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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 a word-of-mouth marketing strategy? How can word-of-mouth marketing help you create a contagious product?

A word-of-mouth marketing strategy focuses on making a product or idea socially transmissible. If people talk about your product, more people will inevitably buy it. Understanding the importance of a word-of-mouth marketing strategy will help you to create a product that is popular and successful.

Discover the powerful impact of a word-of-mouth marketing strategy below.

Using a Word-of-Mouth Marketing Strategy

Every day, people introduce countless new ideas to the world—for example, new products, new political policies, and new businesses. Many of these ideas get lost in the crowd and never really “catch on.” Businesses fail, new behavioral ideas fail to take root, and new content is ignored. 

However, some ideas sweep across society and become the next “big thing.” They become contagious. Suddenly, everyone wants to buy the latest new product, visit the trendy new gym in their area, or read the latest viral article. This process of ideas catching on is called a “social epidemic.”

Why is it that some new products and ideas gain widespread popularity while others fail to “catch on”? Research has provided three simplistic explanations at to why certain things become so popular: 

  1. They’re of a higher quality than competing products or ideas and are therefore more attractive to consumers. For example, a website that’s much more user-friendly than its competitors is going to be more popular.
  2. They’re cheap or on sale. People love to save money.
  3. They’ve been advertised a lot. The more a product or idea is promoted, the more people will hear about it, and the more popular it will become.

While these factors do contribute to social epidemics, they don’t tell the full story. Some things become popular or “go viral” without any of these factors being true. For example, consider viral YouTube clips. All YouTube videos are free to view, so their cost can’t be a factor in them going viral. The videos don’t get advertised, so that can’t be it either. While some videos are of a higher quality than others, the ones that go viral are commonly blurry or poor-quality. 

If these three factors aren’t the true causes of virality, what is?

According to marketing professor 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. People generate word of mouth when they tell their friends and family about interesting new products they’ve tried, or when they send a friend an online article that they enjoyed.

A word-of-mouth marketing strategy can be a powerful tool. Research has shown that 20% to 50% of all purchasing decisions have word of mouth as their driving force. It’s at least ten times more effective than traditional advertising, for two reasons.

First, our friends and family are more trustworthy than ads. They’re objective sources of information about a product or idea because they have no stake in whether we accept their recommendation or not. They’re likely to tell the truth about a product’s effectiveness. Meanwhile, ads aren’t credible sources of information. Because their main purpose is to sell things, they focus on the good things about a product or idea and hide its flaws. 

Second, a word-of-mouth marketing strategy is more targeted than advertising. Of all the people who see ads each day on TV and on billboards, very few are actually going to be interested in buying the product being promoted. Meanwhile, word ofmouth is naturally targeted because people only tell you about products that they know you will be interested in. For example, your friend isn’t going to tell you about some really cool skis she’s bought if she knows you don’t like skiing. Capitalizing on this targeted form of marketing is beneficial to companies because it means they don’t waste money on ads that very few people will be interested in.

How Can You Create a Word-of-Mouth Marketing Strategy?

Now that you’ve learned how powerful word of mouth is, you’re probably wondering how you can get people talking about your product or idea. There are lots of conflicting ideas about how word of mouth is generated. Some people believe that it’s impossible to plan or predict, and that which products or ideas are widely discussed and shared is totally random.

Others think that some products or ideas generate more discussion because they’re naturally more exciting. For instance, a smartphone with all of the latest technology is naturally going to be more interesting to talk about than a budget toaster.

Meanwhile, in his work The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that to successfully create word of mouth, you need to get the right people talking about your product or idea. Specifically, focus on attracting the attention of people who are influential, persuasive, or have lots of people to talk to—for example, public figures, natural salespeople, and people with lots of friends. Gladwell argues that these people can use their personalities and connections to make any product popular through word of mouth.

(Shortform note: For more on Gladwell’s theory on how to create a social epidemic, see our summary of The Tipping Point.)

However, Jonah Berger believes that none of these explanations are quite right. According to his research, word of mouth isn’t random and uncontrollable. It’s something that can be generated, by making your product or idea compelling: interesting enough to spark discussion. Berger claims that even the most outwardly ordinary products—such as blenders or toasters—can become the topic of word of mouth if you frame them in a compelling way. The person talking about the product or idea doesn’t need to be compelling, but the product or idea itself does.

Berger’s research showed that contagious ideas and products often have six attributes that make them compelling:

  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. 

Word of Mouth and Social Media

Before we discuss the first attribute of contagious ideas, we need to bust a myth about word of mouth. Many people believe that these days, most word of mouth occurs on social media. 

At first glance, this seems logical. People spend a lot of time browsing social media and probably see many statuses from friends and “influencers” recommending certain products or pushing certain ideas. Therefore, you might think that the best way to get the word out about your product or idea is to do so on social media.

However, research has shown that only 7% of word of mouth actually takes place online. Most still happens in “in-person” conversations. People overestimate the importance and prevalence of online word of mouthh because it’s much more visible. You see people’s tweets and statuses about products, but you don’t hear their private conversations about them. Remember that just because you don’t hear these discussions doesn’t mean they don’t happen!

When the time comes to start generating buzz about your idea or product, make sure that your word-of-mouth marketing strategy reflects this truth. Don’t waste too much energy trying to generate online discussion. Ultimately, the benefits aren’t that great.

Word-of-Mouth Marketing Strategy Explained

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Jonah Berger's "Contagious" at Shortform.

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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