Contagious: Why Things Catch On

In going through the list of books to explore further for this blog the title Contagious: Why Things Catch On, by Jonah Berger, immediately caught my attention due to the nature of libraries and their need to stay relevant.  Finding a way to market the library and create an interest in something they offer that can “catch on” is important to keep libraries as an integral part of the community.  After further exploring the content of the book I realized that Jonah Berger’s message could easily be applied to libraries and was relevant to one of the primary goals of public libraries, to reach as many users as possible and provide them with needed programs and services.  What can we do as an organization to create a buzz that will keep libraries on the top of people’s minds?  Jonah Berger in this book lays out the ingredients to create this buzz and delves into the behavioral science associated with people, and what marketing tools are effective in making things go viral.  Effective marketing leads to success in any business and it can do the same for libraries.  Jonah Berger has a P.H.D. from Stanford and presently is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  He has written two bestselling books and has published various articles in some prestigious academic journals.  The reasoning behind him writing this book was because of the amount of students that could not get in to his class due to high popularity.  He wanted to offer those students an alternative and transmit the information from the course to them by other means.  

Jonah Berger in this book identifies six principles that are key to making something catch on and uses the acronym STEPPS to identify the six principles which are social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories.  He brings up an interesting fact that in order for something to go viral or be contagious word of mouth is the key driver behind it.  Jonah states “But word of mouth is not just frequent, it’s also important.  The things others tell us, e-mail us, and text us have a significant impact on what we think, read, buy, and do” (Berger, 2013).  Although libraries do a good job of using social media and new technologies to market their services, word of mouth can be even more beneficial since people’s words carry more weight amongst their close peers, co-workers, and family members.  This is especially important in getting the word out to non-users of libraries since they may not follow the library on social media or through the other means libraries use to spread their information.  Once people find out about programs and services that are being offered to the community through their trusted sources, they are more inclined to visit the library and see what the buzz is all about.  This is where Jonah’s principles can play a big part in creating an interest in what libraries are doing in the hopes of getting the programs to catch on in order to get information out to the community.  The following image illustrates John Berger’s Six Steps to Virality.

   Social currency speaks to how people will share information with their peers in order to make themselves look good.  If information is shared that is interesting or has a cool factor to it, the person sharing the information looks smart and it builds some sort of credibility.  In this step it is up to the organization such as the library to create a message that is going to empower the people to share the information to gain social currency and create that buzz that is much desired.  And why shouldn’t the library be one of the places to receive information and services from?  These types of encounters can be used to give a message that will carry a high value of social currency.  The second step in Berger’s principles involves the use of triggers, which help to remind people of the product or message that is being shared and it keeps it on people’s minds.  This in turn helps people to talk about the product or message because it is always on their mind.  One trigger that Jonah used to explain this principle was peanut butter.  Peanut butter serves as a trigger for jelly since we have come to associate those two.  The challenge is to create triggers and use them effectively to keep the product or message circulating.  Berger says, “Top of mind leads to tip of tongue” (Berger, 2013).  The third principle, and probably one of the most important one for the community, is emotion.  It boils down to the fact that people share something when there is a “high arousal” (Berger, 2013) of emotions. Getting the community emotionally charged over the positive things they are doing for them will ultimately get the community sharing all the good things about the services offered.  Just recently at the Oceanside Public Library we had our first set of graduates from our Career Online High School where students can earn their actual high school diploma.  The amount of exposure from students’ success, and all the support they received from the library, created a buzz for the program and we have had many prospective students inquiring about it. Berger goes on to explain that the six STEPPS can be viewed as ingredients to a recipe of success to make things go viral or catch on, but not all are required to guarantee it.  Of course, the more steps that can be covered, the better your chances are.  I see the great value in using people’s words to generate interest for the library among the community.  Like reviews in a participatory model, what people are saying about the library can help to encourage those non-users to reconsider visiting the library and making good use of the wonderful services and programming they offer.  Berger reminds us that we must not forget about our oldest form of communication as it can be effective in reaching a multitude of people when used correctly.

Berger, J. (2013). Contagious: Why things catch on. New York: Simon & Schuster

[KnowledgeAtWharton]. (2013, March 20). Why Things Catch On. [Video File]. Retrieved from