jonah-bergerYour research focuses on the nature of viral content in the digital age. Just a few years ago people thought that designing something to go viral was like trying to purchase a winning lottery ticket. Have we cracked the code on viral marketing?

We’ve definitely gotten closer. As I talk about in Contagious: Why Things Catch On, it’s not random luck or chance why things go viral.  There’s a science behind it.  And if we understand that science we can get all sorts of things to catch on.

You offer six principles (Social Currency, Triggers, Emotions, Public, Practical Value and Stories) that account for content’s tendency to go viral. Any recent examples of branded content that’s done a particularly good job of hitting all six?

Hitting all six is tough, but lots of examples hit one of the STEPPS really well. What Does The Fox Say is a great example of high arousal Emotion.  People talked about Beyonce’s new album because the lack of PR made people feel like insiders and want to share to gain social currency. The list goes on.

A lot of your work focuses on the psychology behind why people share. On the other hand, sites like Buzzfeed are relying on reams of data to measure and predict virality. How do these two approaches impact what we understand about why people share content?

Data and psychology are the same approach.  It’s about using data to understand why people share and then creating content that hits those dimensions.  Buzzfeed follows many of the six STEPPS.  They also do a good job of measuring what content is taking off and putting more attention behind it

It’s a challenge for brands to create content that people will want to share and that has a clear marketing message attached to it. Word of mouth is more powerful than paid advertising, for example. Do you think this is why we’re seeing so much hype around native advertising?

Certainly.  Marketers are always trying to find new tools to get consumer attention.  But as soon as consumers realize that marketers are trying to sell them something, they react against the message. They push back and either stop paying attention or get annoyed and like the product even less.

It’s like when parents tell kids to eat their vegetables. That is why word of mouth is so much more effective.  People know their friends aren’t trying to sell them something, so they’re much more likely to listen to what their friends have to say.

Viral isn’t an end goal. The goal should be awareness, sales or some other metric…otherwise you’re just creating fun content.

On the other hand, viral content is great for brand awareness, but high traffic doesn’t necessarily translate to more revenue. That’s a big criticism of ‘virality mills’ like Buzzfeed and Upworthy. How do you think brands should understand the value of contagious content?

Viral isn’t an end goal.  The goal should be awareness, sales, or some other metric.  If viral helps you achieve those goals, great, but otherwise you’re just creating fun content.  Don’t just think about viral, think about how to achieve valuable virality: Content that gets shared and helps the brand.

You suggest that when it comes to viral content it’s about the message and not the messenger. Why?

Berger's book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, uncovers the psychology behind sharable content.

Berger’s book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, uncovers the psychology behind sharable content.

People used to think that it was all about special people. If you could just get some “influential” people to spread your message, it would be sure to catch on.  But that’s not how it works.

To use an analogy, think about a forest fire. Whether it catches or not doesn’t depend on the size of the initial spark. It relies on having lots of trees that are ready to catch that spark.  The same goes with sharing.

To make something widely diffuse, you need lots of people to share, whether they have ten friends or ten thousand.  A restaurant doesn’t catch on because one “special” person says you should go there, it catch on because lots of regular people tell their friends how great it is.

You have also discovered that “high arousal” emotions like awe and anger make us more likely to share content. But my guess is that a lot of brands would view that kind of content as risky. Should they?

Definitely not.  There are lots of high-arousal emotions: Excitement, awe, humor, anger, anxiety, etc. And brands can pick whichever works best for them. Sure a bank may not think humour is appropriate for their message, but they can find another emotion that is.

Even traditionally non-emotional businesses like insurance have really started relying on emotional appeals.  Showing awe-inspiring stories about how they helped people put their life back together after a natural disaster, for example.  Insurance isn’t the most emotional domain, but by focusing on the feelings, companies can get people talking.

It’s easier to measure online virality than it is to measure word-of-mouth recommendations offline. Which would you say is more powerful?

Only seven percent of word of mouth is online.  The percentage is slightly higher among young people, and it’s getting higher every year, but most word of mouth is still offline.

Brands need to stop focusing solely on social media and start thinking about word of mouth more broadly – offline as well as online.  It’s easy to have a twitter account, watch the follower numbers go up, and think you’re achieving your goals, but it’s much more important to drive actual engagement. Online gets lots of attention, but offline word of mouth is more powerful.

[Sparksheet is a media partner of ContentTECH. Jonah Berger will be a keynote speaker at the event.]