What makes content contagious? (aka irresistibly shareable)

I don’t mean the cold or flu, where contact causes sharing & a sneeze. I mean the sharing of knowledge, cultural memes or just general content sharing.

Jonah Berger is a Wharton marketing professor, and his book Contagious covers the science of why things catch on.

People share things that make them look good to others. As noble as we may pretend to be, at the end of the day, all we want is to be looked up to & respected. Think of a child with a brand new macaroni art project. Good luck not hearing about their new creation…

Self-sharing has been around ages (macaroni art included), far predating the social media movement. It has truly about been about as long as print media and the op-ed column has existed. Humans are wired to share, we are social animals, and we just can’t help ourselves but to talk about our personal experiences & relationships.

When you consider something as “shareable”, analysis suggests this means the content makes the person sharing it seem cool, entertaining, clever or “in the know”. We skip sharing stories that make us look bad, or like a “Debbie downer”. The practice of sharing is truly self-serving.

What purpose is this serving?

Well, word of mouth is a social currency. There is value in making a good impression, and sharing the latest popular cat video is inherent to your social reputation.

Human beings are inherently social animals. We crave interaction (introvert or not) and can’t resist sharing with other people. This sharing helps us bond, a fundamental nuance to our desire for social approval.

We won’t just share any old thing, it must be something remarkable and worthy of our time & attention. It all boils down to our desire for social approval, it’s a fundamental human motivation. If we mirror that in our products & marketing ,we can leverage these natural drives to promote our products.

Think of frequent flyer miles. If you know anyone with platinum-sparkly-glitter elite status, they have TOLD you about their honorary status. (Kind of like being a vegan cross-fitter) It is human nature to boast or brag about our accomplishments. Be it our golf handicap or our frequent flyer miles. What good is status if you no one knows you have it?

The amusing thing is that every time you brag about your elite flyer status, you are spreading the word about that airline. Frequent flyer miles are basically a game, and this gamification (aka game mechanics) is a crucial part of a brand’s marketing strategy. If you can gamify your product, people can’t help themselves but spread your brand.

By encouraging players to post their achievements on Facebook, online game makers have managed to convince people to proclaim loudly, boast even, that they spend hours playing computer games, such as Foursquare, daily. People love to share awards or recognition, and can’t help themselves but to boast they are the mayor of their local bar. Basically, making being a barfly cool. What the heck?

Knowing this, what can we do to encourage people to not just talk about our brands, but to keep talking about us?

Exclusivity isn’t just about money or celebrity, it’s also about knowledge. Knowing certain things or being connected to people who do, gives us a leg up over our peers, and makes us feel cool and “in the know”. We all can relate…Get a new gadget and the first thing you do is show people, shouting from the metaphorical rooftops “I’m ahead of the curve!”

To make your product something people can’t resist talking about it should have good social currency, be remarkable, include game mechanics, be somewhat scarce and be exclusive.

If we satisfy all these, how do we keep that conversation going? People don’t realize how often we talk about brands, products & organizations. It’s almost constant. Sights, smells and sounds trigger related thoughts and ideas, and make them top of mind. Humans are constantly looking for small talk to fill the conversational space at work, your kids soccer games, and other times we need to chat frivolously. More frequently triggered products get more word of mouth.

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. This means if you want your product to thrive, it needs to have cues in your ideal clients world that constantly remind them of why they need it.

Prevalence & triggers aren’t the only way to stay at the top of mind.

When humans care, we share. Humans are social animals with a tendency to gossip , for good or ill it shakes our relationships. An interesting and/or useful article is more likely to be shared. Another win seen in science is the emotion “awe”. There may be no social currency or practical value, but if it is awe inspiring it is very shareable.

Again, as social animals, talking to others often makes emotional experiences better. I feel awe watching a video, so I share it. If my friend had the same feelings, it deepens our emotional connection. Same with any strong emotion, jokes or anger, if you share the response it underscores your connection.

This shareable connection isn’t true for all emotions. Sadness doesn’t fit this, sad articles are less shareable. No one wants to be a Debbie downer, so while local news uses negative stories to suck you in, it’s less shareable in the greater scheme of things. Truly, it’s all about arousal.

Physiological arousal is the key to sharing.

High arousal emotions encourage sharing, things like sadness (low arousal) stifle it. Even just getting your body moving, like going for a walk, can mimic these effects of physiological arousal. The physiological arousal is the key to a topics shareability.

We are also greatly impacted by the behaviour of the herd. It’s social proof. We assume if others do it that thing must be great, and if they pass it must be bogus. This social proof is the seed of peer pressure.

People like to pass along practical, useful info. News others can use. The stories we tell, are linked to the person we present to the world. We share and tells stories because we look cool, smart, “in the know” or otherwise tuned in. With the constant stream of content in the modern world, seeing what others share is a quick and easy way to acquire lots of info in a vivid and engaging fashion.

So as a brand, if you want to succeed, if you want to “go viral” you need to build a product with a message that is laden in social currency, is regularly triggered by your target audiences life, is emotionally engaging, is publicly digestible, practical, and valuable. Just (please) don’t forget to hide your products true message inside. Make sure your desired story is so embedded in the plot that people can’t tell the story without it.

This post was originally written for the AltMBA4.


  1. Josh

    Great article. Tried to subscribe but your FeedBlitz widget thing is broken. Tried two valid addresses. Doesn’t like them.

    • alexarohn

      Oh no! I am so sorry to hear this Josh, I will add you manually if you would like. Sorry about the glitch.


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