Book Review: “Contagious: Why Things Catch On”

If you read one book on marketing this year, make it Jonah Berger’s “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.” Published in 2013, this best-selling book is full of data-backed marketing advice that will be relevant for years.

Contagious Jonah Berger for blog

Author Jonah Berger is an associate professor of marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, whose articles have been featured in many top-tier publications. His insatiable curiosity behind what makes advertising and marketing work is evident in this book and will keep you enthralled as well.

What Makes Online Content, Products and More Go Viral?

Why do some things catch on but others fail to gain any momentum or public response? Berger sought to find the answers to this question and then mapped out the reasons why in six principles or “STEPPS”:

  1. Social Currency
  2. Triggers
  3. Emotion
  4. Public
  5. Practical Value
  6. Stories

Chart of STEPPS

Each chapter of his book includes research and examples of how companies, organizations and individuals have applied the principles to help their products or ideas catch on.

Social Currency

This first principle is about making people feel good, making them feel valued–making them feel like an insider. The best blogs, the best products, the best stores and restaurants make their customers feel like they’re getting something special. Berger says, “Give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting your products and ideas along the way.” For example, people who drink Snapple love to share the little fun facts that are under each bottle cap. It can be as simple as that or more complex.


If your message is falling flat, maybe it’s not the message itself but a lack of a trigger. Rather than just focusing on whether your message is “catchy” enough, consider whether the message will be triggered by the everyday environment of your target audience. One story Berger shared was about the candy bar Kit Kat looking for a new way to boost sales and visibility. Pretty much everyone knows their catchy tune, “Give me a break, give me a break. Break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar.” But sales had flattened out.  The Kit Kat team created a campaign that paired Kit Kat bars and coffee, describing the chocolate wafer bars as “a break’s best friend.”

By the end of the year, Berger cites, the brand had an eight percent lift in sales. Why did it work? Because so many people drink coffee regularly throughout the day that the coffee break was a frequent trigger which people could now associate with Kit Kat.

Go to the Book for More STEPPS

So now you have an idea of what’s included in the book. I don’t want to describe all six principles and give you a brief, more dry version of each. The stories Berger includes make this book well worth reading–more than once even.

A Compelling Read

Every business, every organization relies on word-of-mouth marketing in some way. Berger has done all the research for you and packaged the data in what is essentially a fun read as well as an informative one. He not only tells you why things work, but also why others don’t.

The stories he shares as examples within each one of the STEPPS are mostly built around products and services you’ve heard of, and even in the ones you haven’t heard of before, you’ll find yourself soaking them in and discovering ideas for your own products and services while you read.

Storytelling is such an overused word today, but Berger does a wonderful job of weaving the stories among the data so that you close this book wanting to go back and read it again.




Don’t Hate Your Newsletter, Fix Your Strategy

5 Tips for Better Open Rates and Click-Throughs

How does a 40 to 50 percent open rate sound to you?

Pretty good, I’m guessing. With the right strategy, you only have to invest about two to four hours a month for this type of satisfying return.

Liam Dempsey of LBDesign
Liam Dempsey of LBDesign

Liam Dempsey, owner of LBDesign (and a friend of mine), recently revealed his secrets to success in a Google+ Hangout and at a marketing meetup in Chester County. Let me share with you some of his results:

  • Open rate of 40 to 50% (average is 20.3% per MailChimp)
  • Click-through rate (CTR) of 3.5 to 11.5% (average is 2.9% per MailChimp)
  • Increased client interaction—compliments, referrals, etc.
  • Enabled connections between clients who otherwise wouldn’t have been introduced
  • Discovered and entered into a relationship with a valuable new business partner
  • Attained new clients and new business with current clients
  • Grew distribution list by 22% in 9 months
  • Received only three unsubscribe requests

See Liam explain his own methods and strategy behind his successful e-newsletter in this Google+ Hangout, and I will summarize some tips for you below:

Tips for an e-Newsletter Readers Can’t Resist

Know that not everyone will be able to take the same exact steps as Liam to replicate his success, but you should be able to walk away with ideas that will vastly improve your e-newsletters and other email campaigns.

Tip #1 – Craft a Strategy that is Reader Focused.

A snapshot of the August newsletter
A snapshot of the August newsletter

In this era of online sharing, Liam came up with a newsletter that is all about sharing and is interesting at the same time. Each month, his newsletter includes:

  • 2 client-focused articles that explain recent work accomplished and give background on each client
  • 1 “Introducing Our Friends” article
  • 3 links to articles of interest found online, with brief summaries for each.

Tip #2 – Be Thoughtful about Your List.

LBDesign is a small business, so Liam had a very manageable list of less than 1,000 contacts to begin with. He then culled that to a little more than 100 people who he thought would want to receive his newsletter.

So, at this point, you might be saying, “Well, I can’t do that, I have 5,000 (or more) people on my list.” Well, maybe you shouldn’t have that many people on one list.

The key to Liam’s success in business and in his newsletter is the relationships he builds. Are you building relationships with your customers or are you just looking for subscriber numbers? If the latter is true, that’s much like focusing only on getting “likes” for your Facebook page. Sure, you get short-term satisfaction and may look good on the surface, but is anyone really engaging? Are you—or your audience—getting any value from your effort?

Everyone can put more thought into their email lists and if you have thousands of contacts, that’s what segmentation is for.

Tip #3 – Be Brief.

Don’t use 500 words if 50 will do. Liam keeps his newsletter to three articles and none of them have more than 100 words. Most use between 50 and 75. Not only is this reader-focused but it saves you time as well.

Tip #4 – Keep It Predictable.

Not the stories, but the timing and the newsletter overall. Set yourself up for success from the beginning—do not overcommit. If you’re starting a newsletter, send it out once a month on the same day at the same time. This repeatable pattern gives you a deadline and gives your reader time to look forward to your next email.

Tip #5 – Use a Service that Does Much of the Work for You.

Google “email marketing services” and a bunch of companies come up—your web host may provide this service as well. LBDesign uses MailChimp, which is free if you have less than 2,000 contacts and send less than 12,000 emails per month. I recommend you start there and then compare others to their services, especially if you can use the free version.

For more tips and information, check out Liam’s SlideShare presentation from his night at the Chester County Marketing Group event.

The Bright Side of Marketing

Welcome to my new blog–The Bright Side of Marketing. Here, you’ll find tips and advice on marketing, copywriting, brand strategy and more.

We’ll take a look at what is working and what is not in current advertising, marketing and social media campaigns, like I did in my In the Crowds blog, but we’ll also focus more on helping business owners and marketers solve their day-to-day marketing challenges.

If you have topics you want to hear about or questions you’d like answered, let me know and I’ll try and cover them here.