Courtney Eckerle

4 Tips from Jonah Berger on Taking Content Marketing Viral

February 10th, 2015

We all see things go viral on the Web or certain products that suddenly take off. It begs the question: Why do some things get talked about more than others?

“And how by understanding that science can companies and organizations and individuals get their stuff to catch on?” said Jonah Berger, Associate Marketing Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, during our phone interview.

ContagiousJonah, who will be a keynote speaker at Email Summit 2015, has studied how products are used and why behaviors catch on. His book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller on the topic.

Companies can get stuck in an “advertising” mindset, he said, and see that as the only way to communicate with consumers.

“While advertising is useful for some things, it’s not as effective as word-of-mouth for some other things. And so understanding how to both effectively use traditional advertising and word-of-mouth and blend those two approaches becomes really important,” he said.

Jonah provided four tips on how to best integrate the two and how to make your content go “viral.”


Tip #1. Keep the focus on customer

Marketers have a tendency to focus too much on the product or service, rather than the customer or user, Jonah pointed out.

It’s easy to speak in a language the customer can’t easily understand when you spend day after day up close to what you’re offering — “You know a lot about your product, your service, your idea,” he said.

Ask yourself a few questions to make sure that you’ve pictured the customer’s journey:

  • Why are they using this?
  • What’s in it for them?
  • How can we be more successful by finding our messages in customer language?

The value of content done well, he said, is that “it’s not about you … the best content doesn’t yell your brand; it whispers it.”

While recently working on a project with 3M, Jonah said he helped them create content that focused on how the product could be used.

“So focus is more on the user, or the thing that happens, or the way it improves the world or people’s lives, rather than the product itself,” he said.


Tip #2. Create a viral environment  

Creating a viral environment around your content is not something you can throw money at — it’s a creative process, with an unlimited amount of approaches.

Getting into the creative mindset, however, starts by understanding what you’re offering — product, service or idea — and how the end user will interact with it.

“Really think about why people share. Okay, you’ve got a great product, or you have a great service. What would make someone want to talk about it? What are those key motivations that drive a conversation? And, how can we harness them?” Jonah said.

While a large aspect of this is creativity and art, there is quite a bit of science too, he added.

“There are some key underlying principles that drive what people talk about or share, why people share some things rather than others,” he said.

In his experience looking at “thousands of pieces of content, tens of thousands of brands and millions of purchases, again and again, we see the same six factors that I talk about in Contagious, driving people to talk and share,” he said.

Those six factors, acronym STEPPS, are:

  • Social Currency: People wanting to talk about things that will present themselves positively to their audience.
  • Triggers: This focuses on how people talk about things that are “top of mind, tip of tongue.”
  • Ease for Emotion: This is simple — caring equals sharing. The more someone empathizes with a piece of content or information, the more likely they are to pass it along.
  • Public: Monkey see, monkey do. When we can see other people doing something, we are more likely to imitate it.
  • Practical Value: If information is helpful, or could potentially be helpful to others, we’re more likely to pass it along.
  • Stories: A strong narrative can help people connect and want to read or learn more.

“I don’t think you need all six; that’s definitely not the case — that you have to have all of them to be successful. But doing one at least really well increases the chance that people are going to pass something on,” Jonah said.

How you apply one, or all six of those is important to understanding what is meant for your end user and how to apply those principles in the content, he added. That application also part of being authentic to who the brand is.

“People can tell if it’s not fitting with what they think of the brand. And so being sure you’re on message in terms of communicating who you are, but also being consistent with that brand identity, is very important,” he said.


Tip #3. Build word-of-mouth into every aspect of your campaign, product and company

“It’s fun to use the word viral, but you know, the goals are not really ten million views for a piece of content. The goal is 10% to 20% new customers,” Jonah said.

A lot of the time people talk so much about a homerun piece of content that gets a hundred million views that they ignore all of the failures, he added.

“To me it’s less important to have one big success and have that mindset built into everything you do,” he said, adding, from “how you design the product, how you design the content you send out, how you design the website, the customer service experience. All of those things are opportunities to get people to talk and share.”

Jonah gave the example of Zappos, which has famously generated a lot of positive word-of-mouth over its customer service.

“When they started the company, they said we’re not going to spend money on advertising. We’re going to use customer service as our vehicle to drive awareness, and our vehicle to drive new users. And they spent more money on it, they spent the money that they would have put into advertising into customer service, and into free shipping both ways,” he said.

At the end of the day, that strategy differentiated Zappos from competition and generated more than enough word-of-mouth to help the company catch on.

“I think, to me, it’s less about saying, ‘OK, how do we get this piece of content to go viral?’ and more about thinking of how we can use word-of-mouth and sort of build that into everything that we do,” he said.


Tip #4. Get people excited to receive content

When it comes to a channel like email marketing, for example, Jonah said one problem he sees is the conception that it is “a new generation of direct marketing.”

“We just assume that if we send people enough pieces of mail, in this case we just send people enough emails, that then enough of them will get opened, and at the end of the day, we’ll have a high enough rate that it’ll be worth continuing to do,” he said.

That is more interruption-based form of marketing rather than a content-style form of marketing, where we want to offer people something useful.

You have to look at elements that can make content, email or otherwise, interesting and something people are waiting for and excited to get.

“How can we make this something where every time people are waiting to get the next installment of your newsletter, of the note from you? What are you offering them, not what are you asking from them,” he said.

It’s about building a social experience into every interaction and thinking about how you can keep people expecting quality interactions and content.

“To me, it’s really about enduring values, not about how we trick people to get their attention,” he said.


You can follow Courtney Eckerle, Manager of Editorial Content, MarketingSherpa on Twitter at @CourtneyEckerle.


You might also like

Red Bull Media House’s Advice for Successful Content Marketing

How to Craft a Viral Campaign in 3 Steps

Content Marketing: Come in with an idea, leave with a blog post

Content Marketing: How MarketingExperiments increased blog traffic by 232%

Content Marketing: How Tim Ferriss turned his blog into a successful email program

Courtney Eckerle

About Courtney Eckerle

With a focus on aspirational, customer-first marketing, Courtney’s goal has been to produce clear, interesting and actionable external content for MarketingSherpa readers. This has included writing over 300 case studies, moderating live event interviews, and producing video content. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, Mass Communications and Film Studies from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., and was a correspondent for USA Today College prior to joining MECLABS Institute.

Categories: Inbound Marketing Tags: , , , ,

  1. February 10th, 2015 at 10:29 | #1

    “…the best content doesn’t yell your brand; it whispers it.” – Brilliant! Thank you, Courtney and Jonah!

  2. February 10th, 2015 at 15:54 | #2

    “….understanding how to both effectively use traditional advertising and word-of-mouth and blend those two approaches becomes really important.”

    Couldn’t agree more! These two have different effects to people, and these is why we need to know when and how to effectively use both of them. They are a perfect tandem! Excellent post! Thanks for sharing.

  3. March 9th, 2015 at 17:51 | #3

    These seem like great content marketing tips. I really liked tip #4 about getting people excited to receive content. It seems like the best way to make your content marketing go viral for your business is if your target market wants to see your content. If they don’t then they won’t want to see what you’re trying to advertise. If you make your content look interesting and desirable to your audience, then they would be more likely to be receptive to your message and possibly buy your product or service.

  4. May 28th, 2015 at 17:57 | #4

    Thanks for sharing these viral marketing tips. I think that focusing on the customer is a great start to creating viral content online. Sellers need to be sure that they have good products, but the way they treat customers is just as important as the product itself. It’s nice to see someone who highlights and focuses on that aspect of viral marketing.

We no longer accept comments on the MarketingSherpa blog, but we'd love to hear what you've learned about customer-first marketing. Send us a Letter to the Editor to share your story.