral video about corn . . . Why hikers talk about vacuum
cleaners . . . E-mail forwards are the new barn raising . . . Will people pay to save money? . . .
Why $100 is a magic number . . . When lies spread faster than the truth . . . News you can use.

6. Stories
How stories are like Trojan horses . . . Why good customer service is better than any ad . . .
When a streaker crashed the Olympics . . . Why some story details are unforgettable . . . Using a
panda to make valuable virality . . . Information travels under the guise of idle chatter.

Why 80 percent of manicurists in California are Vietnamese . . . Applying the STEPPS.

Readers Group Guide

Questions for Discussion
Expand Your Book Club
A Conversation with Jonah Berger

About Jonah Berger

To my mother, father, and grandmother.
For always believing in me.

Introduction: Why Things Catch On

By the time Howard Wein moved to Philadelphia in March 2004, he already had lots of experience
in the hospitality industry. He had earned an MBA in hotel management, helped Starwood Hotels
launch its W brand, and managed billions of dollars in revenue as Starwood’s corporate director of
food and beverage. But he was done with “big.” He yearned for a smaller, more restaurant-focused
environment. So he moved to Philly to help design and launch a new luxury boutique steakhouse
called Barclay Prime.

The concept was simple. Barclay Prime was going to deliver the best steakhouse experience
imaginable. The restaurant is located in the toniest part of downtown Philadelphia, its dimly lit entry
paved with marble. Instead of traditional dining chairs, patrons rest on plush sofas clustered around
small marble tables. They feast from an extensive raw bar, including East and West Coast oysters and
Russian caviar. And the menu offers delicacies like truffle-whipped potatoes and line-caught halibut
FedExed overnight directly from Alaska.

But Wein knew that good food and great atmosphere wouldn’t be enough. After all, the thing
restaurants are best at is going out of business. More than 25 percent fail within twelve months of
opening their doors. Sixty percent are gone within the first three years.

Restaurants fail for any number of reasons. Expenses are high—everything from the food on the
plates to the labor that goes into preparing and serving it. And the landscape is crowded with
competitors. For every new American bistro that pops up in a major city, there are two more right
around the corner.

Like most small businesses, restaurants also have a huge awareness problem. Just getting the word
out that a new restaurant has opened its doors—much less that it’s worth eating at—is an uphill battle.
And unlike the large hotel chains Wein had previously worked for, most restaurants don’t have the
resources to spend on lots of advertising or marketing. They depend on people talking about them to
be successful.

Wein knew he needed to generate buzz. Philadelphia already boasted dozens of expensive
steakhouses, and Barclay Prime needed to stand out. Wein needed something to cut through the clutter
and give people a sense of the uniqueness of the brand. But what? How could he get people talking?

How about a hundred-dollar cheesesteak?
The standard Philly cheesesteak is available for four or five bucks at hundreds of sandwich shops,

burger joints, and pizzerias throughout Philadelphia. It’s not a difficult recipe. Chop some steak on a
griddle, throw it on a hoagie (hero) roll, and melt some Provolone cheese or Cheez Whiz on top. It’s
delicious regional fast food, but definitely not haute cuisine.

Wein thought he could get some buzz by raising the humble cheesesteak to new culinary heights—
and attaching a newsworthy price tag. So he started with a fresh, house-made brioche roll brushed
with homemade mustard. He added thinly sliced Kobe beef, marbleized to perfection. Then he
included caramelized onions, shaved heirloom tomatoes, and triple-cream Taleggio cheese. All this
was topped off with shaved hand-harvested black truffles and butter-poached Maine lobster tail. And
just to make it even more outrageous, he served it with a chilled split of Veuve Clicquot champagne.

The response was incredible.
People didn’t just try the sandwich, they rushed to tell others. One person suggested that groups get

it “as a starter . . . that way you all get the absurd story-telling rights.” Another noted that the
sandwich was “honestly indescribable. One does not throw all these fine ingredients together and get
anything subpar. It was like eating gold.” And given the sandwich’s price, it was almost as expensive
as eating gold, albeit far more delicious.

Wein didn’t create just another cheesesteak, he created a conversation piece.

It worked. The story of the hundred-dollar cheesesteak was contagious. Talk to anyone who’s been
to Barclay Prime. Even if people didn’t order the cheesesteak, most will likely mention it. Even
people who’ve never been to the restaurant love to talk about it. It was so newsworthy that USA
Today, The Wall Street Journal , and other media outlets published pieces on the sandwich. The
Discovery channel filmed a segment for its Best Food Ever show. David Beckham had one when he
was in town. David Letterman invited Barclay’s executive chef to New York to cook him one on the
Late Show. All that buzz for what is still, at its heart, just a sandwich.

The buzz helped. Barclay Prime opened nearly a decade ago. Against the odds, the restaurant has
not only survived but flourished. It has won various food awards and is listed among the best
steakhouses in Philadelphia year after year. But more important, it built a following. Barclay Prime
caught on.

There are lots of examples of things that have caught on. Yellow Livestrong wristbands. Nonfat Greek
yogurt. Six Sigma management strategy. Smoking bans. Low-fat diets. Then Atkins, South Beach, and
the low-carb craze. The same dynamic happens on a smaller scale at the local level. A certain gym
will be the trendy place to go. A new church or synagogue will be in vogue. Everyone will get behind
a new school referendum.

These are all examples of social epidemics. Instances where products, ideas, and behaviors diffuse
through a population. They start with a small set of individuals or organizations and spread, often
from person to person, almost like a virus. Or in the case of the hundred-dollar cheesesteak, an over-
the-top, wallet-busting virus.

But while it’s easy to find examples of social contagion, it’s much harder to actually get something
to catch on. Even with all the money poured into marketing and advertising, few products become
popular. Most restaurants bomb, most businesses go under, and most social movements fail to gain

Why do some products, ideas, and behaviors succeed when others fail?

One reason some products and ideas become popular is that they are just plain better. We tend to
prefer websites that are easier to use, drugs that are more effective, and scientific theories that are
true rather than false. So when something comes along that offers better functionality or does a better
job, people tend to switch to it. Remember how bulky televisions or computer monitors used to be?
They were so heavy and cumbersome that you had to ask a couple of friends (or risk a strained back)
to carry one up a flight of stairs. One reason flat screens took off was that they were better. Not only

did they offer larger screens, but they weighed less. No wonder they became popular.
Another reason products catch on is attractive pricing. Not surprisingly, most people prefer paying

less rather than more. So if two very similar products are competing, the cheaper one often wins out.
Or if a company cuts its prices in half, that tends to help sales.

Advertising also plays a role. Consumers need to know about something before they can buy it. So
people tend to think that the more they spend on advertising, the more likely something will become
popular. Want to get people to eat more vegetables? Spending more on ads should increase the
number of people who hear your message and buy broccoli.

But although quality, price, and advertising contribute to products and ideas being successful, they

don’t explain the whole story.
Take the first names Olivia and Rosalie. Both are great names for girls. Olivia means “olive tree”

in Latin and is associated with fruitfulness, beauty, and peace. Rosalie has Latin and French origins
and is derived from the word for roses. Both are about the same length, end in vowels, and have
handy, cute nicknames. Indeed, thousands of babies are named Olivia or Rosalie each year.

But think for a moment about how many people you know with each name. How many people
you’ve met named Olivia and how many people you’ve met named Rosalie.

I’ll bet you know at least one Olivia, but you probably don’t know a Rosalie. In fact, if you do
know a Rosalie, I’ll bet you know several Olivias.

How did I know that? Olivia is a much more popular name. In 2010, for example, there were
almost 17,000 Olivias born in the United States but only 492 Rosalies. In fact, while the name
Rosalie was somewhat popular in the 1920s, it never reached the stratospheric popularity that Olivia
recently achieved.

When trying to explain why Olivia became a more popular name than Rosalie, familiar
explanations like quality, price, and advertising get stuck. It’s not like one name is really “better” than
the other, and both names are free, so there is no difference in price. There is also no advertising
campaign to try to get everyone to name their kids Olivia, no company determined to make that name
the hottest thing since Pokémon.

The same thing can be said for videos on YouTube. There’s no difference in price (all are free to
watch), and few videos receive any advertising or marketing push. And although some videos have
higher production values, most that go viral are blurred and out of focus, shot by an amateur on an
inexpensive camera or cell phone.*

So if quality, price, and advertising don’t explain why one first name becomes more popular than
another, or why one You-Tube video gets more views, what does?

Social influence and word of mouth. People love to share stories, news, and information with those
around them. We tell our friends about great vacation destinations, chat with our neighbors about
good deals, and gossip with coworkers about potential layoffs. We write online reviews about
movies, share rumors on Facebook, and tweet about recipes we just tried. People share more than
16,000 words per day and every hour there are more than 100 million conversations about brands.

But word of mouth is not just frequent, it’s also important. The things others tell us, e-mail us, and
text us have a significant impact on what we think, read, buy, and do. We try websites our neighbors

recommend, read books our relatives praise, and vote for candidates our friends endorse. Word of
mouth is the primary factor behind 20 percent to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.

Consequently, social influence has a huge impact on whether products, ideas, and behaviors catch
on. A word-of-mouth conversation by a new customer leads to an almost $200 increase in restaurant
sales. A five-star review on leads to approximately twenty more books sold than a one-
star review. Doctors are more likely to prescribe a new drug if other doctors they know have
prescribed it. People are more likely to quit smoking if their friends quit and get fatter if their friends
become obese. In fact, while traditional advertising is still useful, word of mouth from everyday Joes
and Janes is at least ten times more effective.

Word of mouth is more effective than traditional advertising for two key reasons. First, it’s more
persuasive. Advertisements usually tell us how great a product is. You’ve heard it all—how nine out
of ten dentists recommend Crest or how no other detergent will get your clothes as clean as Tide.

But because ads will always argue that their products are the best, they’re not really credible. Ever
seen a Crest ad say that only one out of ten dentists prefers Crest? Or that four of the other nine think
Crest will rot your teeth?

Our friends, however, tend to tell it to us straight. If they thought Crest did a good job, they’ll say
that. But they’d also tell us if Crest tasted bad or failed to whiten their teeth. Their objectivity,
coupled with their candidness, make us much more likely to trust, listen to, and believe our friends.

Second, word of mouth is more targeted. Companies try to advertise in ways that allow them to
reach the largest number of interested customers. Take a company that sells skis. Television ads
during the nightly news probably wouldn’t be very efficient because many of the viewers don’t ski.
So the company might advertise in a ski magazine, or on the back of lift tickets to a popular slope. But
while this would ensure that most people who see the ad like skiing, the company would still end up
wasting money because lots of those people don’t need new skis.

Word of mouth, on the other hand, is naturally directed toward an interested audience. We don’t
share a news story or recommendation with everyone we know. Rather, we tend to select particular
people who we think would find that given piece of information most relevant. We’re not going to tell
a friend about a new pair of skis if we know the friend hates skiing. And we’re not going to tell a
friend who doesn’t have kids about the best way to change a diaper. Word of mouth tends to reach
people who are actually interested in the thing being discussed. No wonder customers referred by
their friends spend more, shop faster, and are more profitable overall.

A particularly nice example of how word of mouth improves targeting came to me in the mail a few
years ago. Every so often publishers will send me free books. Usually they’re related to marketing
and the publisher hopes that if I’m given a free copy, I’ll be more likely to assign the book to my
students (and sell them a bunch of copies in the process).

But a few years ago, one company did something slightly different. It sent me two copies of the
same book.

Now, unless I’m mistaken, there’s no reason for me to read the second copy, once I’ve read the
first. But these publishers had a different goal in mind. They sent a note explaining why they thought
the book would be good for my students, but they also mentioned that they sent a second copy so that I
could pass it along to a colleague who might be interested.

That’s how word of mouth helps with targeting. Rather than sending books to everyone, the
publishers got me, and others, to do the targeting for them. Just like a searchlight, each recipient of the
double mailing would look through his or her personal social network, find the person that the book
would be most relevant for, and pass it along.

But want to know the best thing about word of mouth? It’s available to everyone. From Fortune 500
companies trying to increase sales to corner restaurants trying to fill tables. And from nonprofits
trying to fight obesity to newbie politicians trying to get elected. Word of mouth helps things catch on.
Word of mouth even helps B2B companies get new clients from existing ones. And it doesn’t require
millions of dollars spent on advertising. It just requires getting people to talk.

The challenge, though, is how to do that.
From start-ups to starlets, people have embraced social media as the wave of the future. Facebook,

Twitter, YouTube, and other channels are seen as ways to cultivate a following and engage
consumers. Brands post ads, aspiring musicians post videos, and small businesses post deals.
Companies and organizations have fallen over themselves in their rush to jump on the buzz marketing
bandwagon. The logic is straightforward. If they can get people to talk about their idea or share their
content, it will spread through social networks like a virus, making their product or idea instantly
popular along the way.

But there are two issues with this approach: the focus and the execution.
Help me out with a quick pop quiz. What percent of word of mouth do you think happens online? In

other words, what percent of chatter happens over social media, blogs, e-mail, and chat rooms?
If you’re like most people you probably guessed something around 50 or 60 percent. Some people

guess upward of 70 percent and some guess much lower, but after having asked this question of
hundreds of students and executives, I find that the average is around 50 percent.

And that number makes sense. After all, social media have certainly exploded as of late. Millions
of people use these sites every day, and billions of pieces of content get shared every month. These
technologies have made it faster and easier to share things quickly with a broad group of people.

But 50 percent is wrong.
Not even close.
The actual number is 7 percent. Not 47 percent, not 27 percent, but 7 percent. Research by the

Keller Fay Group finds that only 7 percent of word of mouth happens online.
Most people are extremely surprised when they hear that number. “But that’s way too low,” they

protest. “People spend a huge amount of time online!” And that’s true. People do spend a good bit of
time online. Close to two hours a day by some estimates. But we forget that people also spend a lot of
time offline. More than eight times as much, in fact. And that creates a lot more time for offline

We also tend to overestimate online word of mouth because it’s easier to see. Social media sites
provide a handy record of all the clips, comments, and other content we share online. So when we
look at it, it seems like a lot. But we don’t think as much about all the offline conversations we had
over that same time period because we can’t easily see them. There is no recording of the chat we
had with Susan after lunch or the conversation we had with Tim while waiting for the kids to be done
with practice. But while they may not be as easy to see, they still have an important impact on our

Further, while one might think that online word of mouth reaches more people, that’s not always the
case. Sure, online conversations could reach more people. After all, while face-to-face conversations
tend to be one-on-one, or among a small handful of people, the average tweet or Facebook status
update is sent to more than one hundred people. But not all of these potential recipients will actually
see every message. People are inundated with online content, so they don’t have the time to read

every tweet, message, or update sent their way. A quick exercise among my students, for example,
showed that less than 10 percent of their friends responded to a message they posted. Most Twitter
posts reach even fewer. Online conversations could reach a much larger audience, but given that
offline conversations may be more in-depth, it’s unclear that social media is the better way to go.

So the first issue with all the hype around social media is that people tend to ignore the importance
of offline word of mouth, even though offline discussions are more prevalent, and potentially even
more impactful, than online ones.

The second issue is that Facebook and Twitter are technologies, not strategies. Word-of-mouth
marketing is effective only if people actually talk. Public health officials can tweet daily bulletins
about safe sex, but if but no one passes them along, the campaign will fail. Just putting up a Facebook
page or tweeting doesn’t mean anyone will notice or spread the word. Fifty percent of YouTube
videos have fewer than five hundred views. Only one-third of 1 percent get more than 1 million.

Harnessing the power of word of mouth, online or offline, requires understanding why people talk
and why some things get talked about and shared more than others. The psychology of sharing. The
science of social transmission.

The next time you’re chatting at a party or grabbing a bite to eat with a coworker, imagine being a
fly on the wall, eavesdropping on your conversation. You might end up chatting about a new movie or
gossiping about a colleague. You might trade stories about vacation, mention someone’s new baby, or
complain about the unusually warm weather.

Why? You could have talked about anything. There are millions of different topics, ideas, products,
and stories you could have discussed. Why did you talk about those things in particular? Why that
specific story, movie, or coworker rather than a different one?

Certain stories are more contagious, and certain rumors are more infectious. Some online content
goes viral while other content never gets passed on. Some products get a good deal of word of mouth,
while others go unmentioned. Why? What causes certain products, ideas, and behaviors to be talked
about more?

That’s what this book is about.

One common intuition is that generating word of mouth is all about finding the right people. That
certain special individuals are just more influential than others. In The Tipping Point, for example,
Malcolm Gladwell argues that social epidemics are driven “by the efforts of a handful of exceptional
people” whom he calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen. Others suggest that “one in 10 Americans
tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy.” Marketers spend millions of dollars
trying to find these so-called opinion leaders and get them to endorse their products. Political
campaigns look for the “influentials” to support their side.

The notion is that anything these special people touch will turn to gold. If they adopt or talk about a
product or idea, it will become popular.

But conventional wisdom is wrong. Yes, we all know people who are really persuasive, and yes,
some people have more friends than others. But in most cases that doesn’t make them any more
influential in spreading information or making things go viral.

Further, by focusing so much on the messenger, we’ve neglected a much more obvious driver of
sharing: the message.

To use an analogy, think about jokes. We all have friends who are better joke tellers than we are.
Whenever they tell a joke the room bursts out laughing.

But jokes also vary. Some jokes are so funny that it doesn’t matter who tells them. Everyone laughs
even if the person sharing the joke isn’t all that funny. Contagious content is like that—so inherently
viral that it spreads regardless of who is doing the talking. Regardless of whether the messengers are
really persuasive or not and regardless of whether they have ten friends or ten thousand.

So what about a message makes people want to pass it on?
Not surprisingly, social media “gurus” and word-of-mouth practitioners have made lots of guesses.

One prevalent theory is that virality is completely random—that it’s impossible to predict whether a
given video or piece of content will be highly shared. Other people conjecture based on case studies
and anecdotes. Because so many of the most popular YouTube videos are either funny or cute—
involving babies or kittens—you commonly hear that humor or cuteness is a key ingredient for

But these “theories” ignore the fact that many funny or cute videos never take off. Sure, some cat
clips get millions of views, but those are the outliers, not the norm. Most get less than a few dozen.

You may as well observe that Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Bill Cosby are all famous and conclude
that changing your name to Bill is the route to fame and fortune. Although the initial observation is
correct, the conclusion is patently ludicrous. By merely looking at a handful of viral hits, people miss
the fact that many of those features also exist in content that failed to attract any audience whatsoever.
To fully understand what causes people to share things, you have to look at both successes and
failures. And whether, more often than not, certain characteristics are linked to success.

Now at this point you might be saying to yourself, great, some things are more contagious than others.
But is it possible to make anything contagious, or are some things just naturally more infectious?

Smartphones tend to be more exciting than tax returns, talking dogs are more interesting than tort
reform, and Hollywood movies are cooler than toasters or blenders.

Are makers of the former just better off than the latter? Are some products and ideas just born
contagious while others aren’t? Or can any product or idea be engineered to be more infectious?

Tom Dickson was looking for a new job. Born in San Francisco, he was led by his Mormon faith to

attend school at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, where he graduated in 1971 with a
degree in engineering. He moved home after graduation, but the job market was tough and there
weren’t many opportunities. The only position he could find was at a company making birth control
and intrauterine devices. These devices helped prevent pregnancy, but they could also be seen as
abortives, which went against Tom’s Mormon beliefs. A Mormon helping to develop new methods of
birth control? It was time to find something new.

Tom had always been interested in bread making. While practicing his hobby, he noticed that there
were no good cheap home grinders with which to make flour. So Tom put his engineering skills to
work. After playing around with a ten-dollar vacuum motor, he cobbled together something that
milled finer flour at a cheaper price than anything currently on the market.

The grinder was so good that Tom started producing it on a larger scale. The business did
reasonably well, and playing around with different methods of processing food got him interested in

more general blenders. Soon he moved back to Utah to start his own blender company. In 1995 he
produced his first home blender, and in 1999 Blendtec was founded.

But although the product was great, no one really knew about it. Awareness was low. So in 2006,
Tom hired George Wright, another BYU alum, as his marketing director. Later, George would joke
that the marketing budget at his prior company was greater than all of Blendtec’s revenues.

On one of his first days on the job, George noticed a pile of sawdust on the floor of the
manufacturing plant. Given that no construction was in progress, George was puzzled. What was
going on?

It turned out that Tom was in the factory doing what he did every day: trying to break blenders. To
test the durability and power of Blendtec blenders, Tom would cram two-by-two boards, among other
objects, into the blenders and turn them on—hence the sawdust.

George had an idea that would make Tom’s blender famous.
With a meager fifty-dollar …

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