The secret science behind big data and word of mouth

This is a guest post from Jonah Berger, Marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and New York Times bestselling author of “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.” See the original post this is adapted from and more like it on his blog.

Why do some companies, products, and services get more word of mouth than others?

It’s not luck. There’s a science behind it. Social media gurus always preach that no one talks about boring products or boring ideas, so you would think that more interesting products and brands get talked about more. Surprisingly, they don’t.

Startups live and die by word of mouth. Whether it’s a new website, a revolutionary recruiting service, or BtoB play, consumer awareness is always low at the beginning. No one realizes you exist, so you have to get the word out. But most new ventures don’t have a big advertising budget. They have to grow organically: get existing customers or fans bringing in new ones — one at a time.

Why, then, do some companies, products, and ideas get talked about more readily than others? People often think getting word of mouth is like capturing lightning in a bottle. You have to get lucky. The market has to be just right. Or you need the right combination of three or four indescribable qualities that combine in some inexplicable way to create magic.

That’s a great theory. Except it’s completely wrong.

There’s a science behind word of mouth.

It’s not random and it’s not luck why people talk about some things rather than others. Just like behavioral economists have studied why people make certain choices, or statisticians have pulled out insights about human behavior from “big data,” researchers have been hard at work analyzing the human behavior behind our decisions to talk and share.

In one recent investigation, for example, my colleague and I looked at word of mouth data on almost 10,000 products and brands from Coca-Cola and Walmart to small startups. Everything from technology companies to services, from BtoB to consumer package goods. In another project, we analyzed the virality of almost 7,000 pieces of online content. Everything from politics and international news to funny pieces, sports, and style.

But the focus of these studies wasn’t just documenting which products get talked about more, or what types of online content go viral. Rather, it was about understanding the motivations behind those outcomes: the underlying human behavior that drives some things to get talked about more than others and some things to go viral; how different emotions (e.g. sadness versus anger) shape what people share; how communicating online versus offline impacts whether people talk about what is top-of-mind; the psychology of talk; the science of social transmission.

Take triggers.

Disney is more interesting than Cheerios. It’s a really engaging emotional experience. But the problem is that people aren’t triggered to think about Disney very often. Sure, people talk a lot about the brand right after they go to one of the theme parks, but unless they’re reminded to think about that experience in the weeks and months that follow, they don’t keep bringing it up.

Cheerios is less interesting, but people eat breakfast once a day, 365 days a year. Even if they don’t buy Cheerios, they still see it once a week when they wheel their grocery cart through the cereal aisle. This makes Cheerios more top-of-mind more often, increasing the chances of getting mentioned. A product or idea might be really interesting, but if people aren’t triggered to think about it, they’ll never bring it up. Top-of-mind means tip-of-tongue.

Triggers are only one of the key word of mouth drivers my colleagues and I uncovered in our research.

Again and again, I’ve seen the same six principles driving what people talk about and share. These six principles can be arranged in an acronym (STEPPS: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories).

Social Currency

Just like the car we drive and the clothes we wear, the things we say affect how people see us. So the more something makes someone look good, the more likely they’ll be to pass it on.

Triggers

If something is top-of-mind it will be tip-of-the-tongue. Just like peanut butter reminds us of jelly, the more we’re triggered to think about a product or idea, the more we’ll talk about it.

Emotion

When we care, we share. Whether positive (excitement or humor) or negative (anger or anxiety), high arousal emotions drive us to share.

Public

People tend to imitate others. But as the phrase “monkey see, monkey do” attests, the easier it is to see what someone is doing, the easier it is to imitate. Public observability drives imitation (e.g. iPod’s white headphones).

Practical Value

People don’t just want to look good, they also want to help others. So more useful equals more shared. For examples, articles about 10 ways to raise capital or five key negotiating tips.

Stories

No one wants to seem like a walking advertisement, but they will talk about something if it’s part of a broader narrative. So build a “Trojan horse” story, a message that carries your brand along for the ride.

These six principles comprise a formula for getting more word of mouth.

They’re a recipe for crafting contagious content and for getting more people talking about any product or idea.

Will following this formula guarantee a viral hit? No. But it will increase the batting average. No one hits a home run every time, but by understanding the science of hitting, people can raise their average by hitting more singles, doubles, and even home runs.

The same is true with word of mouth. By understanding the science behind why people talk and share, companies and organizations can get more word of mouth for their products and ideas and help those products and ideas catch on along the way.

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About Jonah Berger

Jonah Berger is a Marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the New York Times bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On. He consults from a variety of companies and organizations on how to generate word of mouth and help products, ideas, and behaviors catch on.

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