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Turn E-Commerce Customers Into Advocates: A Chat with Jonah Berger

We’ve all seen those marketing campaigns or products that blow up overnight, propelled by fans or customers who eagerly spread the word amongst friends, family, and their social networks. Plenty of e-commerce marketers drool with envy at this scenario.

Who wouldn’t want their hard work to pay off so stunningly? Or so effortlessly?

Jonah Berger
Courtesy: JonahBerger.com

To give our readers some insight into how it’s done, we spoke with Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-selling author, renowned public speaker, and expert on social influence and consumer behavior.

Jonah spilled the beans on the science that drives word of mouth success, the difference between viral and contagious, and how e-commerce marketers can capture the magic. Here’s a transcript of our interview, edited for brevity and clarity. 

Rob DePersia: Could you briefly sum up your experience and the inspiration for your books on social influence?

Jonah Berger: I spent the last 15 years studying why things catch on. We looked at thousands of pieces of online content, tens of thousands of brands, and millions of purchases. And, again and again, we found that it wasn’t random, it wasn’t luck, and it wasn’t chance. There’s really a science behind why things become popular, why things catch fire, and why online content goes viral or products succeed.

As an academic, though, it’s fun to write academic papers, but as I looked around there were really no popular books that talked about this, and how companies and organizations could harness that science to get their own stuff to catch on.

There’s really a science behind why things become popular, why things catch fire, and why online content goes viral or products succeed.

And so that’s why I wrote Contagious and, more recently, that’s why I wrote Invisible Influence.

RD: Let’s talk about that first book, Contagious. What does it mean to you for a product, idea, or a marketing campaign to become contagious?

JB: You know, I used the word “contagious,” specifically, because we often think about viral, right? Viral is obviously a hot term that’s thrown around nowadays: Online content goes viral if it has millions and millions of views. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that a lot of people shared it. Right?

When we think about things going viral and we think about word of mouth, we think about it being spread from person to person almost like a virus. But a lot of the stuff today that goes viral isn’t necessarily that. It’s a company that pays, just like with traditional media, for their content to appear in front of a bunch of eyeballs.

It’s much more interesting to think about what makes something contagious, what makes someone share something. That’s really valuable for companies and organizations because rather than having to spend marketing dollars to put something in front of people, well, they get their customers to become advocates and share their stuff for free.

RD: That’s a pretty sharp distinction between being contagious or being viral. In the book, you covered the six principles of contagiousness. What are they? 

JB: In the book, I talk about the framework called the STEPPS framework. We found that these six factors drive word of mouth and drive products and ideas and behaviors to catch on.

STEPPS is an acronym that stands for social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and story. Each of those is something we found drives word of mouth across a variety of different contexts and leads things to catch on. It’s not just about B2C or B2B. It’s really about the psychology of why people talk and share.

RD: How do the principles of contagiousness apply to e-commerce retail in particular?

JB: In an e-commerce scenario, one key question is how do you get new people visiting your site, new people checking out your business?

Obviously, if you’re a big company, you know, like Gap or Nike, you’re a well-known brand, you have high awareness already, people are gonna think about you. But what if you’re a small brand? How do you drive traffic to your site? Or even if you’re a big brand how do you make sure people see e-commerce as a channel to think about you?

And so one principle that’s really important is what I call a trigger. A trigger is an environmental reminder or a cue that encourages us to think about something that’s not necessarily there in front us. So if I say, “peanut butter and …,” for example, what word might come to mind?

Jelly, right? You can almost think of peanut butter as a little advertisement for jelly, right? Almost like jelly should pay peanut butter a kickback or a referral fee, of sorts.

What’s the thing in the environment that’s gonna remind people of our brand, our website, our products, even if we haven’t marketed to them recently?

And so one question is how can we get people to think about us even if our product or service isn’t there at the moment?

If you actually look at the data, about 80% of a purchase is consideration. It’s not just people liking a brand, it’s more people thinking about it in the first place. And so from a purchase standpoint, the question is well, what’s our peanut butter? What’s the thing in the environment that’s gonna remind people of our brand, our website, our products, even if we haven’t marketed to them recently?

To activate that word of mouth we have to understand the triggers that are really important to getting people to talk and share.

RD: What metrics and channels would you say are most important for retail marketers looking to put some sort of measurement around the principle of contagiousness?

JB: Metrics are very, very important, and there’s a lot of talk right now about whether social media is effective. I would say that word of mouth and social media are not the same thing. Social media is one of the channels to which word of mouth flows, but only about 10% of word of mouth is online.

Most is offline or face-to-face. But, if we are thinking about online, the question is what are the right metrics for us to measure whether we’re being effective?

Views can mean someone clicked and went and did something else. Metrics like dwell time are much more important.

Too often, brands think about friends and followers on social. But, for the most part, friends and followership are very passive. It doesn’t mean they repeatedly check back in with your brand, it doesn’t mean they’re talking about your brand, and it doesn’t mean they’re sharing what your brand is doing.

Even views don’t mean someone’s deeply engaging with content. Views can mean someone clicked on it and went and did something else. And so metrics like dwell time, that is how much time someone’s spending on something or reading depths — how far down they’re reading — are much more important.

So, to me, a really a good metric is something I call the “Contagious Index,” which is basically a batting average. For every, let’s say, hundred people that view a piece of content, how many of them are engaging with it in some way?

Different companies weight these things differently. You can weight a share, for example, higher than a like, obviously, but you may weight a comment as high as a share depending on the business you’re in. You may weight other metrics as well, but then dividing that by the number of views.

RD: Too often, marketers’ attempts to manufacture virality or contagiousness come as inauthentic. How can retail marketers crack the code and produce marketing campaigns or even position their products to be contagious in ways that feel organic and authentic?

JB: Authenticity is really key. One of the reasons word of mouth is more effective than traditional advertising is that people don’t trust ads, right? They know the company is trying to sell them something. We’ve all seen shampoo ads. Everybody gets long, flowy hair and attractive spouses.

But because of that, customers don’t know whether to trust us or not. So when we’re thinking about online content we have to think about it not as an advertisement but as something else. When we build ads, it’s all about us and how great we are. But consumers are not gonna share something that looks like an ad.

Authenticity is really key. One of the reasons word of mouth is more effective than traditional advertising is that people don’t trust ads.

So the question is how can we get our message or our point across without it seeming like an ad, with it being authentic? And there are a couple ways to do that …

One is stories. Stories are really effective because if you think about them, good stories are vessels or carriers of information. Sure, there’s an exterior, an outside, that’s an engaging story, but on the inside, a message or a brand comes along for the ride. There’s a famous video series called Will it Blend? where a blender company sticks iPhones in a blender and shows that the blender is powerful enough to cut them.

If the blender can tear up an iPhone, it must be really powerful. And so that’s the key when we build content, showing rather than telling.

Really good content marketing doesn’t yell the brand, it whispers the brand. The brand is present, they’re part of that conversation, but the content isn’t about the brand per se. They come along for the ride, but the content is engaging, or useful, or something else, and the brand gets whispered along with it.

RD: Any final thoughts in regards to how this principle of contagiousness can relate to e-commerce marketing?

JB: E-commerce is a great way to get customers on the go to purchase from whatever brand we represent.

That said, if we don’t understand the underlying behavior, the consumer psychology, the customer behavior that drives people to shop online or what drives them to share word of mouth, we’re not gonna be very effective.

And so usually when we think about e-commerce we think about technology. Technology is certainly very important, but more important than technology is psychology. People talk and share, and by understanding that psychology we can get them to share our stuff.

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