About the Author
Jonah Berger is an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. His research has been published in top-tier academic journals, and popular accounts of his work have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Science, Harvard Business Review, and more. His research has also been featured in the New York Times Magazine’s “Year in Ideas.” Berger has been recognized with a number of awards for both scholarship and teaching. The author of Contagious and Invisible Influence, he lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Contagious 2. Triggers
Walt Disney World. Say those words to children under the age of eight and just wait for their excited screams. More than 18 million people from all over the world visit the Orlando, Florida, theme park annually. Older kids love the frightening plummet down Space Mountain and the Tower of Terror. Younger ones savor the magic of Cinderella’s castle and the thrill of exploring the rivers of Africa in the Jungle Cruise. Even adults beam joyously when shaking hands with beloved Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Goofy.
Memories of my own first visit in the early 1990s still make me smile. My cousin and I were picked from the audience to play Gilligan and the Skipper in a reenactment of Gilligan’s Island. The look of wild triumph on my face when I successfully steered the boat to safety—after being doused with dozens of buckets of water—is still family lore.
Now compare these exhilarating images with a box of Honey Nut Cheerios. Yes, the classic breakfast cereal with a bee mascot that “packs the goodness of Cheerios with the irresistible taste of golden honey.” Considered reasonably healthy, Honey Nut Cheerios is still sugary enough to appeal to children and anyone with a sweet tooth and has become a staple of many American households.
Which of these products—Disney World or Honey Nut Cheerios—do you think gets more word of mouth? The Magic Kingdom? The self-described place where dreams come true?
Or Cheerios? The breakfast cereal made of whole grain oats that can help reduce cholesterol?
Clearly, the answer is Disney World, right? After all, talking about your adventures there is much more interesting than discussing what you ate for breakfast. If word-of-mouth pundits agree on anything, it’s that being interesting is essential if you want people to talk. Most buzz marketing books will tell you that. So will social media gurus. “Nobody talks about boring companies, boring products, or boring ads,” argues one prominent word-of-mouth advocate.
Unfortunately, he’s wrong. And so is everyone else who subscribes to the interest-is-king theory. And lest you think this contradicts what we talked about in the previous chapter about Social Currency, read on. People talk about Cheerios more than Disney World. The reason? Triggers.
BUZZING FOR BZZAGENT
No one would mistake Dave Balter for a Madison Avenue shark as portrayed in the popular TV series Mad Men. He’s young—just forty—and looks even younger, with downy cheeks, wire-rimmed glasses, and a wide-open grin. He’s also genuinely passionate about marketing. Yes, marketing. To Dave, marketing isn’t about trying to convince people to purchase things they don’t want or need. Marketing is about tapping into their genuine enthusiasm for products and services that they find useful. Or fun. Or beautiful. Marketing is about spreading the love.
Dave started out as a so-called loyalty marketer figuring out ways to reward customers for sticking with a particular brand. He then created and sold two promotional agencies before founding his current firm, BzzAgent.
Here’s how BzzAgent works. Say you’re Philips, the maker of the Sonicare electric toothbrush. Sales are good, but the product is new and most people aren’t aware of what it is or why they would want to buy one. Existing Sonicare customers are beginning to spread the word, but you want to accelerate things, get more people talking.
That’s where BzzAgent comes in.
Over the years, the company has assembled a network of more than 800,000 BzzAgents, people who have said that they are interested in learning about and trying new products. Agents span a broad range of ages, incomes, and occupations. Most are between eighteen and fifty-four years old, are well educated, and have a reasonable income. Teachers, stay-at-home moms, working professionals, PhDs, and even CEOs are BzzAgents.
If you wonder what type of person would be a BzzAgent, the answer is you. Agents reflect the U.S. population at large.
When a new client calls, Dave’s team culls through its large database to find BzzAgents who fit the desired demographic or psychographic profile. Philips believes its toothbrush will primarily appeal to busy professionals aged twenty-five to thirty-five from the East Coast? No problem, Dave has several thousand on call. You’d prefer working moms who care about dental hygiene? He’s got them, too.
BzzAgent then contacts the appropriate agents in its network and invites them to join a campaign. Those who agree get a kit in the mail containing information about the product and coupons or a free trial. Participants in the Sonicare campaign, for example, received a free toothbrush and ten-dollar mail-in rebates for additional toothbrushes to give to others. Participants in a Taco Bell campaign received free taco coupons. Because actual tacos are difficult to send in the mail.
Then, over the next few months, BzzAgents file reports describing the conversations they had about the product. Importantly, BzzAgents are not paid. They’re in it for the chance to get free stuff and learn about new products before the rest of their friends and families. And they’re never pressured to say anything other than what they honestly believe, whether they like the product or not.
When people first hear about BzzAgent, some argue that it can’t possibly work. People don’t just spontaneously mention products in everyday conversations, they protest. It just wouldn’t seem natural.
But what most people don’t realize is that they naturally talk about products, brands, and organizations all the time. Every day, the average American engages in more than sixteen word-of-mouth episodes, separate conversations where they say something positive or negative about an organization, brand, product, or service. We suggest restaurants to coworkers, tell family members about a great sale, and recommend responsible babysitters to neighbors. American consumers mention specific brands more than 3 billion times a day. This kind of social talk is almost like breathing. It’s so basic and frequent that we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
If you want to get a better sense for yourself, try keeping a conversation diary for twenty-four hours. Carry pen and paper with you and write down all the things you mention over the course of a day. You’ll be surprised at all the products and ideas you talk about.
Curious about how a BzzCampaign worked, I joined. I’m a big fan of soy milk, so when Silk did a campaign for almond milk, I had to try it. (After all, how can they get milk from an almond?) I used a coupon, got the product from the store, and tried it. It was delicious.
Not only was the product good, it was so good I simply had to tell others about it. I mentioned Silk almond milk to friends who don’t drink regular milk and gave them coupons to try it themselves. Not because I had to. No one was looking over my shoulder to make sure I talked. I just liked the product and thought others might as well.
And this is exactly why BzzAgent and other word-of-mouth marketing firms are effective. They don’t force people to say nice things about products they hate. Nor do they entice people to insert product recommendations artificially into conversations. BzzAgent simply harnesses the fact that people already talk about and share products and services with others. Give people a product they enjoy, and they’ll be happy to spread the word.
WHY DO PEOPLE BUZZ ABOUT SOME PRODUCTS MORE THAN OTHERS?
BzzAgent has run hundreds of campaigns for clients as diverse as Ralph Lauren, the March of Dimes, and Holiday Inn Express. Some campaigns were more successful at generating word of mouth than others. Why? Did some products or ideas just get lucky? Or were there some underlying principles driving certain products to get talked about more?
I offered to help find the answer. Enthusiastic at the prospect, Dave gave my colleague Eric Schwartz and me access to data from the hundreds of campaigns he’d run over the years.
We started by testing an intuitive idea: interesting products get talked about more than boring ones. Products can be interesting because they’re novel, exciting, or confound expectations in some way. If interest drives talking, then action flicks and Disney World should be talked about more than Cheerios and dish soap.
Intuitively this makes sense. As we discussed in the Social Currency chapter, when we talk to others, we’re not only communicating information; we’re also saying something about ourselves. When we rave about a new foreign film or express disappointment with the Thai restaurant around the corner, we’re demonstrating our cultural and culinary knowledge and taste. Since we want others to think we’re interesting, we search for interesting things to tell them. After all, who’d want to invite people to a cocktail party if all they talked about was dish soap and breakfast cereal?
Based on this idea, advertisers often try to create surprising or even shocking ads. Dancing monkeys or ravenous wolves chasing a marching band. Guerrilla and viral marketing campaigns are built on the same notion: Have people dress in chicken suits and hand out fifty-dollar bills on the subway. Do something really different or people won’t talk.
But is this actually true? Do things have to be interesting to be discussed?
To find out, we took the hundreds of products that had taken part in BzzCampaigns and asked people how interesting they found each of them. An automatic shower cleaning device? A service that preserves newborn babies’ umbilical cords? Both seemed pretty interesting. Mouthwash and trail mix? Not so interesting.
Then we looked at the relationship between a product’s interest score and how frequently it was talked about over the ten-week campaign.
But there was none. Interesting products didn’t receive any more word of mouth than boring ones.
Puzzled, we took a step back. Maybe “interest” was the wrong term, potentially too vague or general a concept? So we asked people to score the products on more concrete dimensions, like how novel or surprising they were. An electronic toothbrush was seen as more novel than plastic storage bags; dress shoes designed to be as comfortable as sneakers were seen as more surprising than bath towels.
But there was still no relationship between novelty or surprise scores and overall word of mouth. More novel or surprising products didn’t get more buzz.
Maybe it was the people scoring the products. We had first used undergraduate college students, so we recruited a new set of people, of all ages and backgrounds.
Nope. Again the results remained the same. No correlation between levels of interest, novelty, or surprise and the number of times people talked about the products.
We were truly bewildered. What were we doing wrong?
Nothing, as it turned out. We just weren’t asking the right questions.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN IMMEDIATE AND ONGOING WORD OF MOUTH
We had been focused on whether certain aspects matter—specifically, whether more interesting, novel, or surprising products get talked about more. But as we soon realized, we also should have been examining when they matter.
Some word of mouth is immediate, while some is ongoing. Imagine you’ve just gotten an e-mail about a new recycling initiative. Do you talk about it with your coworkers later that day? Mention it to your spouse that weekend? If so, you’re engaging in immediate word of mouth. This occurs when you pass on the details of an experience, or share new information you’ve acquired, soon after it occurs.
Ongoing word of mouth, in contrast, covers the conversations you have in the weeks and months that follow. The movies you saw last month or a vacation you took last year.
Both types of word of mouth are valuable, but certain types are more important for certain products or ideas. Movies depend on immediate word of mouth. Theaters are looking for success right off the bat, so if a film isn’t doing well right away, they’ll replace it with something else. New food products are under similar pressure. Grocery stores have limited shelf space. If consumers don’t immediately start buying a new anticholesterol spread, the store may stop stocking it. In such cases, immediate word of mouth is critical.
For most products or ideas, however, ongoing word of mouth is also important. Antibullying campaigns not only want to get students talking right after the campaign is introduced, they want them to keep spreading the word until bullying is eradicated. New policy initiatives certainly benefit from huge discussion when they are proposed, but to sway voter opinion, people need to keep mentioning them all the way up until Election Day.
But what leads someone to talk about something soon after it occurs? And are these the same things that drive them to keep talking about it for weeks or months after?
To answer these questions, we divided the data on each BzzCampaign into two categories: immediate and ongoing word of mouth. Then we looked at how much of each type of buzz different types of products generated.
As we suspected, interesting products received more immediate word of mouth than boring products. This reinforces what we talked about in the Social Currency chapter: interesting things are entertaining and reflect positively on the person talking about them.
But interesting products did not sustain high levels of word-of-mouth activity over time. Interesting products didn’t get any more ongoing word of mouth than boring ones.
Imagine I walked into work one day dressed as a pirate. A bright red satin bandana, long black waistcoat, gold earrings, and a patch over one eye. It would be pretty remarkable. People in my office would probably gossip about it all day. (“What in the world is Jonah doing? Casual Friday is supposed to be relaxed, but this is taking it too far!”)
But while my pirate getup would get lots of immediate word of mouth, people probably wouldn’t keep talking about it every week for the next two months.
So if interest doesn’t drive ongoing word of mouth, what does? What keeps people talking?
FROM MARS BARS TO VOTING: HOW TRIGGERS AFFECT BEHAVIOR
At any given moment, some thoughts are more top of mind, or accessible, than others. Right now, for example, you might be thinking about the sentence you are reading or the sandwich you had for lunch.
Some things are chronically accessible. Sports fanatics or foodies will often have those subjects top of mind. They are constantly thinking of their favorite team’s latest stats, or about ways to combine ingredients in tasty dishes.
But stimuli in the surrounding environment can also determine which thoughts and ideas are top of mind. If you see a puppy while jogging in the park, you might remember that you’ve always wanted to adopt a dog. If you smell Chinese food while walking past the corner noodle shop, you might start thinking about what to order for lunch. Or if you hear an advertisement for Coke, you might remember that you ran out of soda last night. Sights, smells, and sounds can trigger related thoughts and ideas, making them more top of mind. A hot day might trigger thoughts about climate change. Seeing a sandy beach in a travel magazine might trigger thoughts of Corona beer.
Using a product is a strong trigger. Most people drink milk more often than grape juice, so milk is top of mind more often. But triggers can also be indirect. Seeing a jar of peanut ...
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