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Is There a Science to Word of Mouth Marketing and Going Viral? A Q&A With Dr. Jonah Berger

Written by Molly Talbert | on October 5, 2017 at 8:30 AM

Is there a science to word of mouth marketing? A Q&A with Jonah Berger

Do you ever wonder why certain videos go viral? Or why some articles get shared widely while others don’t? Dr. Jonah Berger has spent his professional life digging into why certain things take off and why people make different decisions.Dr. Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and bestselling author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On and Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior.

He’s going to take Super Forum 2017 attendees through a deeper dive into his research, but we wanted to share with you a Q&A before then. From Dr. Berger, we learned that word-of-mouth marketing and customer engagement are a predictable science, not an artform.

HL: Are viral concepts and trends as random as we tend to think?

JB: Sometimes we see what catches on and we think it's random, it's luck, it's chance—but it's not. There's really a science behind it. As I talk about it in Contagious, there are six key factors—what I call the S.T.E.P.P.S.—that drive things to catch on. If we understand those steps, we can understand why people talk about it and share things.

HL: So S.T.E.P.P.S. stands for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories, which make up the formula for viral content. Can the same formula be applied in the B2B space? Or more specifically to increase engagement in an online community?

JB: The same formula can certainly be applied to the B2B space. Often, we think word of mouth is mainly a consumer thing. Consumers talk about products and services and ideas but not business people, right? Well, 91% of new business leads in B2B markets come from existing business. Word-of-mouth is just as, if not more, important in B2B cases. We need to think about the social network. Who's connected to whom and why they might talk and share. The underlying principles that drive people to share are very much the same. If we want to increase engagement in online community, we need to think about what makes that community engaging. Why might someone visit? What might they share? How can we increase the likelihood they pass things on not only to people in the community to keep that community vibrant, but also outside to the community to bring new folks in.

HL: What is one of the most surprising things you’ve discovered in your research about the power of word of mouth?

JB: One of the surprising things I found about doing research about word of mouth is it's not just online. You might think that most word of mouth is online—on social media for example—but just as much of it, if not more of it is offline. More important than technology is psychology, understanding why people talk and share whether on technology or in person. If we don't understand why people pass on a message, we're not going to be able to build and grow our stuff.

HL: Your on the power of word of mouth is fascinating, but can people in our audience – community managers, associations, and /business executives – really apply it to their jobs?

JB: Certainly. I've worked with all sorts of companies, from large and small, from B2B and to B2C, from nonprofit and to for-profit, people managing communities, people who are business executives, and many more, whether in a small company or a large company. We all have ideas we'd like to catch on. It might be a product we're trying to sell, or a service we want to excel. It might be a message we want to send internally, within our organizations. Everybody has something that they want to catch on and spread and the steps are really a great toolkit to craft Contagious content and make our sales more successful.

HL: How do current events impact what's shared? And how do you avoid having unexpected current events disrupt a well-thought-out and sure to be viral campaign?

JB: Current events certainly shape what people share. I think if we build our campaigns and take that into account, thinking about what people are already talking about, we can become part of that conversation rather than creating a whole new conversation. It's easier to be part of a larger conversation that's already out there.

HL: Your book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, was first published in 2013. Do your findings still ring true or has the internet changed how things become viral or the power of ‘word of mouth’ as it has evolved?

JB: While Contagious was published a few years ago, the principles certainly hold. Word of mouth has been around for thousands of years. It's not that it was first invented when the internet came around. The first word of mouth was when cavemen were talking to another saying, "Don't eat that. It's poisonous." The same principles very much apply today. Again, it's more about the psychology and less about the technology. Why people share and using that to craft contagious content.

Topics: B2B Communities, Associations, Online Community

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