STEPPS to Making Your Ideas Contagious

Courtesy of Jonah Berger

Do you know why some ideas "go viral" while others sputter along?

Wondered how you can make your articles, videos or photos "spreadable"?

Well, Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger, author of the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, may have some answers for us. In a fascinating interview on HBR's Ideacast, Berger spoke about what stimulates sharing (and oversharing) in people. 

Anger and Anxiety

For a start, people are more likely to share positive things (eg happy photos, good news, humour) than negative ones. However, certain negative emotions, like anger and anxiety do trigger a lot more sharing than others like sadness. This is because we feel a lot more compelled to tell others about incidents that trigger our acute "fight" or "flight"  stress responses - times when our adrenaline levels are most likely to be pumped up.

When Bad is Good

In Berger's world, bad news can be sometimes be good news. For example, the movie Borat which ridiculed and parodied the country Kazakhstan more than a decade ago actually led to a spike in tourism by 300%!

Why is this so?

Well, the simple answer is that negative publicity or word of mouth can raise one's awareness of little known items. So Sascha Baron Cohen was actually doing the central Asian nation a good deed by getting the world interested in it - albeit in a rather unorthodox fashion!

If you're the victim of negative word of mouth, Berger advises you not to worry about the news. Instead, try to solve the problem first. Once that is done, the news normally goes away, especially when something new subsequently catches the attention of the hyper fickle online crowd. What's more, studies have shown that temporary bouts of negative buzz alone doesn't really kill an enterprise.

On Controversy

Contrary to popular belief, not all controversy stirs conversations. While screen queen Angelina Jolie's recent double mastectomy certain grabbed a lot of mainstream and social media attention, the data showed that middle levels of controversy are preferred over rocketing levels of controversy.

The reason behind this observation is that stuff which are highly controversial - say an issue like abortion for pregnant teenagers or deep rooted religious beliefs - can get us into hot soup. They may also be uncomfortable topics for one to talk about. As such, people tend to prefer sharing stuff that are less polarising. Well, at least the majority do.


We are all guilty of this in various contexts, especially now that we're spending so much time on social media. The fascinating thing which Berger discovered, however, was that activities like exercise, watching a scary movie, or going on a tumultuous plane ride are more likely to trigger over-sharing than run-of-the-mill experiences.

Once again, our emotions act as the triggers for us to share in these instances. When our adrenaline levels are pumped up from these stimulatory activities, we're more likely to want to share with others.

STEPPS to Making Your Ideas Contagious

Finally, using the acronym STEPPS (drawn from his book Contagious), Berger shared that there are 6 points that we should consider to make our content spread.  Namely:

Social Currency  We love to be a friend in need and in deed. As such, we love to share stuff that either make us look good or help others. This is why deals like Airline tickets and great restaurant meals get shared so much. Ditto for health warnings due to environmental effects - like haze!

Triggers  Generally, top of mind ideas trigger more spreading than others. These headlining stories exhibit greater "virality" than others. They can be anything from plane crashes to space landings to the flooding of new shopping centres (at least in Singapore).

Emotion  Naturally, the stuff that makes us aroused the most gets shared the most. As I've highlighted earlier, outrage is a huge trigger - think of Dave Carroll's "United Breaks Guitars" video.

Public  We're all victims of the herd effect (ie monkey see, monkey do). When we see others doing something, we're more likely to follow their example. This is why a group full of people looking up into the sky is likely to prompt others to emulate them.

Practical value  Like the earlier point on social currency, people want to help others out. However, the catch is that it should also be something of practical value. Pay it forward movements like the current "Chope Food for the Needy" movement in Singapore is a classic example here.

Stories  Last but certainly not least, we're all moved by great stories. Like Trojan horses (albeit positive ones), a good tale can subtly convey company information, products and brands. Where possible though, ensure that the story isn't just a stirring saga in and of itself but is related to what the company does.

For more information, do check out Jonah Berger's blog or get a copy of his book instead.

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