Jonah Berger: Going Viral

Like many other readers, I was fascinated by Richard Dawkins introduction of the idea of a meme in his book The Selfish Gene.

Wikipedia gives a good discussion of memes:

A meme (/ˈmm/meem)[1] is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”[2] A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.[3]

The word meme is a shortening (modeled on gene) of mimeme (from Ancient Greek μίμημα Greek pronunciation: [míːmɛːma]mīmēma, “imitated thing”, from μιμεῖσθαι mimeisthai, “to imitate”, from μῖμος mimos "mime")[4] and it was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976)[1][5] as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in the book included melodies, catch-phrases, fashion, and the technology of building arches.[6]

Proponents theorize that memes may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes do this through the processes of variationmutationcompetition, and inheritance, each of which influence a meme’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.[7]

A field of study called memetics[8] arose in the 1990s to explore the concepts and transmission of memes in terms of an evolutionary model.

Internet memes are a subset of memes in general. Wikipedia has a good discussion of this particular subset of memes as well:

An Internet meme may take the form of an imagehyperlinkvideopicturewebsite, or hashtag. It may be just a word or phrase, including an intentional misspelling. These small movements tend to spread from person to person via social networksblogs, direct email, or news sources. They may relate to various existing Internet cultures or subcultures, often created or spread on sites such as 4chanReddit and numerous others.

An Internet meme may stay the same or may evolve over time, by chance or through commentary, imitations, parody, or by incorporating news accounts about itself. Internet memes can evolve and spread extremely rapidly, sometimes reaching world-wide popularity within a few days. Internet memes usually are formed from some social interaction, pop culture reference, or situations people often find themselves in. Their rapid growth and impact has caught the attention of both researchers and industry.[3]Academically, researchers model how they evolve and predict which memes will survive and spread throughout the Web. Commercially, they are used in viral marketing where they are an inexpensive form of mass advertising.

But sometimes our image of an internet meme is too narrow. A tweet can easily become an internet meme if it is retweeted and modified. Thinking of bigger chunks of text, even a blog post sometimes both spreads in its original form and inspires other blog posts that can be considered mutated forms of the original blog post. And thinking just a bit smaller than a tweet, a link to a blog post can definitely be a meme, coevolving with different combinations of surrounding text recommending or denigrating what is at the link–sometimes just the surrounding text of a tweet and sometimes the surrounding text of an entire blog post that flags what is at the link. So those of us who care how many people read what we have to say have reason to be interested in the principles that determine when tweet, a post or a link will be contagious or not. In other words, what does it take to go viral?

Jonah Berger’s book Contagious gives answers based on research Jonah has done as a Marketing professor at the Wharton school. Jonah identifies six dimensions of a message that make it more likely to spread. Here are my notes what Jonah has to say about those six dimensions, for which Jonah gives the acronym STEPPS:

1. Social Currency: We share things that make us look good.

Jonah emphasizes three ways to make people want to share something in order to look good.

  • Inner Remarkability: making clear how remarkable something is. Two examples of remarkabilility are the Snapple facts on the inside of Snapple lids and the video series “Will It Blend?” showing Blendtec blenders grinding up just about anything, the more entertaining the better. Note how what is remarkable about the Blendtec blenders is brought out and dramatized in a non-obvious and entertaining way.  
  • Leverage Game Mechanics: Make a good game out of being a fan.  Here the allure of becoming the Foursquare mayor of some establishment is a great example. 
  • Make People Feel Like Insiders: Here, counterintuitively, creating a sense of scarcity, exclusivity, and the need for inside knowledge to access everything, can make something more attractive. Of course, if you can get away with the illusion of scarcity and exclusivity rather than the reality, more people can be brought on board.

2. Triggers: Top of mind, tip of tongue.

Here the key idea is to tie what you are trying to promote to some trigger that will happen often in someone’s environment.

  • Budweiser’s “Wassup” campaign might seem uninspired, but it tied Budweiser beer to what was a common greeting at the time among a key demographic of young males.  
  • The “Kitkat and Coffee” campaign tied Kitkat chocolate bars to a very frequent occurrence in many people’s days: drinking coffee.
  • The lines “Thinking about Dinner? Think About Boston Market” helped trigger thoughts of Boston Market at a time of day at which they hadn’t previously had as much business.  
  • The trigger can even be the communications of one’s adversary, as in the anti-smoking ads riffing off of the Marlboro Man commercials:

3. Emotion: When we care, we share.

The non-obvious finding here is that high arousal emotions such as 

regardless of whether they are positive or negative–encourage sharing more than low arousal emotions such as contentment and sadness. Indeed, arousal is so important for sharing, experiments indicate that even the physiological arousal induced by making people run in place can cause people to share an article more often.

To find the emotional core of an idea, so that emotional core can be highlighted, Jonah endorses the technique of asking why you think people are doing something, then asking “why is that important” three times. Of course, this could also be seen as a way to try to get at the underlying utility function: utility functions are implemented in important measure by emotions. 

Jonah recommends Google’s “Paris Love” campaign as an example of showing how to demonstrate that something seemingly prosaic, such as search, can connect to deeper concerns. 

4. Public: Built to show, built to grow.

Here I like the story of how Steve Jobs and his marketing expert Ken Segall decided that making the Apple log on a laptop look right-side up to other people when the laptop is in use was more important than making it look right-side up to the user at the moment of figuring out which way to turn to laptop to open it up. Jonah points out how the way the color yellow made them stand out helped make Livestrong wristbands a thing in the days before Lance Armstrong was disgraced

and how the color white made ipod headphones more noticeable than black would have. 

Jonah also makes interesting points about how talking about certain kinds of bad behavior, by making it seem everyone is doing it, can actually encourage bad behavior. Think of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” antidrug campaign:

An alternative is to try to highlight the alternative, desired behavior.  

5. Practical Value: News you can use.

This dimension is fairly straightforward. But Jonah gives this interesting example of a video about how to shuck corn for corn on the cob that went viral in an older demographic where not many things go viral. He also points to the impulse to share information of presumed practical value as part of the reason it is so hard to eradicate the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines cause autism.

6. Stories: Information travels under the guise of idle chatter. 

Here, Jonah uses the example of the Trojan horse, which works well on many levels: the horse brought Greek warriors into Troy, and the story of the Trojan horse brings the idea “never trust your enemies, even if they seem friendly” deep into the soul. He points out just how much information is carried along by good stories.

But Jonah cautions that to make a story valuable, what you are trying to promote has to be integral to the story. Crashing the Olympics and doing a belly flop makes a good story, but the advertising on the break-in diver’s outfit was not central to the story and was soon forgotten. By contrast, for Panda brand Cheese, the Panda backing up the threat “Never say no to Panda” is a memorable part of the stories of Panda mayhem in the cheese commercials, and Dove products at least have an integral supporting role to play in Dove’s memorable Evolution commercial illustrating the extent to which much makeup and photoshopping are behind salient images of beauty in our environment.   

Applied Memetics for the Economics Blogger

Here are a few thought about how to use Jonah’s insights in trying to make a mark in the blogosphere and tweetosphere.

1. Social Currency

Inner Remarkability: I find the effort to encapsulate the inner remarkability of each post or idea in a tweet an interesting intellectual challenge. One good way to practice this is a tip I learned from Bonnie Kavoussi: try to find the most interesting quotation from someone else’s post and put that quotation in your tweet. That will win you friends from the authors of the posts, earn you more Twitter followers (remember that the author of the post will have a strong urge to retweet if you are advertising herhis post well), and hone your skills for when you want to advertise your own posts on Twitter. 

Leverage Game Mechanics: In the blogosphere and on Twitter, we are associating with peers. Much of what they want is similar to what w want–to be noticed, to get our points across, to get new ideas. So helping them to win their game is basically a matter of being a good friend or colleague. For example, championing people’s best work and being generous in giving credit will win points. 

Make People Feel Like Insiders: When writing for on online magazine (Quartz in my case), it feels I need to write as if the readers are reading me for the first time. By contrast, a blog is tailor-made to make readers feel like insiders. So it is valuable to have an independent blog alongside any writing I do for an online magazine.  

2. Triggers

A common piece of advice to young tenure-track assistant professors is to do enough of one thing to become known for that thing. This is consistent with Jonah’s advice about triggers. Having people think of you every time a particular topic comes up is a good way to make sure people think of you. That doesn’t mean you need to be a Johnny-one-note, but it does mean the danger of being seen as a Johnny-one-note is overrated. Remember that readers can easily get variety by diversifying their reading between you and other bloggers. So they will be fine even if your blog specializes to one particular niche, or a small set of niches.

On Twitter, one way to associate yourself with a particular trigger is to use a hashtag. In addition to the hashtag #ImmigrationTweetDay that Adam Ozimek, Noah Smith and I created for Immigration Tweet Day, I have made frequent use of the hashtag #emoney, and I created the hashtag #nakedausterity.  

3. Emotion

Economists often want to come across as cool and rational. But many of the most successful bloggers have quite a bit of emotion in their posts and tweets. I think Noah Smith’s blog Noahpinion is a good example of this. Noahpinion delivers humor, indignation, awe, and even the sense of anxiety that comes from watching him attack and wondering how the object of his attack will respond.  

One simple aid to getting an emotional kick that both Noah and I use is to put illustrations at the top of most of our blog posts. I think more blogs would benefit from putting well-chosen illustrations at the top of posts.    

4. Public

The secret to making a blog more public is simple: Twitter. Everything on Twitter is public, and every interaction with someone who has followers you don’t is a chance for someone new to realize you exist. Of course, you need to be saying something that will make people want to follow you once they notice that you exist.    

Facebook helps too. I post links to my blog posts on my Facebook wall and have friended many economists. 

Finally, the dueling blog posts in an online debate tend to attract attention.

5. Practical Value

In “Top 25 All-Time Posts and All 22 Quartz Columns in Order of Popularity, as of May 5, 2013,” I point out the two posts that are slowly and steadily gaining on posts that were faster out of the block:

I think the reason is practical value. Economists love to understand the economy, but they also have to teach school. They are glad for help and advice for that task.  

6. Stories

Let me make the following argument:

  • a large portion of our brains is devoted to trying to understand the people in our social network;
  • so the author of a blog is much more memorable than a blog, and
  • a memorable story about a blog is almost always coded in people’s brains as a memorable story about the author of the blog.  

Thus, to make a good story for your blog, it is important to “let people in.” That is, it pays off to let people get to know you. The challenge is then to let people get to know you without making them think you are so “full of yourself” that they flee in disgust. Economists as a rule have a surprisingly high tolerance for arrogance in others. But if you want non-economists to stick with you, you might want to inject some notes of humility into what you write.

One simple way to let people get to know you without seeming arrogant is to highlight a range of other people you think highly of. The set of people you think highly of is very revealing of who you are. (Of course, the set of people you criticize and attack is also very revealing of who you are, but not in the same way.)


Jonah Berger’s book Contagious is one of the few books in my life where I got to the end and then immediately and eagerly went back to the beginning to read it all over again for the second time. (I can’t remember another one.) Of course, it is a relatively short book. But still, it took a combination of great stories, interesting research results, and practical value for me as a blogger to motivate me to read it twice in quick succession. I recommend it. And I would be interested in your thoughts about how to get a better chance of having blog posts and tweets go viral.         

Further Reading

Jonah recommends two other books that with insights into what makes an idea successful:

  • Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: is a fantastic read. But while it is filled with entertaining stories, the science has come a long way since it was released over a decade ago.”
  • Chip Heath and Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die…although the Heaths’ book focuses on making ideas ‘stick’–getting people to remember them–it says less about how to make products and ideas spread, or getting people to pass them on.”