Posted On: Sunday, 17 July 2016 by Rajiv Popat

I’m a nerd and I’ve never read anything about marketing other than books from Seth Godin. When I came across Contagious at my office library I was a little skeptical because it sounded like one of those books on social media which tries to teach you how you can spread your business or product. Contagious however, was both pleasantly surprising and analytical.

The book starts with logical and then goes into the illogical aspects beyond your control which decide how and why your products spread. For example the book describes how the sales of Mars candy shot up in mid-1997:

Back in mid-1997, the candy company Mars noticed an unexpected uptick in sales of its Mars bar. The company was surprised because it hadn’t changed its marketing in any way. It wasn’t spending additional money on advertising, it hadn’t changed its pricing, and it hadn’t run any special promotions. Yet sales had gone up. What had happened?

NASA had happened. Specifically, NASA’s Pathfinder mission.

The mission was designed to collect samples of atmosphere, climate, and soil from a nearby planet. The undertaking took years of preparation and millions of dollars in funding. When the lander finally touched down on the alien landscape, the entire world was rapt, and all news outlets featured NASA’s triumph.
Pathfinder’s destination? Mars.

Mars bars are named after the company’s founder, Franklin Mars, not the planet. But the media attention the planet received acted as a trigger that reminded people of the candy and increased sales. Perhaps the makers of Sunny Delight should encourage NASA to explore the sun.

Or how every Friday, millions of individuals are ‘triggered’ to listen to Rebecca Black’s Friday:

In 2011, Rebecca Black accomplished a momentous achievement. The thirteen-year-old released what many music critics dubbed the worst song ever.
Born in 1997, Rebecca was just a kid when she released her first full-length song. But this was far from her first foray into music. She had auditioned for shows, had attended music summer camp, and had sung publicly for a number of years. After hearing from a classmate who had turned to outside help for her music career, Rebecca's parents paid four thousand dollars to ARK Music Factory, a Los Angeles label, to write a song for their daughter to sing.

The result was decidedly, well, awful. Entitled "Friday," the tune was a whiny, overproduced number about teenage life and the joys of the weekend.

All in all, the piece sounds more like a monologue of the random thoughts going through an especially vacant teenager's head than a real song.

Yet this song was one of the most viral videos of 2011. It was viewed more than 300 million times on YouTube, and many millions more listened to it over other channels.

Why? The song was terrible, but lots of songs are terrible. So what made this one a success?
Take a look at the number of daily searches for "Rebecca Black" on YouTube in March 2011, soon after the song was first released. See if you notice a pattern.

Searches for "Rebecca Black" on YouTube March 2011

Notice the spike once every week? Look closer and you'll see that the spike happens on the same day every week. There was one on March 18, seven days later on March 25, and seven days later, on April 1.
The particular day of the week? You guessed it. Friday—just like the name of Rebecca Black's song.
So while the song was equally bad every day of the week, each Friday it received a strong trigger that contributed to its success.

The book talks about dozens of other triggers and techniques you can use in your products to make them contagious and tries to weave it all into a simple framework the authors call the STEPPS framework:

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

While the book did leave me with a deep understanding of what is contagious and what is not, it also left me wondering if the contagiousness of products is easy to analyze in the hindsight and much more difficult to plan ahead of time? Would the authors be able to look at an idea or a product before it’s inception and say with certainty if it would be contagious?

Every piece of information the book provided was something every marketing person should know about and yet the book did not convince me that adding all six elements of STEPPS consciously in your product guarantees that your product would be contagious. The book is a good read and provides a nice technical framework to describe contagiousness and maybe even some really pointers to help spread your work and make it more contagious but it didn’t change my overall belief that all you can do as an individual is just keep showing up and hope that the magic of contagiousness touches your work every once in a while.

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