Why do we talk about, imitate, and share some things but not others? In Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Wharton professor Jonah Berger explores the science behind social transmission, including how it is that — even in our hyper-sharable social-media environment — 80 percent of word of mouth still takes place face-to-face.
Jonah Berger — the James G. Campbell Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania — has been named the school’s “Iron Prof” in recognition of his stellar faculty research. But while Berger’s fascinating original research and little-known study results pepper Contagious: Why Things Catch On, his new bestseller, it’s his laser focus on the science behind the influence that word of mouth has on everything — from the cars we buy to the clothes we wear to the names we give our children — that makes the book so widely appealing.
We caught up with Berger shortly after Contagious was published to ask him how meeting organizers can market their events so that people will want to attend — and encourage their peers to join them. He spoke with Convene from a southbound Amtrak train while he was traveling to Washington, D.C., for several television interviews. Requests for him to speak at meetings and conferences have been coming “fast and furious,” he said. It would seem that Contagious has caught on.
What makes word of mouth so influential, and how can meeting planners harness its potential to spread interest in their events?
People trust word of mouth much more than they trust ads. So if you see an ad that says, “This conference is great, you should go check it out,” you are well aware that of course the ad will say the conference is great. The ads are always glowingly positive; the comments they put up from attendees are always going to be positive. Word of mouth is much more nuanced. We know that our friends and colleagues will tell it to us straight. They’ll say if it was good, it was good; if it was bad, it was bad. And they will also tell us, well, maybe it’s good for certain people and bad for others. So word of mouth really provides a nuance and objectivity that is much more trusted.
The second benefit of word of mouth is that it’s much more targeted than traditional advertising. Let’s say there are some medical professionals [who might be interested in] a particular conference. You may put an ad in a magazine, but some of the people that read that magazine might not be interested in the conference. Word of mouth … is like a searchlight that goes through a social network, finding the people most interested in your content, and … they’re going to tell someone else they think will be most interested, not someone else who won’t be interested. And so the value of the customers that are found through referral and other types of word of mouth now are much higher.
How believable are video testimonials from a previous attendee that encourage people to attend a conference?
I think that is more believable than a static ad with a testimonial on it. That said, people know that the conference organizers cherry-picked that contact. They’ve shot the video a few times to make sure it’s good. And so people recognize that it’s selected to be good, it’s selected to persuade them. Whereas, we don’t feel like our friends are trying to persuade us, we feel like our friends are trying to help us. So we are much more likely to listen to what they have to say.
Given social media’s prevalence, is there a way to foster that kind of recommendation online?
Certainly. I mean, many companies and organizations use things like Facebook or Twitter to allow people to submit more objective sorts of comments about their events. One important thing to remember is that most word of mouth is actually offline. It’s not on Facebook, it’s not on Twitter, it’s not on blogs. It’s face-to-face conversation, and 80 percent of word of mouth is face-to-face. Another 10 percent or so [takes place] over the phone, but most word of mouth is in an offline context. It’s employees talking at work, it’s friends getting together after work. And so it’s important to think about social media and how to harness that, but [recognize that] only 7 percent of word of mouth is on social media. So it’s equally important to think about offline as well.
What is much more important is to turn existing customers or existing conference-goers into advocates. How can you make sure that if someone goes to a conference that you put on, they are more likely to tell five people [about it] than just two? They are most likely to post about it rather than just talk about it offline. Potentially how can you create the batting average or the diffusion of your message?
In your book, you talk about the importance of triggers -stimuli that prompt people to think about related things. In terms of registering for a conference, what’s the difference between a trigger and a registration-reminder email or marketing piece?
The best idea of a trigger is something that is in the environment that is not the thing itself that reminds you to think about the conference. So you can imagine sometimes people often send swag or giveaways that sit on people’s desks that might trigger them to think about the conference. Another thing I think that is really key here is to make the private public. I talk a lot about it in the book — about if you don’t know what others are doing, it’s hard to imitate it.
In this case, if you don’t know if your peers are going, it’s going to make you much less likely to go as well. And so one key factor is, if people know someone is going, how can you make that more publicly visible? How can you make it easier for people to see that their friends, their colleagues have decided to attend, which will make them think it’s more worthwhile to attend as well? And it’s particularly important, right, because people also enjoy going to conferences with their friends, with people they know. So it’s not just suggesting the conference is better because I know people that are going, but I am actually going to enjoy it more because more of my friends are there.
That points to the importance of making public the list of people who have already registered.
That is one thing, right, but that requires individuals going to look for it. The different question is, how can you give an attendee something that they’ll carry somewhere, post on their Facebook page so that other people can see it? I call that in the book “behavior residue,” which is something that sticks around after the action has taken place. So I may have registered for this conference; now, how can I, as a conference organizer, encourage someone to put something on their desk, give them something to wear, give them something to post on their Facebook page so that other people can see that lots of their friends are doing it?
For example, recently [with] the court case regarding gay marriage … a whole bunch of people put [the red equality symbol] on their Facebook pages. Did you notice that? What that does is rather than there being a website somewhere — where you have to go look for it and figure out if your friends support this cause — there is already a public signal. So you know right away that they support it.
You also talk about harnessing the power of emotion in your book. How can meeting organizers put the power of awe to work at a conference?
One thing I talk about in the book with [regard to] emotion is to focus on the feeling. A lot of times we think about the function — what are the benefits of going in this particular conference, what are the features, how many speakers