Review: What makes things popular?
That’s the fiendishly complex question at the center of Contagious by Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In the book, Berger looks to explain “social epidemics” — moments where ideas, products or behaviors spread through a population — and to look at what features converge to make these ideas, products or behaviors viral or likely to spread by word-of-mouth. Berger and his colleagues have outlined six principles of contagiousness: products or ideas that contain social currency and are triggered, emotional, public, practically valuable, and wrapped into stories.
The book is an interesting mix of the obvious and the counter-intuitive. I wish I had examples for you, but since I listened to the audio book I didn’t take any notes and the specifics have faded in my brain. But, I do distinctly remember having moments where I thought his conclusion gelled with what I assumed about viral content, while other times his research indicated features of popular content that I wouldn’t have pegged before.
The book is also full of interesting, real-world examples. I was most curious about some research Berger and his colleagues did on what newspaper stories are shared most and how emotions play into what we remember and share with others. If I remember correctly, people are just as likely to share content that is “positive” as they are to share content that is “negative,” but only when the emotions that a story triggers are very strong. That’s not the conclusion I would have expected.
Overall, this is an excellent piece of accessible nonfiction. And despite not having a narrative arc to move forward like I usually like in audio books, this one works well to listen to. Keith Nobbs is an engaging narrator, and the structure of the book is clearly laid out in the introduction. Plus, it’s pretty short (around 7 hours), so I didn’t feel like I’d forgotten the beginning by the time I made it to the end.
If you’re into marketing or curious about what makes thins go viral, Contagious would be a great place to start reading.
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