Why Your Cat Video Didn’t Go Viral


Years ago, I got a chance to listen to a keynote by Jonah Berger, Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. During his talk, Berger asked the audience the following question:

Which of these three product gets the most word of mouth buzz?

  • Walt Disney World
  • Honey Nut Cheerios
  • Scrubbing Bubbles

How would you have answered this question?

The audience was almost evenly split among the three answers, with more people raising their hands for Walt Disney World than the other two answers. For the record, I chose Scrubbing Bubbles – I still remember the classic animated commercial from my childhood.

According to Berger, the correct answer is Honey Nut Cheerios.

Berger should know. He has spent the last 10 years looking into what makes things popular. Berger and his colleagues researched 7,000 articles that appeared in The New York Times over a six-month period to determine why some content was shared more often and therefore generated more buzz. The result is the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

‘Contagious’ cites research from McKinsey that found “word of mouth generates more than twice the sales of paid advertising in categories as diverse as skincare and mobile.” In addition, the customers that were referred by word of mouth had a lifetime value which was 13% higher. As Berger explained,

Word of mouth has a big causal impact on behavior. A big part of that is because it’s targeted. Nobody tells a friend who doesn’t have a baby about a new baby product. Instead, we talk about things we know will help each other.

According to Berger, there are six STEPPS which lead to something going viral:

  1. Social currency: People talk about things that make themselves look good.
  2. Triggers: People talk about things they can easily remember.
  3. Emotion: People are more likely to pass on information they care about.
  4. Public: When we see other people doing something, we’re more likely to imitate it.
  5. Practical value: People share information they believe they will help others.
  6. Stories: People are more likely to share information when it’s told as a story. It’s why I use animal stories to introduce new initiatives.

It’s not hard to recognize these principles at work in the so-called clickbait headlines which entice us to click through to the content. Ironically, the better we get at creating clickbait, the less effective the headlines are. More from Berger,

If everyone is perfectly implementing the best headline to pass on, it’s not as effective anymore. What used to be emotionally arousing simply isn’t any longer.

‘Contagious’ is a fascinating read – especially the chapters on triggers and emotions – but it has its limitations. While the book does a better job of explaining why things generate buzz than anything else I’ve ever read, it doesn’t provide specific steps to cause something to go viral.

Good marketing is still one part art and one part science.

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