6 Things That Drive Word of Mouth

Jonah Berger’s SXSW Interactive session “What Drives Word of Mouth” was nothing short of amazing. He’s the author of the best-selling book Contagious: Why Things Catch On as well as a scientist and professor at Wharton – one of the top MBA Marketing programs in the world. At SXSW, he didn’t fill up his slides with stats and percentages. Instead he engaged the audience with examples as he presented the six word-of-mouth principles (the 6 STEPPS) from his book. While I can’t recreate his whole presentation, I’d like to summarize a few of the key points.

“Virality isn’t luck. It’s not magic. And it’s not random. There’s a science behind why people talk and share. A recipe. A formula, even,” writes Jonah Berger in his Huffington Post article, “Viral’s Secret Formula”.

The 6 STEPPS that drive word of mouth:

Social Currency
Practical Value

SOCIAL CURRENCY: People want to seem cool, smart, and in-the-know

The blender. Sure, on its own, it’s not a remarkable thing, but a simple and inexpensive video series changed that. Have you ever seen an iPhone 5S get blended to dust?

That video has over 2.7 million views. Blendtec’s “Will It Blend?” series isn’t successful by chance. The videos get watched and shared over and over again because they showcase the product’s remarkable performance and durability in a unique way, and people love to share things that make them appear to be “cool, smart, and in-the-know”.

TRIGGERS: Top-of-mind means tip-of-tongue

Peanut butter and? Let’s say it together – jelly.

Triggers link ideas together. Peanut butter works like a mini-advertisement for jelly because the thought of peanut butter triggers the thought of jelly.

EMOTION: When we care, we share

There’s a reason Google’s “Parisian Love” video has over 7.2 million views, and why Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow” has over 12 million views. These videos evoke emotions, and people share videos, products, ideas that move them.

PUBLIC: Built to show, built to grow

It’s the psychology of imitation. Apple’s very visible logo on its laptops? The white headphones? These are public displays of private purchases, serving as a signal to others meaning, ‘Oh, that person bought that, so I guess I should buy that, too.’ We assume that they probably know something we don’t know.

PRACTICAL VALUE: News you can use

Sharing practical value is about helping others. A hefty discount, a medical discovery, or an awesome how-to are all fair game to be shared. However, because you can find practical value is almost anything, the hardest part is cutting through all of the clutter.

STORIES: Stories Travel

People like stories. What’s more interesting: Subway offers healthy eating options, or a college student loses 245 lbs in one year by eating Subway sandwiches? The latter is definitely more interesting. Everyone knows the story of Jared and the Subway diet. In fact, you may know people who’ve tried this diet as well. After the first Jared commercial aired, sales increased by 20%, and overall sales more than tripled (NY Daily News).

Applying These Concepts

To be clear, you don’t need all 6 STEPPS for your product or service to be successful, but the more you have, the better the result. Professor Berger has a great workbook you can use when brainstorming ideas.

“Only 7% of word of mouth is online.” – Jonah Berger

Think about where your product or service fits within the 6 STEPPS. Yes, you want to create something that people will use but also something that will be shared and recommended. A product or service doesn’t need to be unique (a blender), but demonstrating how it’s different from the competition can mean all of the difference.

If SXSW posts the video Jonah Berger’s session “What Drives Word of Mouth” on YouTube, I recommend you take the time to watch it and absorb it all. And if you still haven’t had enough, his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On goes even deeper into the subject of virality. I actually listened to the audiobook version during my daily commute, and I found the material easy to follow. I highly recommend it!