Jonah Berger Talks about the Science of Word of Mouth
Marketers know that word of mouth can be powerful. The question is, what makes some products and messages catch on like wildfire and others die out?
Wharton School Prof. Jonah Berger has studied that question for the better part of a decade. His research examines word of mouth and the dynamics of social influence: the individual decisions and actions that lead to collective outcomes like trends in products, baby names, viral videos, “most emailed” newspaper articles, and effective political messages.
Most recently, in his New York Times best-selling book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger offers a framework for others seeking to craft content that is shared. In June, he led a workshop for MSI members on the topic.
While a good deal of attention has focused on opinion leaders or “influentials”, Berger’s framework focuses on the message, rather than the messenger. “It’s not luck or chance why some brands get more word of mouth than others. There’s a science behind it.” He describes these characteristics in six general principles. Here are the first three:
#1 People share to feel good about themselves, so craft messages that offer “social currency.”
“Talking about remarkable things provides social currency,” Berger says. So the task for marketers is to find the “inner remarkability” of their product or service. That’s easy to envision for some products (think of Apple’s newest gadget or a Hollywood movie), but even functional or mundane products can find their inner remarkability.
“Take BlendTec. They make industrial blenders—what could be more functional? Yet they found their inner remarkability through their ‘Will It Blend’ campaign. They got over 150 million people to share videos of one of the most mundane products you can imagine. (If you haven’t seen one of these clips, search ‘Will It Blend iPhone’ on YouTube). It’s not about doing something crazy that is irrelevant to the brand. By showing how strong and tough the blender was, BlendTec highlighted a key benefit. Other functional products from financial services to OTC medicine could do the same thing.”
#2 People often talk about what comes to mind: create “triggers” in the environment and the product.
“Triggers are the foundation of word of mouth and contagiousness,” Berger writes in Contagious. So rather than going for the catchy message, marketers should consider the context. Think about whether the message will be triggered by the everyday environments of the target audience.
In a 2010 study of buzz marketing campaigns, Berger and coauthor Eric Schwartz found that while more interesting products were talked about more frequently at first, there was no evidence that they were talked about more frequently over time. Product cues, on the other hand (like a message that linked Boston Market restaurants to dinner time), became more important over the course of the campaign.
In his book, Berger points to Hershey’s campaign to link their Kit Kat candy bar to coffee and the idea of taking a coffee break. Many things contributed to the campaign’s success, he noted, and one of them was certainly triggers. “A huge number of people drink coffee. Many drink it a number of times throughout the day.” By linking their candy bar to coffee, Hershey created a frequent trigger to remind people about their brand.
#3 People talk about things they care about: kindle emotion in your message
In a 2010 study of the New York Times “most emailed” list, Berger and coauthor Katherine Milkman found that it’s not always what a person feel, but how deeply they feel it that pushes them to share content. While articles that evoked positive emotions prompted people to share, so did articles that aroused high levels of alarm or anger.
The contagious power of emotion can be a good or bad for marketers. Take United Airlines and the “United Breaks Guitars” video, which had over 1 million views in four days. In the same four days, United’s stock price fell 10 percent.
On the other hand, awe-inspiring content can be a very powerful way to boost sharing. One of the most viral videos ever is Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream” on “Britain’s Got Talent” in 2009. “It’s hard to watch this video and not be awed by her strength and heart,” Berger writes. “And that emotion drove people to pass it on.”
Berger describes word of mouth as more than 10 times as effective as traditional advertising, for two reasons: it is trusted and it is targeted. “We are more likely to trust our friends. And when we share, we select people who we think would find that given piece of information most relevant. So, word of mouth tends to reach people who are actually interested in the thing being discussed.”
An inexpensive way to share your message with an interested audience via a trusted messenger? It’s not surprising that Berger’s message has caught on with marketers.
Contagious: Why Things Catch On
Jonah Berger (2013) [Book]
Insider or Imitator: Consumer Identity and Product Trends (2011) [Article]
How Interest Shapes Word of Mouth over Different Channels
Jonah Berger and Raghuram Iyengar (2011) [Report]
Social Transmission, Emotion, and the Virality of Online Content
Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman (2010) [Report]
What Products Do People Talk About and Why? (2010) [Article]
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