What We’re Reading: “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” By Jonah Berger

Despite being released in 2013, one book that remains at the top of our reading list is “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger, a New York Times bestseller that highlights the value of word-of-mouth marketing. The book unpacks the dynamics of virality and how brands can achieve it – and the take-aways are perhaps even more relevant in 2024 than they were in 2013. Today, public opinion around a brand can spread like wildfire across multiple online platforms, instantly elevating or completely derailing its reputation. In fact, social media has become a cornerstone of modern marketing – Insider Intelligence projects Instagram influencer marketing spend to surpass $2 billion this year. TikTok is also estimated to cross the $1 billion threshold.

Berger organizes his book into 6 “STEPPS,” an acronym for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories – all factors that he credits with making content “contagious” or likely to be spread, talked about, and shared through word-of-mouth marketing.

Social Currency

Why do we choose to spend hard-earned money on a product or service? More often than not, we are seeking to gain social currency, which we can then use to achieve desired perceptions from the people around us. If brands can give consumers a way to look superior while promoting their product, the consumer will often do it without thinking.

According to Berger, social currency can be broken down into three areas:

Find inner remarkability: Sharing something interesting, entertaining, or novel will be desirable to a consumer because it will in turn make them feel that they are being perceived by others as interesting, entertaining, or novel. Berger provides an example of Barclay Prime Steakhouse in Philadelphia, which at opening, offered a $100 cheesesteak. The concept was so original and novel it instigated word-of-mouth communication and allowed the new restaurant to become a major success.

Leverage game mechanics: If a customer’s experience with a brand is gamified, it is far more likely to be talked about in their daily lives. Think of the public’s recent obsession with collecting all available colors of Stanley cups or Lululemon products. If the consumer feels they are winning a game, they are more likely to talk about the product or perhaps post about it on social media.

Make people feel like insiders: It’s human nature to want to feel special. Creating a dynamic where the consumer might feel they have an “inside scoop” will prompt them to speak more frequently about a product or service in their daily lives.


Triggers refer to the things we see in our daily lives that immediately make us think of a brand. As an example of the effectiveness of triggers, Berger cites a happy accident that occurred in 1997, when the candy company Mars noticed an unexpected increase in sales. Coincidentally, NASA had launched its Pathfinder mission to Mars (the planet) that year, meaning the daily news was constantly triggering consumers to think and talk about Mars candy bars.

If this trigger had created such accidental success for Mars, imagine the potential of triggers when they are intentionally planted by brands. As Berger states, “top of mind, tip of tongue.” Social currency seems to be the area that gets people talking, but triggers are what KEEP them talking.


When we care, we share.

In advertising it becomes useful to elicit some type of emotion, whether that be shock and surprise, anxiety and anger, or nostalgia and compassion. All emotions in this case can be useful, even the negative ones. Ultimately, emotions are what drive action.


This area refers to visibility and observability, as well as the human condition of imitation. Making products that are inherently visible to the public means creating products that advertise themselves. As Berger summarizes it: “built to show, built to grow.”

Take the example of Apple computers, which originally were designed to have the Apple logo facing the laptop’s user. Steve Jobs insisted on reversing the logo to face outward for one reason, observability. The Apple team realized that when people see someone else doing something, they are more likely to do it themselves – we are, at heart, imitators.

Practical Value

A promotional offer that seems surprising or surpasses expectations is far more likely to be shared among consumers. This tactic involves framing promotions and projecting scarcity or exclusivity. Berger claims that of all 6 STEPPS, this is the easiest to implement.


According to Berger, casual stories can often act as Trojan Horses in the world of marketing. Good customer service is better than any advertisement money can buy. In the age of social media, this area seems to become increasingly more relevant as brands constantly go viral for “story times,” both good and bad, posted by consumers on platforms like TikTok.

“Information travels under the guise of idle conversation.”

Give Contagious a read – it’s still great more than a decade later. If you’re interested in accelerating and expanding the online presence of your brand, 0to5 can help! Contact us today.