Spend your years peddling advertising as I have, and you’re bound to hear endlessly repeated the snarky saw, “But, of course, word of mouth has always been the best form of advertising.” Usually, it’s a skinflint’s dodge of making marketing investments, but the maxim is doubly bothersome in such instances to ad guys like me, because it is so doggone true.
No one can argue that as tried and true as this principle may be, word of mouth has entered a new era. Technology-tricked-out humanoids move their words of their mouths at light-speed, one-to-many and many-to-many in ways the world has not known until recently. Now, every worthy marketer aspires to contagion as a runway to iconicism.
This new aspiration requires new insights. In his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, author Jonah Berger, James G. Campbell assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, delivers more than a few fresh, compelling gems. It’s the kind of fresh that comes from an author who makes reference to being inspired by his grandmother’s gift of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. (Talk about feeling like the Ancient of Days.)
Berger establishes at the outset that he attempts to synthesize for a popular audience volumes of sociological, psychological and economic research on “Why things catch on.” If that’s what he’s in fact done, he’s done it well.
Without walking over his IP, his six principles of fomenting contagion nicely packaged in a handy acronym, STEPPS, are Social currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical value and Stories. If you want to understand the formula, buy or borrow the book.
His view that “remarkability” is the essential catalyst of contagion is worthy of, well, remarking about. What causes something to catch on, according to Berger, is its essential remarkability. This is the aspect of the matter that motivates someone to say something about it to someone else or that makes it a conversation piece. Remarkability may be the Higgs boson of brand messaging: more atomic than things like unique selling propositions, elevator speeches and even purpose statements.
I’m reminded of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg’s 2011 address to the Association of National Advertisers when she challenged advertisers and agencies to add to the standard creative brief the question, “Why would they share?” Plumbing the depths of essential remarkability will provide those answers.
Berger makes masterful use of Freakonomics-style data to tear down what may feel like conventional wisdom, for example:
-Only 7 percent of total word of mouth happens online.
-Fifty percent of YouTube videos get fewer than 500 views. Only one-third of 1 percent get more than a million.
-There is more word of mouth online about Cheerios than Disney World.
-In the year the Evian “Roller Babies” video went viral and attracted 50 million views, the brand lost market share and sales dropped 25 percent. (Sometimes the best form of advertising isn’t necessarily the best form of advertising.)
Berger and Sandberg are not alone in their thinking. I also recently stumbled on Scientific Advertising by Claude C. Hopkins. Hopkins’ prescriptions were eerily similar to Berger’s, the difference being Hopkins published his material in 1923. Both are worth a read. They are especially compelling side by side. Because you know what they say: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Rick Segal is President Worldwide and Chief Practice Officer at gyro
Follow Rick @MrBtoB