Reflections on Contagious: Why Things Catch On

I was interested to read Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger. It’s the sort of book that I wouldn’t mind going back and reading a second time someday, as I thought a number of points were quite thoughtful. The book discusses the idea of why certain concepts and products spread widely while others do not. This is examined principally through the lens of a business and marketing researcher. However, there are a number of insights that are relevant to the exciting opportunities library institutions have to operate in our changing world. I note that since libraries are not businesses, not all the concepts are a good fit – but some of them can!

Author Jonah Berger provides a preview of the questions his book addresses.

In particular, assessing how libraries can communicate their value to the broader community is an essential project that this book can assist with. In a fascinating course with Professor Patrick Sweeney, we looked last term at how libraries advocate politically for their funding and continued growth. A major takeaway was that libraries can’t take for granted the community valuing them. There is always a competition for limited funds, and libraries must advocate for their share. Simple ideas such as the importance of emotion and triggers in communication from this book could be of use in that effort.

Michael Casey and Laura Savastinuk’s Library 2.0 is an excellent treatise on the “what” and “how” of participatory libraries. The observations on libraries as a space of “constant change” (p. 22) are well-taken, as is the advice that “the willingness to change and be open to new ideas will directly impact the success of your library” (p. 36). But the need to effectively and constantly communicate these new offerings to the community is essential if participatory libraries are actually going to be used. In The Heart of Librarianship, Michael Stephens mentions “radical community engagement” (p. 10) as a way to look at the library’s relationship with the community it serves. That strikes me as a deeper connection than the marketing-style communication discussed in Contagious, but the tools from Contagious could be useful in starting that radical engagement.

Libraries seek to engage the community they serve.

First, I note the idea of the interaction of public and private consumption and engagement. Libraries are, and ought to be, strong guardians of personal privacy. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t use social engagement to generate excitement and awareness around their activities. Berger observes that “if people can’t see what others are choosing and doing, they can’t imitate them.” He goes on to note that “solving this requires making the public private” (p. 139-140). His concept here is that of increasing behavioral residue – an elaborate term for things that remind others of the activities we’ve been engaging in. Libraries can use this idea by providing physical artifacts of their service that circulate around the community and build awareness of the services provided.

Another quite simple concept that makes intuitive sense for use in the library space is practical value: “useful things are important” (p. 158). The author walks through diminished sensitivity, whereby winning $20 instead of $10 is more notable to us than winning $1,020 instead of $1,010 is, although the actual difference is the same. This works in favor of what libraries provide, but can remind us that trying to highlight all services may cause an overload that doesn’t allow the best to shine through. The practical value will stand out if the most surprising and valuable services offered are highlighted (e.g. how much is saved by checking out e-books as compared in financial terms to purchasing on a Kindle).

Berger recommends creating “behavioral residue.”

Another great idea for communicating the value of libraries comes in the natural idea of the importance of stories in creating contagious content. It’s not enough to create a memorable story though. In order to use stories effectively one must “make sure the information you want people to remember and transmit is critical to the narrative” (p. 201). Michael Stephens touches on this concept of how stories are important to libraries’ core mission, and it’s a natural idea to extend storytelling to the mission of sharing the library’s importance with the world.

In sum, Berger’s Contagious is a worthwhile read as a summary of consumer communication techniques. Libraries don’t have consumers, we have users and patrons. There is an important difference, and while some have advocated for viewing libraries in way more akin to a business, I am resistant to that concept. Our uniqueness is a strength. That said, the need to communicate and build awareness is something shared by libraries and for-profit businesses. Using the concepts in this book is appropriate in developing that effort.

One thought on “Reflections on Contagious: Why Things Catch On

  1. Chuck Koontz says:

    Hi @pfcmaguire, thanks for this thoughtful review. I read Contagious for Info Communities and found it extremely thought provoking, so it’s nice to be reminded of that read.

    In your last paragraph, you point out that there is a difference between consumers and users/patrons. I agree that libraries don’t offer “consumables” in the way that many businesses do. Beyond that, could you expand on that difference, and how you see that difference playing out in our efforts toward advocacy and maintaining or expanding our user base?

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