Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

August 12, 2013

Why people share: Word of mouth builds awareness, success

Michael Stelzner

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article is available for download as a podcast.

As a scientist, Jonah Berger thought it would be interesting to study why things go viral or why certain stories circulate around the water cooler.

The author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On grew up studying math, chemistry, computer science and material science and thought it would be interesting to apply these hard science tools to social science problems.

It was after reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell that he was inspired to think about these things and soon realized there hadn’t been a lot of research done on the subject.

Berger starts with how a lot can be done with social media and that there are tons of content out there already from many brands and organizations. Some content does better, but it’s not about luck, and it’s not random.

Berger and his team spent a decade doing research to try to understand why people share word of mouth. With the 6 Principles they discovered, you can make it more likely for your nonprofit’s posts to be contagious. People will share them and pass them onto others.

Word of mouth can be more than 10 times effective as traditional advertising. People trust word of mouth more. It’s also more targeted than traditional advertising. Plus, it’s cost-effective, if you can get it to work.

It doesn’t cost you anything to get people to talk about your brand. However, it requires you to understand why they are talking about some things rather than others.

Following the rigorous academic research, Berger decided to write the book Contagious to help people apply the insights, so their products and ideas could take off. Its message applies to nonprofits as well as for-profit organizations.

Berger explains how, when the science was applied to a number of different companies to increase word of mouth in a given campaign, there was an increase of 20 to 50 percent. You can definitely guarantee more views and more shares when you follow the 6 Principles.

The 6 Principles in Contagious

Berger gives the high-level of each principle, which is called the STEPPS framework. These 6 Principles drive people to talk and share.
  • Social currency
  • Triggers
  • Emotion
  • Public
  • Practical value
  • Stories
These steps are based on psychology. It’s about being able to understand the motivation or the drivers that cause us to pass things on.

Some people wonder if you need all 6 Principles for it to work. Berger says the best way to think about it is as a recipe. The more ingredients you have, the better the end result will be.

These concepts have been shown to drive behavior across a host of different audiences and products or ideas. Let’s look at the first three principles.

Social Currency. Berger gives a great example of how LinkedIn applied social currency to its users. LinkedIn sent users an email that informed them they were one of the top profiles on their site. When people received this email, not only did they feel special, they shared this information with others. LinkedIn made it easy for users to share their new status.

For a nonprofit marketer, one of the greatest ways to employ social currency is to make people feel like insiders. You need to make them feel like they are part of a special club or have some sort of status that nobody else has. Not only is it good for them; it’s good for your brand, too.

Triggers. When it comes to triggers, Berger states that they are equally if not more important than social currency. He uses Rebecca Black‘s song “Friday” as the perfect example. The song was one of the most viral videos of 2011. It had over 300 million views, yet everyone hated it.

When Berger dug deep and looked into the data of the number of searches for the phrase “Rebecca Black” on YouTube, the spikes weren’t random; they were every seven days. Actually every Friday. Which is the same name as the song. So although the song is bad, no matter what day of the week, Friday provides a ready reminder.

This is what psychologists call a trigger. It triggers us to think of the song and then share it with others. The idea is that, if it’s top of mind, it will be tip of tongue.

The idea of a trigger can include sight, sound, smell or anything in our environment that will activate something else in our mind. For you to understand what the triggers are for your industry, you need to consider the context. Look at who your constituents are and what their environments are.

Stories. Berger believes that stories are the currency of conversation. Stories provide a way to convey information in a narrative form that makes everyone lean in, because they want to find out how the story ends. We think in terms of stories, not just chunks of information. It’s the standard way to communicate.

The key is to have a certain type of story. Berger uses the famous Trojan Horse story as an example. Not only do you need to have an engaging narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, but you also need to have a moral, too.

Morals can stand by themselves, but no one would listen to the moral. It’s the story that makes the moral more engaging. It’s an integral detail. You need to think how you can build a story that acts as a vessel or carrier for your nonprofit brand.

You need to make sure that your brand’s message is the integral detail, so someone can’t help but pass it along.

Remember that it’s not luck or chance on how big your organization will get; it’s about word of mouth. When you follow these principles, you can get existing supporters to talk more and bring new partners to grow your organization.

Michael Stelzner is founder and CEO of Social Media Examiner, which first published this article. Its posts are available free to subscribers.


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