To meme or not to meme: a Contagious book review

Think of the last five things you shared on social media. What made you decide that those pieces of content were worth sharing? Why does your gran choose to share that cute cat video over every other cute cat video in existence?

This is the question at the heart of Jonah Berger’s Contagious. The book looks at what makes some ideas catch on, while other similar concepts languish in obscurity.

Berger tries to define a usable framework through which to determine whether something is ‘shareable’. He comes up with six principles that he’s observed throughout his years researching media, marketing and social behavior.

And, because everything needs a catchy title, he simplifies them into a handy dandy acronym called STEPPS. This stands for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories.

Each chapter takes an in-depth look at one of these principles and how they can be put into practice. The book provides examples throughout, most of them familiar to practically anyone reading. Those choosing to grow lip worms for the month can turn straight to the ‘Public’ chapter, which looks at how Movember has puts a public face on an issue that gets little visibility otherwise – testicular cancer.

Berger covers everything from advertising campaigns to viral videos. Ever wondered why Rebecca Black became a meme? Berger posits that the big thing her terribad music video had going for it was its use of the word ‘Friday’, which triggered people to share it every time the weekend rolled around. Guilty as charged.

While many of the examples are American-centric, the examples are broad and the explanations clear enough to easily apply it to any product or concept. South African readers can easily see the same principles at work that give Snapple’s bottle-cap facts social currency like the Chappies wrappers of yesteryear.

The book looks at things from a marketing perspective, but Berger makes it clear that the principles can be applied to just about anything social. There’s a genuinely surprising example that looks at why Vietnamese nail bars are so prevalent in the States, but that’s one I’ll leave to the readers to find out for themselves.

Berger’s writing is clear and straightforward, and the STEPPS framework itself is an excellent way to conceptualise social influence. It’s a must-read book for anyone even remotely interested in spreading an idea or framework, whether they’re marketers, business owners or wannabe cult leaders.

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