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Q&A: Jonah Berger, Wharton marketing guru, on what makes things go viral

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What makes things go viral? Six principles drive us to share, says Jonah Berger, and companies such as Apple have used this knowledge to their advantage.

There's no formula for viral fame. So say new media experts. But maybe there are some fundamental properties that all things viral share. So include those commonalities in your next idea and at least you've got an advantage. After all, publishers and TV network presidents have long known which "types" of stories capture the largest audience. So some notions, like the idea that "if it bleeds it leads," have been used in journalism long before the digital age.

Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business, took advantage of journalistic story tracking to analyze what makes a story popular. In 2009, his team conducted a study of the most-emailed articles over a six-month period in The New York Times. The findings were pretty clear -- and surprising.

Berger later compiled those findings, as well as others from extensive research on building brand popularity, in his recent book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

Across all products and ideas Berger found that six principles drive us to share. These are: social currency (peer popularity of the idea); triggers (daily reminders of the idea or product); emotional resonance (how much the idea or product inspires a deep emotional reaction); observability (high visibility of a product essentially sells itself); usefulness (we want to share useful information); and storytelling (a narrative surrounding the idea or product provides stickiness.)

SmartPlanet asked Berger to unpack findings he found to be particularly powerful.

SmartPlanet: In 2010 you published an analysis of the most-emailed New York Times articles -- and discovered that articles that had utility proved to be very popular. What other significant characteristics of popular stories did you uncover? Or what else remains significant in your mind today?

Jonah Berger: Emotion plays a huge role in which articles make the most emailed list. But not all emotions matter to the same degree. One might think that only positive emotions get shared, but we found that it was more complicated than that. Some negative emotions, like anger or anxiety, increase sharing, while other negative emotions, like sadness, decrease sharing. The key is less about positive and negative and more about arousal -- the degree to which different emotions activate us or fire us up. Articles that make us angry, like Wall Street fat cats getting huge bonuses while employees get fired, drive us to share because the arousal it evokes push us to pass things on.  Some positive emotions also are high arousal. Humor, excitement and even awe -- think scientific discoveries -- activate us and cause us to share.

I understand that a lot of science stories made it to the most-shared NYT list. For instance, a story about deer vision was one of the most-shared stories for The New York Times. This seems somewhat surprising.

Yes, lots of science articles made the list, and it wasn’t because they were the most useful. Instead the most popular stories tended to evoke awe in the reader. Learning about the optics of deer vision or that monkeys have emotion broaden our minds to new possibilities and inspire us to spread the word to others. [His research team had defined "awe" as "an emotion of self-transcendance, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self."]

Could you describe an example of something you call "observability" and why it's important in building awareness of an idea or product?

Yes. The famous Macintosh Apple logo used to face the user when the computer [laptop] was closed.  But Steve Jobs realized that while this helped the user figure out which way to open the laptop, when they did open the laptop, the logo was upside-down for everyone else to see.

And he thought it was more important for others to see it, others who may not own an Apple product yet?

Yes, it was harder for people to recognize what brand others were using.  So he flipped the logo to make it more public. Same with the iPod headphones. It’s easy to tell when someone is listening to an iPhone or iPod because the headphones are white. Simple product development decision but it had a huge impact on these products catching on. At the time, all other companies used black headphones, so it was impossible to tell what brand people were using. But by making their headphones white, Apple made the private public. They made it easy for people to see how many other people were using Apple products, which made them more likely to buy the product themselves. Using logos, colors, and other design elements to make a product more public facilitates product adoption and increases the chance that more people find out about your product or idea.

Another finding from your research is that people prefer to share more good news than bad news. But this doesn’t jibe with the well-known sensational news strategy of: "If it bleeds it leads.” Could you reconcile the two?

There is a difference between what the news media features and what people share. The media wants to get the audience’s attention. And negative things are more attention-getting, so they lead with negative. When people share, however, they care less about getting attention and more about what you think of them. How will sharing this article make me look? No one wants to be a Debbie Downer, always sharing negative content, so they share positive things because it makes them look better.

A study done by Emily Falk at the University of Michigan found that people tended to share stories that had lit up areas of the brain associated with social cognition. Apparently this was interpreted as: We are most likely to share if the story reminds us of other people we know. According to the researchers it was not stories that excited the reader -- but stories that prompted the reader to think that a friend might like the article. This makes sense of course, when it comes to "most shared" -- but presumably the reader has to be first sparked to find the story interesting or useful. Wondering if you could comment on this.

If people don’t find something at least moderately interesting themselves, it’s less likely they’ll share it.  What they find interesting is almost like a first filter on what they are exposed to. In this regard, sharing is like gift giving. Sure we care about the recipient, but it’s hard to get someone something we ourselves don’t like, at least a little.

Do you think people, if given the opportunity, are more likely to share information about themselves, than share information about something or someone else -- even if that information would be useful or loved by another reader? Does sharing stories about ourselves trump all?

People love to talk about themselves.  Some research suggests that at least 40% of face-to-face communication is about the self, and over 80% of social media shares are self-focused.  What people had for lunch, where they are going next week, what they think about some political issue. Even though we often don’t realize it, we can be pretty self-focused when we share.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure