Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Jonah Berger Pinpoints What Makes Ideas Viral in "Contagious."

Last week I spoke about the concept of big ideas, and the writers that conceptualize them. Malcolm Gladwell first popularized this with The Tipping Point, and the Heath Brothers took it to the next level with Made to Stick.

So now Jonah Berger has written Contagious: Why Things Catch On, which is out today. Mentored by none other than Chip Heath himself, Berger tries to deconstruct viral ideas down to their component parts. It turns out that, to Berger, there are six such factors, which he has turned into the acronym STEPPS. The are social currency (how does sharing this idea make you look, triggers (how often do the components of the idea enter the consciousness), emotion (high arousal is better), public (meaning behavior as opposed to thought), practical value (does sharing the idea help someone) and stories (we like ‘em).

So here’s the thing. I’ve been reading these kinds of books in the dark for the last few years, as there has been nobody I’ve worked with at Boswell who likes them. As a result, I find myself reading a lot fewer of them than when I was at Schwartz. I think that actually falls under the “trigger” category. But now it turns out that Hannah loves these kinds of books, and so my incentive to read this was to share the ideas and tell her if it was worth reading.

And of course like all these books, I’m hoping to improve my own business at Boswell. What kind of messages are we sending out? Do we have a consistent message? Is it memorable? There’s nothing like a book like this to get you to do some serious thinking. Like many folks, I figure if I come up with one or two ideas that are successfully implemented, it will have been all worth it.

Social currency—for our customers, being well read is still seen as a plus, though it has been noted that an intellectual is no longer required to read the novel of the moment to keep his or her credentials.

Triggers—Boswell is lucky enough to get a lot of traction in local and even national media. My hope is that this gets folks to come in the store who might not otherwise.

Emotion—Oops! There’s a lot of contentment that goes with the store, which is a low arousal emotion. However, I think we’ve also had our share of humor and awe, which are more likely to help folks tell others about Boswell. There’s nothing like an amazing author event to connect with our customers. And while I think most of our interactions with customers are no different than most other indie retailers, every so often things will just go incredibly out of the ordinary in a good way, and that has a lot of currency. A funny display will sometimes help. Or maybe a simple but beautiful limited-edition shopping bag will do the trick. Department stores pulled that one off for years.

And if you don’t believe it has an effect, a really wonderful customer (and an author to boot) came back to tell me how much she loved, loved, loved Aaron’s bag. The bag was everything I wanted in a marketing symbol—retro modern, a celebration of art and books and yes, commerce.

Public—Reading is a such a private thing, except on public transportation. I’ve been known to read while I walk, such that there were a few jokers around town who used to call me “Books” when I ran into them, but that can be dangerous of course. One of the reasons that bookstores of all sorts sell book-related stuff is that we’re trying to make public the act of reading, such that our customers simultaneous show their identity and perhaps make it a little more palatable for the general public. I was just saying to Bob that our dream is to have a famous musician wearing a Boswell shirt in concert. He wore his at Summerfest last year, which is just the jump-start we need! Thanks, Bob.

Practical Value—I think there have been enough studies about reading to show that there are some good after effects. Do I even have to argue this one?

Stories—We’re not just talking about the stories in the books here, but the story about Boswell. The survival story seems to strike a note with a lot of folks and our customers seem to get into the idea that Milwaukee has a bookstore that is still sort of a local secret, and yet has national currency. It’s not quite on the level of the Please Don’t Tell bar that is touted in Contagious (I was certainly intrigued with that one) but we’re a bit off the beaten path and one of our volunteer gift wrappers at Christmas told me that she had moved to Milwaukee and still recalled the first time she stumbled on the store and the sense of awe she felt about the whole thing. Awe, that’s a high-arousal emotion. Yay!

I do have a concern that Contagious is a little short at 180 pages. I thought to myself, if I were writing or editing or publishing this book, I would have tried to stretch it to 240 pages. The next day, Hannah noted that if a book isn’t 260 pages, it starts feeling like a magazine article. I even came up for a formula-- thirty pages of introduction. Thirty pages for each of the STEPPS. Thirty pages for application, synthesis and conclusion.Why Hannah said 260 and not 250, I do not know. She's probably right though.

I should note that a good part of why read these books are for the stories. Yes, they might help us, but also I think these are the very sorts of high-arousal stories that would have us forward a newspaper article. But the problem is that there are only so many stories out there, and more and more, these books repeat the same studies.

This is something I hadn’t really thought about regarding books in the new world of instantaneous connection. The stories move so quickly and it is the currency of stories that drive these books. And worse than that, it’s the demand for constant new stories following publication, as every successful book of this sort warrants a blog. That’s something that is said to trip up Jonah Lehrer.

It strikes me that original research would be the solution to this problem, but for most researchers, their books would be rather one note. I recall reading Stanley Milgrim’s Obedience to Authority after declaring his study to be the most cited in modern American history. While there were fascinating details I hadn’t before learned, it was mostly variations on a theme.

Berger has several good stories and two great ones--the $100 cheesesteak at Prime Steakhouse in Philadelphia (Berger is a prof at Wharton) and the Blendtec blender with the “will it blend?” viral videos. But I wish there had been a few more of this sort.

We'll see if Contagious finds itself contagious with the reading public. I bet there’ll be at least one viral video.

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