How do things become Popular?

Popularity isn't just by chance - there's science behind it.
11 April 2017

Interview with 

Professor Jonah Berger, University of Pennsylvania


Do you remember last year’s big craze the Mannequin Challenge? What about the Harlem Shake? Or maybe the ice-bucket challenge? Now the chances are you probably recall at least one of them, and that’s because they all went viral. Tom Crawford decided to find out if there’s any science behind why things become popular like this, so and he spoke to Jonah Berger, who’s Professor of Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania and also the author of the book ‘Contagious’...

Jonah - We see things catch on all the time. You might think it’s random, or it’s luck, or it’s chance, but it’s really a science there. It’s driven, in part, by word of mouth, what people share with one another, but also merely seeing others do something can lead us to do it and lead that thing to catch on. It’s not necessarily the best things that went out, one of the cheapest ones, or ones that have the biggest advertising, but it’s really the ones that fit with us. Our underlying psychology, why we share things, why we imitate others and those underlying STEPPS. And STEPPS is a framework that stands for Social currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical value, and Stories. Each of those is a reason that drives people to share or why we imitate others and leads all sorts of things to catch on.

Tom - You mentioned there steps and these six factors. So let’s talk a little bit more about each of them.

Jonah - The first part of the steps framework is the idea of social currency. The simple point there is the better something makes us look, the more likely we are to share it with others. So for example, there’s a great restaurant in New York City called Crif Dogs - it’s a hotdog restaurant. But once you finish eating your wonderful hotdog, in the corner of the room is a phone booth and if you walk inside there’s a rotary dial phone on the inside. If you stick your finger in one of the numbers and go around in a circle and hold the receiver up to your ear, the phone will actually ring and they will ask you if you have a reservation. Essentially hidden inside this hotdog restaurant is a bar that you walk into, through a phone booth. Never advertised, but they’re hugely successful. And if you think about why, the simple reason is that it’s a secret. And the first thing we do when someone tells us a secret is we tell someone else, right? It makes us look really good to know things that make us look like insiders, make us look like smart, special, in the know.

If you look online, for example, most things people share are positive: “Look at me I’m on a vacation”, “look at me I met a celebrity”, “look at me I’ve got a new car”. We’re not really sharing “hey look at me, I’m at the office working on an Excel spreadsheet, check out column C”. We share things that make us look smart, they make us look cool, they make us look interesting, they make us look like foodies or into sports. So social currency is all about the better something makes us look, the more likely we are to pass it on.

Tom - What about the other aspects of STEPPS?

Jonah - So another idea is Public. The idea is that the easier something is to see, the easier it is to imitate. So we’ve been talking about word of mouth and the idea that sometimes people share things with others. But sometimes the mere fact that someone else is doing something makes us more likely to do it. We may see someone wearing a certain shirt, for example, or a certain car and be more likely to do the same.

We’ve all heard that phrase “monkey see, monkey do.”  The notion that monkeys do what other monkeys are doing and that makes a lot of sense, but the “see” part is just as important as the “do” part. If one monkey can’t see what another monkey is doing they can’t imitate it. If we’ve been to a foreign city, for example,and we’re trying to figure out where to go out to eat, we often use a time tested trick and that is we’ll look for a place that’s full. We assume it it’s full it must be pretty good, right? We’re using others as a signal of information. They don’t need to tell us it’s good, the mere fact that the restaurant's full, you use that as a social proof as information that must be good. But notice we can only do that if we can see inside the restaurant. If we can’t see it we can’t imitate it.

Tom - Is that almost an evolutionary trait in humans to follow the crowd?

Jonah - Think about how difficult it would be if couldn’t use others as a source of information. If every time we made a decision we had to do it entirely independently of everyone else. If you moved to a new city and you had to find a car mechanic, and you had to go to mechanic to mechanic to mechanic and ask them how good they were, ask them how much it would cost, even give them a trial run to see if it was any good - life would be impossible. So other people are a simple shortcut that often make choice faster and easier. So certainly, there’s an evolutionary advantage. It makes life better and easier to rely on others than simply relying on ourselves.

Tom - What about the thought that sometimes people want to be unique and want to be original and differ from the crowd?

Jonah - A great question. And, actually, my most recent book “Invisible Influence” talks exactly about this tension. On the one hand we want to be similar to others . With others there’s a signal that something is good and want to be a good member of the group and want to fit in. If we’re out to dinner for example, and we want to order dessert but no-one else wants to order dessert, we’ll probably skip it, mainly because we think people will look at us funny if we’re the only person at the table ordering dessert. So lots of times we go along with the crowd and jump on the bandwagon.

At the same time we also don’t want to be exactly the same as everybody else. We’ve all had that feeling where we wear a similar shirt to someone else at a party or event and we go “oh god, we’re dressed exactly the same” and we don’t like it. We don’t want to be exactly the same and so we do, as you noted, have a drive for differentiation, a drive to be unique, to stand out.

So these two things seem like they’re opposing - the drive to be similar and fit in and the drive to be different and stand out. But often we choose in ways that allow us to do both at the same time or be what’s called “optimally distinct.” We buy the same car but a different colour allowing us to signal that desired  identity to be part of a group to signal something we want to communicate, but also to feel different. So we can point out a way in which we're unique and separate from everybody else.

Tom - Just finally then. If somebody is trying to make something popular, what’s your top tip?

Jonah - I think, again, when we want to make something popular we think it’s just luck. I think it’s all about getting lightening in a bottle or something along those lines. But it’s not. There’s really a science there. I would say that one tip is understand why people do what they do. Don’t think about the technology, to hop on social media and think that’s the key. The key is really the psychology. Why do people talk and share in the first place? If we understand that, if we understand how social influence works, then we can get anything to catch on. We can craft more contagious content, we can build more successful products and ideas, and we can get our stuff to become more popular.


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