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The Science of Sharing (Word of Mouth and Social Marketing)

by Hank Barnes  |  October 29, 2013  |  Submit a Comment

Is there science behind things that go viral or are shared broadly?  Absolutely, according to Jonah Berger, an associate professor of Marketing at the Wharton School.

Last week, I found an article about Berger’s research in Strategy+Business.  I immediately downloaded his book to my Kindle Fire.

That book,  Contagious: Why Things Catch On , is a must read for anyone doing content, social, or advocacy marketing.   It is one of the best business books I have read lately–and its not a hard read (like many academic tomes).

The book is full of examples of interesting ideas that spread, but also provides a strong reminder for marketers, citing research that only 7 percent of “word of mouth” recommendations (or complaints) happen online.   

Berger then talks about the science of sharing, citing 6 factors that influence how fast and broadly an idea spreads.  His mnemonic for these is STEPPS:

  • Social Currency – People share things that they think will make them look “good” (smart, cool, hip, etc.) in the eyes of their peers.
  • Triggers – People share things that are top of mind, because of associations with other things that people think about all the time. (Note: This is more of a hidden trait, but consciously creating trigger associations can have a big, big impact.)
  • Emotion – People share things that evoke emotions
    (A note on this since I’ve blogged about emotions before: Focus on things that cause high arousal.   This can be positive (awe, excitement, amusement) or negative (anger, anxiety).  But don’t go for the middle.  Just making people feel content or sad won’t drive sharing.)
  • Public – People share things that are visible.
  • Practical Value – People share things they think will help others.
  • Stories –  People use stories as a the medium to communicate ideas in an interesting way (another favorite topic of mine)

He points out that your ideas don’t have to have all of these elements, but the more of them that fit, the more likely it is to be shared broadly.

So, what does all this mean for technology marketers.  Here is what I think:

  • First, and foremost, if you are doing social, content, or advocacy marketing, read this book.  Its is backed by research and has lots of useful examples.
  • Second, for advocacy marketing programs, find ways to measure and motivate your advocates to share ideas through off-line channels as well as online.  Capture the value of the 93% of sharing that happens offline.
  • Third, for content and social marketing efforts, review your content to see how it fits into the STEPPS categories.  When possible, make changes to increase the likelihood of sharing.

I’d love to hear about you own stories that have spread and how you think they align with Berger’s STEPPS.  Feel free to share in the comments.

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Category: go-to-market  

Tags: advocacy-marketing  content-marketing  social-sharing  storytelling  viral-marketing  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes explores the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. Using that customer-centric lens, he advises those responsible for marketing technology products and services, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and startup CEOs on next practices to drive success for their customers and their business. Read Full Bio

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