Jonah Berger is a Wharton Professor and bestselling author of Invisible Influence and Contagious. He recently shared with me some of the powerful insights he has gained after spending more than 15 years of studying social influence and its impact on how products and ideas catch on.
As a result of all his work, Berger has gained a deep understanding of how influence works and what it takes to make your message heard. Frankly, that’s a lesson nobody can afford to pass up.
How important is actual word of mouth these days? Do people really influence each other by talking to each other, or are more people influenced by what they see on their social media app or newsfeed?
We have this intuition that most word of mouth in on social media. And social media is certainly an important word of mouth channel. But if you actually look at the data, only about 7% of word of mouth is actually online. Most is still face to face. These normal everyday interactions have a big impact on our behavior.
If you follow the STEPPS model you talk about in your book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” can you really make something go viral? Or is there still something intangible about what makes one thing wildly popular, and another thing that may seem just as important fade away?
I’ve helped lots of companies and organizations apply the STEPPS model to increase shares. We’ve boosted clicks by over 60% in some cases and shares by over 150% in others. By understanding why people share in the first place we can craft contagious content and help our messages and ideas travel further.
It seems like social media is driving social influence a lot these days, and people are constantly being bombarded with advertising and marketing, so it’s harder to cut through the noise and gain people’s attention. On the other hand, people have never been so connected as they are now. Does this kind of market make it harder or easier for things to go viral? Where do you see things going in the future?
It’s certainly become harder to get people’s attention. People know ads are trying to sell them something so they’re less likely to listen. Even social media has become less effective; people don’t read even 10% of what comes through their feed, there just isn’t enough time. But all this has actually increased the power of traditional face-to-face word of mouth. In everyday conversations there’s no distraction, just two people talking. So the influence and impact is much higher.
Who benefits the most from your research? Does your book make it easier for advertising and PR people to tap into our psychology and makes us sit up and pay attention? Or is it meant more to help the average consumer be more aware of how we relate to world around us?
Contagious was meant to help anyone be more effective in getting their message out there. Whether you’re a non-profit with no marketing budget or a small business owner with a great new service, knowing how to generate word of mouth will help you make your product, service or idea succeed. And even if you don’t have anything you want to catch on, understanding how word of mouth works will help you better navigate the world around you.
In your book, “Invisible Influence” you discuss how we may believe that we are making decisions on our own, but really there are subtle influences that affect how we perceive the world. How do you account for individuality? What about people who seem to be truly ground-breaking and original — or are they also being influenced?
Being different from someone else isn’t the same as not being influenced. Even when avoiding what others are doing, but we’re still being affected by them. There are great quote that says that “even noncomformists don’t drink coffee.” It makes a nice point. Even people we think of as not conforming to the mainstream are often just conforming to a different norm or group.
Are some people more receptive to being influenced? Should we try and shirk social influence or harness it?
It’s interesting to consider why we believe being influenced is a bad thing. Imagine you had to pick a dry cleaner or a mechanic without being able to ask anyone else. It’d be a lot of work. Others opinions provide a useful shortcut that make decisions faster and easier.
Sure, influence can be bad as well sometimes, but not always. The more we understand influence, the more we can harness its power.