Context Book Report: Contagious

For our book report, I decided to read Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger. Before choosing, I had gotten a hold of few titles that sounded interesting and read a few pages of each to see which was most successful at getting my attention. Berger’s writing stuck out to me, which seemed like a good sign considering the topic. Furthermore, one the of the other titles I was considering, Made to Stick, was actually referred to few times in Contagious. I found Berger’s explanations more direct

Contagious ultimately breaks down six principles that drive things to catch on, whether this is selling a product or go having a video viral. This includes social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value and stories (STEPPS). The more principles, or STEPPS something utilizes, the greater chance it has at being shared.

Social Currency

People’s desire to share things that make them look good, cool, or in the know. Libraries should continue to follow trends in technology to meet their patrons on similar footing. Offering ebooks and easy to use apps like Hoopla give patrons a taste of 21st century libraries. Collection Bashing & Trashing talks about “paying attention to user interests” and working beyond the collection to serve customers in the best way possible.


When someone sees, hears, smells, or tastes something, does it make them think of something else? For instance, if a trigger is more likely something comes up in day to day life, the more people will remember it frewuently. This is why Mars bars sold more candy during the NASA Pathfinder mission to Mars, and one fo the reasons why Rebecca Black’s Friday probably gets stuck in your head once a week and has 112 million views.

When people care about something, they are more likely to share it. People typically don’t talk about “ok” experiences, but the ones that make them very happy or sad an/or angry. The stronger the emotion, the more likely they are to share, such as excitement and amusement, and anger and anxiety. People also share things that are awe-inspiring or surprising, like the now popular youtube series, Will it Blend.


People are more likely to do what other people are doing. The psychology of imitation, trusting the recommendation of others, from personal friends to reading reviews on yelp. Public opinion is also very important, as in the case of Lesson’s From Seattle’s Failed Bid to Rebrand its Public Library. After a survey about the library’s rebrand, a well-regarded newspaper in Seattle, wrote that SPL was “about to blow a bunch of cash on a lot of cosmetic nonsense..” After this, a lot of attention was drawn to the rebrand which followed a public outcry, despite the fact that the money for these efforts came from an outside grant.

Practical Value

Another part of practical value is highlighting an incredible value. Berger points out that good deals, or sale prices, sell more than compared to the regular price being just as low to start with. For instance, customers are more likely to by a $20 t-shirt if it’s marked down to $12, than if the same shirt was priced at $12 to begin with. Furthermore, people use these reference points in relation to frequency. If a store constantly has an “amazing” 70% off sale, people become desensitized and it no longer is amazing.

Libraries can learn from this by marketing themselves more intelligently. When customers see the same programs and materials without a lot of change, they grow to expect that. Alternatively, if a library makes a large push that all of it events are free, this can potentially cheapen the feel of libraries since people will grow accustomed to it.


Schmidt talks about “unparalleled user experience” to create and connect with users in Services before content. By exceeding patrons expectations, people are more likely to tell their story/interaction with others. San Jose Public Library’s (SJPL) marketing team has been asking staff for their own stories, such as a rewarding moment or even interesting interaction, with the goal of sharing these stories to connect with customers.

Overall, the book was very informative and enjoyable. One of my observations would be that this book explains why certain things catch on, it is not a “how to” make things catch on.  While applying more than one of these principles to something increases its chances of being shared, it is not a foolproof method.

2 thoughts on “Context Book Report: Contagious

  1. Thanks for giving a synopsis of this fascinating topic. What comes to mind is when libraries (or companies, government programs, etc.) try to use viral social media tactics or memes in a cringe-inducingingly obvious way. Like “this is us trying to be cool” but obviously not pulling it off. I wonder how libraries can be more authentic in their messaging and social media use while not straying into territory where it’s an obvious tactic for marketing.

  2. Hi Jessica,
    Great post! Why things catch on is definitely of intriguing and relevant to libraries! Many of us wonder how we can get people more interested in libraries and the services that are offered. It is useful to understand the why, but I do wish someone would make a handbook that included some of the how. It also wouldn’t be foolproof, but I think it would be helpful. I would love to see some examples of how libraries could utilize triggers to increase program attendance or circulation.


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