Q&A with Jonah Berger (and a chance to win a copy of his new book Contagious!)

jonah berger contagious

In February, Wharton Marketing Professor Dr. Jonah Berger joined Brains on Fire for the 2013 F.I.R.E. Session.

Along with advance copies of his new book Contagious, Jonah shared his insights on what makes things go viral. If you’ve ever wondered why some things catch on, this was the presentation to demystify the mystery. Jonah’s talk was packed with interesting tidbits, including insights on “triggers,” the things that are linked in our mind. Just like “peanut butter is a mini-advertisement for jelly” and it’s hard to think “rum” without “coke,” triggers play a role in marketing, too. (If you’ve ever found yourself tempted to Facebook Rebecca Black’s “Friday” on a Friday, thank triggers!) Another key point from the talk focused on the role emotion plays in sharing. Different emotions influence how and when we share something. Sadness inspires less sharing, while anger and outrage inspire people to share by harnessing their desire to take action in the heat of the moment. Last but not least, Jonah explored storytelling. His advice was pretty simple: sneak your message into a story. (Great example: Dumb Ways to Die.)” [Read the full F.I.R.E. Session recap here.]

Contagious has received rave reviews from bookworms and inquiring minds around The Firesphere. I had firsthand experience with the concept of “contagiousness” during a recent trip to Ohio. The book’s bright orange cover prompted at least six strangers to stop me in the airport (one even snapped a photo!) and inquire about what I was reading.

Last week Robbin sat down with Jonah last week to ask him a few questions…

Robbin Phillips: In Contagious, you talk about the six ingredients that cause things to be talked about or shared: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories (the STEPPS). Which of the STEPPS fascinates you the most? If you weren’t a professor, and you could choose to be leading expert in one of the STEPPS, which would you choose?

Jonah Berger: Social Currency often has the most fun examples. Hidden bars, secret menus or $100 cheesesteaks. It’s also one of the most fundamental human motives. While it’s hard to see it in ourselves, it’s easy to see in others. People care about what others think about them. We want to look smart rather than dumb, cool rather than behind the times. And we talk about things that make us look that way. Being an expert in how to look cool to others would definitely be a fun job.

RP: What do you love most about your work and why?

JB: Getting the chance to put science to things I see in the world around me. People often wonder why a certain product became popular, why a particular baby name caught on, or why certain things go viral. My job is to study that; to try and understand the inner workings of the human mind. It’s like peering into the brain with a magnifying glass. It’s an awesome job!

RP: What or who inspires you and why?

JB: Passionate people. I’m always inspired by people who love what they do, working towards something they believe in and putting their all into it.

GOOD THINGS COME TO THOSE WHO SCROLL: Hello, reader. You made it to the end of the blog post. As a reward, you now have a chance to win a copy of Contagious for your bookshelf. Leave a comment below sharing a story about the last time a brand made YOU feel really good.

On Friday we’ll announce five lucky winners selected to receive a free copy of Jonah’s book.


amy Amy Taylor is the Lead Copywriter + a Community Manager at Brains on Fire. Meet her here.
  • http://www.facebook.com/michelle.hannon Michelle Hannon

    I have to say Pinterest has changed my life. It has transformed meals at my house. I’ve tried lots of other websites and books but nothing clicked until Pinterest. It is my #1 go-to place for meal planning and lots of other things. I am working to get a Pinterest account started at my job. I would definitely be an ambassador for Pinterest if they asked me to.

  • http://garaughty.com/ marti garaughty

    My current favorite is Stella Artois beer. Their commercials piqued my interest to the point where I joined http://lasociete.stellaartois.com/ for exculsive perks and invites. The thing is… I’m not even a beer drinker, I just love how they connect with people online!

  • Scott Anderson

    I ate with a group of family and friends recently at a Buca di Beppo. The one thing everyone in our party agreed we wanted was lasagne. After the server took our order, the manager came to the table and explained they were out of lasagne and it would be more than an hour before they had more. He offered a substitue dish, and we decided to try it. But we didn’t like it. Determined to make us happy, he brought some chicken parmigiana. Plus he brought us tiramisu and a Colossal Brownie Sundae for dessert. In the end, he comped our bill for the lasagne, the replacement dish, the chicken parm and the desserts. This guy definitely went out of his way. But he ensured that I can still say I have never had a bad experience at a Buca di Beppo.

    • http://twitter.com/NoMeatballs Amy

      Congrats, Scott! You’ve been selected to receive a free copy of Contagious. Please send your mailing address to Amy(at)BrainsOnFire.com and we’ll pop it in the mail to you!

  • http://twitter.com/DanHolm Dan Holm

    Air Canada.

    I was boarding a flight to Dubrovnik 2 years ago and left my credit card at home….I realized this as I walked through security at the airport… I frantically called my wife, who immediately called me dumb and then raced home to get the card in an attempt to get it back to me before the flight took off.

    I then went to the check in counter to beg for mercy that they would delay the international flight on my behalf. They said “maybe” as long as the weather is in my favor.

    Suddenly a lightening storm came rolling through Tampa and the flight was delayed….15 minutes.

    Air Canada also told me they would have one of their people meet my wife outside the airport when she arrived to get the card.

    My wife came pulling up minutes before the flight was supposed to take off, I had her on my phone, Air Canada had a guy on a radio telling him what car she was driving so he could RUN OUT IN THE RAIN AND GET THE CARD.

    My wife cracked her window, he ran up, grabbed the card and then SPRINTED to my gate.

    Moments later I saw a soaking wet Air Canada employee running down the terminal holding my credit card above his head. I’m a man, but I literally almost started crying (I can be emotional as you know).

    Out of breath, he handed me the card and said simply “here you go”.

    I thanked him 1,000 times and then went running on the plane.

    Air Canada people. Air Canada.

    • http://twitter.com/NoMeatballs Amy

      Congrats, Dan! You’ve been selected to receive a free copy of Contagious. Please send your mailing address to Amy(at)BrainsOnFire.com and we’ll pop it in the mail to you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Huebner/12604920 Chris Huebner

    I believe Starbucks is the best example of a brand who continually makes me feel important. It is amazing what happens when you empower your employees through education, inclusion and allow them to become ambassadors/decision-makers. The baristas know my name, know my drink, where I work and the conversations feel genuine.

  • ATLRun

    Starbucks – Every morning I walk in, I’m greeted by name and before I even get to the register to order, my favorite barista prepares my drink so that by the time I get rung out, it’s ready. It is a fabulous way to start the morning :)

  • Danny Fournier

    A couple people already mentioned Starbucks and their customer service, but I’d like to throw out a different example with Starbuck. Their holiday cups. I’ve noticed over the past couple years a general excite that brews once Starbucks starts using their holiday cups. You’ll hear people talking about it “Starbucks has started using their holiday cups”. That means the holiday flavors are also now being served. It’s become a sign that Christmas is getting closer. There’s a warm cozy feel that goes along with that people share with each other. People get disgusted when the holiday decorations go up too soon in the malls, or radio stations start playing Christmas carols too early, but Starbucks holiday cups are something that people look forward to. I’ve even noticed that anticipation for the cups even starts to build around the time the Pumpkin Lattes become available.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jean.buschke Jean Buschke

    I purchased a new DVD player. It was a lesser known company but I like giving those folks my business. Took it home and set it up and all my movies were showing in black and white. Now I like black and white but not all the time. I then put batteries in the remote and that did not work either. I changed the batteries twice with spanking brand new batteries and got nadda. :(
    There was a sheet in the box that said, “If you have problems with this DVD player please contact us before you return it to the store.” Fair enough. So I wrote a lovely e-mail expaining my issues and sent it off.
    Five days later with still no response I packed up the little machine and it’s nonfunctioning remote and returned it to the store. They asked me at the store if I wanted to try another DVD player from the same company…I said, “No thank you.”
    I went to another store and saw a SONY DVD player and bought it. Went home…set it up and was watching “Winter Bones” in living color in less than 5 minutes with a smile on my face. (Not because the movie is so joyful but because the issue was not my lack of technical skills…it was with the player.) Might I add that the remote helped me skip all those previews which I had watched already in black and white.
    I doubt I would stray from SONY again no matter what the price. It’s a company that delivers for me and that’s what I expect. I am happy as a clam with my new SONY DVD player and my movies are as colorful as they should be. :)

  • Michael Johnson

    As a marketing visionary, I always am looking for why your business is different and how are you going to stick out. I love “triggers” and try to find those in my client & their business.

  • Leslie I

    Feeling good about a brand:
    Warby Parker @WarbyParker. I have ordered eyeglasses from them since they started business in 2010–I love their style and their “buy one, give one” philanthropy program. Anyway, I stepped on my latest pair of glasses, crushing them. I emailed Warby Parker to see if I could get them repaired. Within hours, I received an email response, noting that I had been a loyal customer since they opened shop and offering to expedite a replacement pair for free (which came within the week). I truly felt my consumer loyalty was appreciated. And since the email, I have sung WP’s praises all over the place, so their customer service strategy has certainly triggered word of mouth marketing!

    • http://twitter.com/NoMeatballs Amy

      Congrats, Leslie! You’ve been selected to receive a free copy of Contagious. Please send your mailing address to Amy(at)BrainsOnFire.com and we’ll pop it in the mail to you!

  • Mary

    Hamilton Beach. I was gifted with an electric tea kettle. Within a few days, I noticed puddles of water every time I used it. I set it aside for more than a year! I decided to check with them. No receipt, almost two years old…no problem. “Send it to us for our quality research, we want you to go online and choose which new model you want. We’ll ship it as soon as you decide which one you want…no charge.” WOW. I have had the new one for three years and it’s still perfect! very pleased.

  • barefootandbrilliant

    Feeling good about a brand?- Darden Restaurants. A few years ago I was getting really sick and had to be put on a Gluten-free diet for awhile. It was around the time of my dad’s birthday and we were going to eat at Red Lobster,(which I love), but since being on the diet I wasnt sure if I would be able to eat out. So I sent an email and got a quick response back saying that they would have to check. They consulted a chef and got back to me within 24hrs. A few months later I received another email from them asking me to look over an allergy-sensitive menu that they were wanting to put in their restaurants and wanted to know my thoughts. I had never had a company treat me that way before and I will never forget it.

  • kmonts

    Jonah is participating in an upcoming webinar on April 30th. The first 30th registrants will receive a signed copy of his book. Here is where you can register and reserve your spot: http://bit.ly/17wiyJg

  • dfuller65

    I know I’m 7 months after the contest, but I just have to give kudos to Barnard Tires in Bastrop, Texas. I was badly in need of 4 tires for my truck but times were tough and money was tight. I called around to compare prices and I was looking at $1500.. Barnard’s is a small mom-n-pop shop making it difficult for them to compete with the big tire companies. I called them anyway just to see.

    When Eric (the owner’s son) answered the phone, I could hear the smile on his face. I know this to be true because he is ALWAYS smiling when I go in there. His mother once told me he came out of the womb smiling. I shared my cost predicament and told him what I needed. We discussed options and prices but as I suspected, they were higher than the big companies. I thanked him for his time and hung up the phone. I never gave him my name or my number.

    About an hour later, he called me? He apologized for not calling me sooner but said it took him a while to scroll through all the numbers on Caller ID trying to figure out which number was mine. He’d even called other customer’s numbers trying to find me.

    And he said, “No obligation but I wanted to tell you I have a set of 4 gently used tires that will fit your truck. They came off a guys dually who wanted to upgrade. They are a little more narrow than what you have now, but they’ll work and last you for a good year. Do you think $115 would be ok”?

    I said, well I appreciate it, but its still going to be $500-600 out the door. I’ll have to see what I can come up with.

    He said, no, that’s $115 TOTAL for all 4 tires…out the door.

    I jumped in my truck, ran to their shop and they put those tires on in about 20 minutes. They lasted me for a year and a half.

    Talk about an AWESOME experience. :)