Justin Smith
By: Justin Smith August 2, 2018
Contagious by Jonah Berger Book Review

Contagious: Why Things Catch On, by Jonah Berger, is a wonderfully written, quick read that outlines the various criteria that some would refer to as “the virility formula.”

Berger brilliantly breaks down his “viral formula” into six simple STEPPS.


STEPPS is the acronym he uses that represents:

  • Social Currency,
  • Triggers,
  • Emotion,
  • Public,
  • Practical Value, and
  • Stories.


STEPPS formula by Jonah Berger in Contagious


He beautifully illustrates the importance of each viral element by referencing countless strategies and campaigns of companies that have successfully utilized these elements previously.

Social Currency is the value in sharing something.

How does it benefit the person sharing it?

The better it makes someone look is the higher the probability it gets shared. The more attractive or interesting the content is, the more Social Currency it has.

To quote Berger in the Social Currency chapter, “People like to make a good impression, so we need to make our products a way to achieve that.

He continues, “We need to find the inner remarkability, we need to leverage game mechanics, we need to use scarcity and exclusivity to make people feel as if they’re insiders.

Triggers are environmental elements that serve as reminders.

They explain why polling locations have an impact on voting behavior, why seeing a sunny beach may make you think about a cold beer or climate change, or why seeing a honey bee makes you think about honey.

The idea, according to Berger, is, “Stimuli in the surrounding environment can determine which thoughts and ideas are top of mind.

He continues to say, “The more something is triggered, the more it will be top of mind, and the more successful it will become.

For Serpify, the strongest trigger is the acronym “SEO” or “traffic.” So it’s likely after seeing the phrase, “Thinking about traffic? Think about Serpify!,” users will draw a link between traffic and Serpify.

Thus, every time they think about traffic, Serpify will automatically come to mind.

Berger wraps up the Triggers chapter by saying, “Triggers and cues lead people to talk, choose, and use. Social Currency gets people talking, but triggers keep them talking. Top of mind means tip of tongue.


Jonah Berger Contagious Quote


The letter “E” in the STEPPS acronym stands for Emotion.

The premise of the chapter on Emotion is that when we care, we share.

In the third chapter of Contagious, Berger evaluates various types of emotions, and identifies the emotions that lead to action. He explains which emotions should be avoided, and which emotions should be evoked.

He explains how making someone sad can negatively impact sales, while making someone angry and anxious can actually increase sales substantially.

Making someone “content” can have a negative impact, while evoking awe, excitement, or amusement, typically has a positive impact.

The idea is that certain emotions are low arousal, which should be avoided. Others are high arousal, and arousal is “a state of activation and readiness for action.”

As Anthony Cafaro from Google said, “People don’t want to feel like they’re being told something–they want to be entertained, the want to be moved.

In summary, activating Emotion is essential to transmission.

In the Public chapter of Contagious, Berger discusses observability, social proof and behavioral residue.

He explores various concepts that can help transform the private, unobservable products or brands into very visible public platforms.

He discusses ideas such as giveaways, swag and social sharing. The idea is that something that lacks observability is less likely to be talked about or shared.

As Berger put it, “Public visibility boosts word of mouth. The easier something is to see, the more people talk about it. The more public a product or service is, the more it triggers people to take action.

For example, Serpify adds its logo to the top left of its users ranking reports by default, until or unless a PRO user uploads his or her own logo to replace it.

Hotmail was famous for adding their message to the footer of every email sent using their platform. Apple and Gmail followed suit. This is all behavioral residue.

The fifth chapter is on Practical Value.

It explains in depth how you can highlight incredible value and package your knowledge and expertise into useful information that’s easily digestible.

It’s the benefits unique to your product, service or idea. Berger explores the concept of pricing, and the psychology of “deals.”

He also discusses Daniel Kahneman’s “Prospect Theory,” which is, to quote Berger, “The way people actually make decisions often violates standard economic assumptions about how they should make decisions. Judgments and decisions are not always rational or optimal. Instead, they are based on psychological principles of how people perceive and process information.

He continues, “People don’t evaluate things in absolute terms. They evaluate them relative to a comparison standard, or reference point.” He goes on to explain “The Rule of 100” and how to position your product or service so that it’s poised to perform, from a psychological standpoint.

The sixth and final chapter in Contagious is all about Stories.

Berger opens the chapter with a history lesson, reminding us how Odysseus forged a brilliant plan to overthrow Troy with a giant wooden horse.

The story of the Trojan Horse dates back to 1170 BC and is still passed today to explain the art of delivering a hidden message or agenda.

An effective story does just that. As Berger put it, “Stories can act as vessels, carriers that help transmit information to others.

He eloquently guides us on how to create our own Trojan Horse (story).

The chapter closes with, “Build a Social Currency-laden, Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable Trojan Horse, but don’t forget to hide your message inside. Make sure your desired information is so embedded into the plot that people can’t tell the story without it.

My Contagious Conclusion:

I gained a tremendous amount of insight from Jonah Bergers’ Contagious.

I’ll now think of his viral “STEPPS” formula anytime I’m putting together an advertisement or promotional video, or especially designing a user interface from the ground up.

There’s a lot of value packed in the 213 page book. If you want to increase the probability your product or service gets talked about and shared, Contagious is a must have book in your collection.

I usually point out spelling and grammatical corrections, but there were none to point out. It turns out Jonah Berger is a spectacular writer with a superb editor. All the more reason to get yourself a copy of Contagious today!

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