In the digital age, businesses are competing fiercely to gain an advantage online. But what is it that makes ideas spread across the web? What makes a campaign go viral? What makes people want to share content? And how do you craft contagious content in 2016?

jonah berger stepps

Jonah Berger discusses the science behind word-of-mouth and social transmission in his book ‘Contagious’. He describes six dimensions which he calls STEPPS to explain the reasons behind popular ideas – here we discuss Social Currency, Practical Value, Emotion and Stories:

Social Currency

Social currency is a powerful concept which affects us all. Sharing information which makes us look good socially is part of our complex outlook as social beings. If a person feels like they are ‘in the know’, they form a positive impression on family or friends. We are all driven to engage in conversation and share information that is not only interesting, but makes us look cool.

Sharing opinions with others in our social group produces positive signals to the brain and is an important part of our psychology. For business to thrive and take advantage of this phenomenon it is important to form a strategy to capture the public’s enthusiasm.

please dont tell new york

Please Don’t Tell is now a famous bar in New York City, but this wasn’t always the case. When they started, their marketing strategy appeared to be non-existent; the bar purposely had no advertising and not even a sign above the door. Instead, an old phone placed inconspicuously on a wall held the only clues to the bar’s existence. From the outside, they made an effort to avoid public attention, and even told guests lucky enough to stumble upon the bar – “please don’t tell anyone.”

We are all guilty of not being able to keep a secret; the fact people were told not to tell anyone made people desperate to do exactly the opposite. They told everyone. The trick worked and the fact that the bar was a secret generated excitement which spread like wildfire. The bar became a huge success, using word of mouth online and offline to generate its client base.

If people are desperate to talk about your brand or product, your marketing message will spread organically. Give people an opportunity to look good whilst promoting your product or service. Ensure that your idea has remarkability and make the public feel like they are insiders. Word of mouth is a powerful tool in marketing, and with the influence of the internet can generate a huge amount of interest for any business.


Emotion plays an important role in spreading a particular message on the internet. As humans, we only share information if we care and we only care if an emotion has been induced. Therefore, activating emotion is key to transmission on the web.

Emotions can range from anger to amusement and excitement to fear. Emotions of high arousal can be positive as well as negative, as long as they provoke a reaction. Emotions are a key driver of action and in turn ensure your message is carried across the web.

In 2009, Google came up with a plan to instil positive emotions into an advert for their search engine. They developed a series of online videos called ‘search stories’. Most notable was the episode ‘Parisian Love’, which shows a love story developing through the medium of Google search, crafting emotions of joy and romance into a seemingly dull topic. Once published to the public the video become an overnight success and was shared throughout the web being viewed millions of times.

BMW kindled the fire of their 2001 campaign by utilising emotion. They created a short film series which featured their cars in FBI raids and near-death experiences, unlike the idyllic scenery their consumers were accustomed to. ‘The Hire’ series generated emotions of excitement and fear, racking 11 million views in four months. The campaign increased sales by 12% and prompted a huge increase in website traffic.

Statistically, articles which evoke ‘awe’ such as wonder, surprise and amazement are 30% more likely to be shared. Sharing emotions helps us connect; they are a social glue. Social media has made it incredibly easy for people to share emotions fast and effectively. Ensure you campaign touches people’s emotions and make them care about your business, but always remember:

Emotions make us laugh, shout and cry. They make us talk, share and buy.

Practical Value

Delivering content of practical value also plays an essential role. Content which is genuinely useful is naturally more sharable. People like to pass on information, which will save you time or money, in the hope that the recipient will return the favour at some point in the future. Crafting content which helps people can be an extremely effective tactic to spread your message across the web.

The internet is the largest source of practical value, utilise this and position your business as a helping hand.


Stories have been a constant feature in human society. Ever since we could communicate there has been evidence of stories to grow social bonds, to craft messages and lessons to society. Stories provide us with a broader narrative to wrap our ideas in, they keep our audience interested and focused on the message at hand.

As marketers it is important to utilise stories to drive engagement. Stories can bring colour to an idea or meaning to product. They can provide context to an audience or a given society. If a story is vivid and engaging, it gives people an easy way to discuss products, services and businesses.

Take the Dove Evolution Story for example. Discussing the perception of beauty between women provided Dove with a story to sell their product. The video was shared through social media millions of times. Dove became a product that stands for real women, giving fresh perspective and position in the cosmetics industry.

Stories must be directly relatable to the product and any product that has to be mentioned as part of the story will enjoy greater success.

Blendtec have been successful at this, having gathered 267,185,428 YouTube views since 2006. They are experts at driving user engagement, creating a series of videos blending random products selected by its audience. Blendtec’s main product becomes the central piece of the story, and an essential component of the story. Therefore, ensure your story hosts information which is not only intriguing but of value to the product or service. Make sure the product or service you want people to remember is crucial to the narrative.

Ensure your campaign has a story, which is relatable to your audience, integrated across all platforms.

Follow these steps to craft contagious content in 2016.

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