STEPPS Marketing: Jonah Berger’s Powerful Strategy

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Contagious" by Jonah Berger. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Jonah Berger’s STEPPS marketing strategy? How can understanding this help you create contagious products or ideas?

In his book Contagious, Jonah Berger shares his best marketing secrets, including his STEPPS marketing strategy. This involves six powerful steps for creating contagious products and services. Understanding this strategy will help you make your product or idea compelling enough to become contagious.

Keep reading to find out the six key principles of Berger’s STEPPS marketing strategy.

Berger’s STEPPS Marketing Strategy

Why is it that some new products and ideas gain widespread popularity while others fail to “catch on”? According to Jonah Berger, the driving force behind products and ideas catching on—or, in his words, becoming “contagious”—is “social transmission,” a process otherwise known as word of mouth. In short, things catch on when lots of people talk about them.

How can you generate word of mouth around your product or idea? Berger believes the key is making your product or idea compelling. Either the product or idea itself or its marketing campaign has to be interesting enough to get people talking. 

Berger’s research showed that contagious ideas and products often have six attributes that make them compelling, which makes up his STEPPS marketing strategy:

  1. Social currency
  2. Triggers
  3. Emotion
  4. Public visibility
  5. Practical value
  6. Stories

In Contagious, Berger explores how you can add these six qualities to your product or idea—and why doing so might just make your product or idea contagious. Here’s an indepth look at the STEPPS marketing strategy:

1) Social Currency

The first attribute of contagious ideas and products is that they give people social currency. The theory of social currency is based on the idea that everything you talk about affects how people see you and impacts your level of social influence. For example, if you only talk about boring things, people will think you’re boring. They won’t want to talk to you anymore, meaning your social influence will decrease. However, if you talk about interesting, witty, or unusual things, people will think you’re fun to be around. They’ll want to spend time with you, and your social influence will increase.

Because what people say has such a big impact on their public image, they’re inclined to choose their topics of conversation carefully. They’re only willing to talk about things that they think will add to their social currency, not deplete it. For this reason, if you want information about your product or idea to disseminate through word of mouth, make sure that discussing it gives people social currency rather than taking it away. 

You can make your product or idea a source of social currency by implementing three principles:

  1. Make it remarkable.
  2. Apply game mechanics.
  3. Use scarcity and exclusivity.

2) Triggers

The second attribute of contagious products and ideas is that their marketing strategy contains triggers. A trigger is a stimulus that reminds you of something else. For example, smelling food as you walk down the street might remind you that you need to grab some lunch. Seeing a book that a loved one likes will remind you of that person.

If you can link your product or idea to a trigger, you can ensure that people think about it whenever they encounter that trigger. For instance, say you‘re launching a new type of ice cream. In the marketing for your product, you decide to strongly associate eating the ice cream with sunny weather. From now on, whenever it’s sunny, people will be triggered to think about your product. 

Triggering people to think about your product helps to generate word of mouth because people tend to talk about whatever’s on their mind in a given moment. Therefore, if your product or idea is the thing on someone’s mind, it’ll become the thing they choose to talk about. 

This is especially true when people are making small talk—for instance, when parents are talking on the sideline of their kids’ soccer game, or when colleagues chat on their lunch break. In this type of conversation, people aren’t too bothered about talking about something cool or interesting. Cashing in social currency isn’t their main objective. Instead, they just want to fill the silence with something—anything. In their desperation to do this, they turn to the most obvious thing to talk about: the thing that’s at the forefront of their minds. 

Companies use triggers in their marketing campaigns all the time. However, Berger’s research has shown that not all triggers are created equal. Some lead to huge increases in popularity for brands, while others fall flat.

For a trigger to be effective, it needs to be designed very carefully. It must have the following five features:

  1. The capacity for frequent activation. People need to come across the trigger a lot.
  2. Long-term relevance. The trigger can’t disappear from public view in the future.
  3. Activation close to the site of the behavior you want to encourage in people: for instance, near to the shop where people can buy your product.
  4. Uniqueness. It must be clearly distinct from other companies’ triggers.
  5. Relevance to your target audience’s environment. It must be something that this audience is likely to encounter in their geographic area.

The trigger also needs to be consistently and strongly linked to your product in your marketing campaign.

3) Emotion

The third attribute of contagious products and ideas is that they generate an emotional response. When people experience strong emotions, they often like to talk to others about how they’re feeling. For instance, someone who’s had a bad day at work will want to go home and vent their anger to their family. Someone who’s just gotten promoted will want to share their excitement with their loved ones. 

When people do this, they inevitably share all the details about what made them so emotional in the first place. So, if you can make your product or idea generate an emotional response in people, it may get them talking not only about their feelings but also about your product or idea itself.

4) Public Visibility

The fourth attribute of viral products or ideas is that they’re publicly visible. Ultimately, people are never going to talk about your product or idea if they never see it in the first place. So, to generate as much word of mouth about your product or idea as possible, make it very easy to observe. People need to see it often—or, if that’s not possible, it needs to be striking enough that once they’ve observed it once, they remember it for a long time.

If people see your product or idea a lot, they’re likely to start thinking about it a lot, too. For instance, they might start to contemplate why it’s so popular. This drives word of mouth because, as you learned in Chapter 2, people tend to talk about the things they’re thinking about.

There are two possible ways to increase the visibility of your product or idea. These are making the private public and making your product advertise itself.

5) Practical Value

The fifth attribute of contagious products or ideas is that they provide practical value—they’re useful in some way. People love gathering practical information that will make their lives easier. Most commonly, they like to collect information that will help them to complete tasks more quickly and easily, or information that will help them to save money. 

Crucially, people also love sharing this information with other people. They do so because they want to help the people they care about. Therefore, if you make your product or service a source of practical value, people will talk about it because they’ll want to share its value with others. In short, you’ll generate word of mouth.

There are two ways to add practical value to your product or idea:

  1. Create an amazing discount and apply it to your product. This will capitalize on people’s love of sharing money-saving tips.
  2. Provide useful information to your customers once they’ve bought your product. For example, give them practical advice on a topic relevant to your product or service. Do so in an easy-to-share format like an email or a magazine so your customers can pass this information on to their loved ones.

6) Stories

The final attribute of contagious products or ideas is that their marketing materials tell people a story. Information about the product or idea is subtly woven into a gripping narrative that grabs people’s attention. For example, you could embed factual information about your product into a heartwarming story about how using it changed someone’s life. If your story is interesting or exciting enough, people will retell it to their friends and family—and they’ll pass on information about your product or idea in the process.

People pass on interesting stories about products or ideas for two reasons. First, they know that telling someone an interesting story will give them social currency—that telling it will make them seem interesting, too. 

Second, sharing a story about a product or idea is much more socially acceptable than simply spouting facts about it. If you approached someone and, totally out of context, started listing the specifications and functions of a product that you really liked, the other person would find you boring at best and strange at worst. Whatever the case, you’re going to lose social currency. Meanwhile, embedding these specifications and functions in a story puts them back into context, making the fact you’ve brought them up a little bit less bizarre. Likewise, as long as the story is interesting, you’ll preserve your social currency.

The above exploration of Berger’s STEPPS marketing strategy will help you to get people talking about your product or idea.

STEPPS Marketing: Jonah Berger’s Powerful Strategy

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Here's what you'll find in our full Contagious summary:

  • Why some new products and ideas gain widespread popularity while others fail
  • The six principles to making your product or idea contagious
  • The importance of word of mouth in marketing

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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