THE BLOG
02/22/2013 09:15 am ET Updated Apr 20, 2013

Get Others to Share Your Ideas and to Buy

An anger-evoking true story that's spreading, "Exec loses job after allegedly slapping toddler on plane," quickly moved Dan Schawbel to write on Facebook, "The headline should read 'Exec gets deported from America after being a complete A@& on a plane.'" That response won't surprise Jonah Berger, author of Contagious, out March 5th, who discovered that "high arousal" negative emotions like anger or anxiety spur us to share messages with others.

So do high arousal positive emotions: awe, excitement, and amusement or humor. Susan Boyle's unexpected singing performance, for example, evoked awe and 100 million views within nine days. Years later, she inked a movie deal. Les Miserables' movie producer, Cameron Mackintosh, recently said her success reinforced his interest in making that movie.

Who knows what far-reaching effects your contagious message might have? To embody the core message of Contagious, I'm sharing some more tips from it:

1. Surprisingly Some Emotions Stifle Our Desire to Share

"A healthy attitude is contagious but don't wait to catch it from others. Be a carrier," suggests Tom Stoppard, yet not all positive emotions that we feel actually motivate us to share ideas with others, Berger discovered. "Low arousal" positive emotions in response to a message, such as contentment, actually stop us from passing them along.

2. Tie Your Product to Familiar and Frequent Situations

What's more valuable than clever slogans to spur sales? "Kit Kat and coffee" is a rather bland brand message. Yet sales skyrocketed. Why? Because the company tied its ad campaign to a frequent habit for many people: drinking coffee. Anyone who sees the spots with the companion message, "a break's best friend," may be triggered to think about eating a Kit Kat bar whenever they take a coffee break.

Conversely, GEICO's attention-grabbing TV ads, suggesting that switching over to their auto insurance was so simple that even a caveman could do it, were not as successful. As Contagious author, Jonah Berger points out, "We don't see many cavemen in our daily lives. The advertisement is unlikely to come to mind often, making it less likely to be talked about," writes Berger, yet others disagree.

Hint: Connect your message to a situation that your kind of customer frequently experiences so it triggers them to think of your brand whenever they are in that situation. As Berger notes, "a strong trigger can be much more effective than a catchy slogan." I wonder what contagious campaigns he'll use to spur sales of his book.

3. Use Some of the STEEPS Elements in Contagious Messages

Here are his six principles of contagiousness:

Social Currency - We share things that make us look good
Triggers - Top of mind, tip of tongue
Emotion - When we care we share:
Public - Built to show, built to grow
Practical Value - News you can use
Stories - Information travels under the guise of idle chatter

4. An Emotional Story Can Carry the Benefits You Want Them to Feel Good About

Peel away the layers of the onion - the features that a company often cites to sell something. Look for the underlying emotional need that people could have for your product so you can start the conversation about them. Craft a story to wrap around that desire so we get an emotional experience of using the benefits you want to tout. That's why Google's Creative Labs member, Anthony Cafaro, resisted creating the usual, pithy and factual description. Instead he concocted a romance story, Parisian Love. We get pulled into the unfolding story, watching the search unfold as the characters use the tools the project was supposed to tout.

5. Look Out for Others' Successful Triggers to Which You Can Attach

I often think about REI when I am taking walk/talks with friends up and down the steps of Sausalito. I wonder how many people have stepped inside an REI store for the first time after reading Wild. In that popular book about personal salvation, Cheryl Strayed describes her naïve, courageous 1,100 mile hike on the rugged Pacific Crest Trail, a story that evoked in me and many others, the emotion of awe about which Berger writes. Soon, her feet become bloody, crammed as they were in the boots she bought at REI, one size too small. Six of her toenails gradually blackened and fell off, an image that I cannot get out of my head. When she worked up the gumption to buy new ones with her meager remaining money, she called REI to order them to be sent to the next stop on her trail. To her surprise, she was told that their policy, in such situations, was to provide replacement boots for free, which they did. REI smartly piggybacked on her story, to highlight a customer-delighting policy, hosting her to speak about her book at their flagship store. Being reminded of REI's generous policy did trigger me to return to the store sooner than I otherwise might have, to purchase durable hiking shorts.

Hint: Stories sometimes contain situational triggering incidents, causing us to remember the story and thus the product whenever we are in that situation. It pays to look out for a well-known story to which you can attach your message. Berger tells a similar story about his cousin buying a winter coat from Lands' End.

6. Danger: Don't Do This. Translation: But Many Others Are.

Some widely visible "anti" campaigns that attempt to stop certain behaviors, such as kids using drugs, actually evoke the opposite reaction because they give the habit more visibility, thus social currency. Public service announcements that warn of such dangers, actually evoke "social proof" that many people appear to be doing it, so it must be ok, thus encouraging young people to use marijuana.

7. Focus on Real Life Exposure to Transport Your Message

Most people believe that at least 50 percent of word of mouth messages happen online. "The actual number is 7 percent," writes Berger, citing Keller Fay Group research. That may be because, "it is easier to see," adds Berger. "Social media sites provide a handy record of all the clips, comments, and other content we share online. But we don't think as much about all the offline conversation we had over the same time period because we can't actually see them."

Honest Tea launched an offline "experiment" in several U.S. cities, tying their unusual brand name and the action of consumers choosing the bottle with the flavor they most wanted, to two familiar triggers: city sidewalks and store shelves. It also created a real life multiple story-generator, with consumers as the actors in it, capturing our voyeuristic interest in others' honesty. The company created unstaffed, pop-up sidewalk stands where passersby could pick up as many bottles as they wanted -- and pay by the honor system. People anywhere in the world could watch how people responded to the tempting opportunity to cheat. That's because of live streaming video snooping, via hidden cameras. Quirky, admittedly unscientific story angles abounded. What city has the most honest people? Are blondes more honest that bald people?

What contagious message have you concocted or heard about that you'd like to share here? Or care to suggest a "what-if" scenario that would spur others' desire to share or buy something?