Strategic Communications: Developing Contagious Content

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By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

(Owen Eagan, author of “So What?: Measuring and Assessing Strategic Communications in Land Use Politics”, continues to explore issues of communication in The Saint Report) 

viralWe know that most new ideas, products and services spread predictably along a diffusion curve (see How to Reach Your Tipping Point).  However, there are ways to accelerate this process not only through networks but through content as well.

When our company was retained to secure passage of the $5 billion Honolulu light rail project, one of our strategic partners, Bernard Uy of Wall-to-Wall Studios, developed a series of viral videos to help get our message out.  All of the videos emphasized our message of reducing traffic and improving people’s quality of life in a lighthearted way.  But what made people want to share them and why were they so successful?

Researchers at Harvard have found that sharing information about ourselves such as our thoughts and experiences is intrinsically rewarding.  That is, this type of self-disclosure activates the rewards and pleasure system of the brain and increases the production of a chemical called dopamine which is also heightened by sex, food and exercise.

But what types of things are people most likely to share?  Research suggests that people share things that enhance their self-concept.  Jonah Berger, a business school professor at The Wharton School, describes this principle as social currency and simply defines it as things that make us look good.

In addition, Berger has extensively studied the social transmission of ideas and identified six principles behind the spread of viral content in his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On.  Moreover, he created an acronym called STEPPS to represent these principles.  They are social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value and stories.

In regard to social currency, Berger recommends that companies should find a way to make people look good while promoting their ideas, products or services along the way.  He suggests that this can be achieved in three ways.  The first way is to find the inner remarkability of an idea, product or service; that is, something unusual or extraordinary.  As an example, Berger uses the Blendtec “Will It Blend?” series of videos in which various types of items such as an iPhone are blended to demonstrate its power.

The second way to build social currency is to leverage game mechanics.  Frequent flier programs are good examples of game mechanics because they reward us while motivating us to achieve a certain level of prestige compared to others.  And the third way is to make people feel like insiders.  The website Rue La La, which offered discount high-end designer goods, became extremely successful by offering “flash sales” to its members.  The catch was that access to the site was by invitation only and you had to be invited by an existing member.

The next principle of contagiousness involves triggers.  This simply means that things that remind us of other things can affect behavior.  For instance, Berger and other researchers found that a polling location could influence how people vote.  Specifically, people who voted in a school were more inclined to vote for an increase in the sales tax to support funding for public schools.  On the commercial front, the success of Hershey’s “Kit Kat and Coffee” advertising campaign was partially due to linking the candy bar with coffee, a frequent stimulus in the environment.

Further, the use of emotion certainly inspires sharing.  This is especially true for emotions that spark physiological arousal.  This occurs when what we experience manifests itself in our readiness for action.  This can be from both positive and negative emotions with high arousal values.  Positive high arousal values include awe, excitement and amusement, while negative high arousal values include anger and anxiety.  One of the best examples of an awe-inspiring video that went viral was Susan Boyle’s appearance on Britain’s Got Talent.

The principle of public refers to making our ideas, products or services easy to observe.  This helps increase awareness and facilitates imitation through social proof.  As we discussed earlier (The Influence of Social Proof), social proof is the concept used to describe instances when people look to others for social cues on appropriate behavior.  Each November, the Movember Foundation, which is dedicated to improving men’s health, encourages its male donors to grow moustaches to raise awareness and money for the organization.  As a result, much of their success is attributed to their ability to make the private public.

When it comes to practical value, we need to be able to highlight the incredible value of an idea, product or service.  People genuinely enjoy helping others by sharing information that saves them time and money, improves their quality of life and provides them with useful advice.  That’s why a video about a farmer shucking corn garnered millions of views.  But practical value also involves knowing how people perceive and process information.

To illustrate, prospect theory, also known as loss aversion theory, can influence people’s choices in a variety of ways.  The central premise of this theory is that people have a greater aversion to losses than they have a penchant for gains.  But the theory also argues that people tend to evaluate things from a comparison standard or reference point.

This reference point can have a significant influence on purchase decisions.  In fact, people are more influenced by the size of a discount than they are by the price of an item.  That is, if people see two identical items for the same price, they are more likely to buy the item that has a greater discount.  Research has even found that marking items as on sale without a comparative price has an influence on purchasing behavior.

Finally, we need to develop a story around our idea, product or service.  Ideally, this narrative is not about your product but is one in which your product is imbedded.  Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” included an ad called “Evolution” which showed what a model looked like before all the makeup and use of Photoshop.  This ad sparked numerous conversations about unrealistic beauty and about Dove in the process.

The Dove ad is instructive for another reason, too.  When developing your narrative, you need to be sure that the story is relevant to whatever it is you’re trying to promote.  That is, you need to create valuable virality that translates into results you can measure.  After all, you want to be part of the conversation that ensues.

And this is why the Honolulu light rail campaign’s videos were contagious.  Not only were they extremely entertaining, they were developed around a narrative that was relevant to people’s lives and offered practical value.  Who wouldn’t want to share that?

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email