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How to go viral: New book promises secrets to contagious concepts

"Contagious: Why Things Catch On" is the new book from Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger. (Image courtesy Simon & Schuster)

What takes your neighbor’s baby giggle video to 200 million views when your Chihuahua attack vid can’t break 50? A new book says the logic behind viral successes isn’t all that mysterious, and there are actually some explanations for this type of thing.

Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger has identified six principles in this new book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” that he says add to a product’s viral potential. These principles were uncovered by investigating viral successes in print, video, and other products.

In an appearance on KIRO Radio Seattle’s Morning News, Berger cites information they gleaned from Rebecca Black’s “Friday, Friday, Friday.” Many people think it’s a terrible song, but it has millions of YouTube views. After examining the data closely, Berger says they found a trend that might explain its popularity.

“We looked at the number of searches for ‘Rebecca Black’ on YouTube and we found that it was flat for a little while, then there was a big spike, then it went down, then there was another spike, and then it went down, and so on. When you look closer, those spikes aren’t random. There’s actually some periodicity behind them,” says Berger. “They’re every seven days, and when you look closer, they’re every Friday.”

Friday serves as a trigger to remind people of the song, says Berger.

“Friday provides a ready reminder, what psychologists call a trigger, to make us think about it,” says Berger. “The same thing with peanut butter, if I say ‘peanut butter and,’ you might think of jelly, because peanut butter reminds us of jelly, like a little advertiser for jelly.”

Another example is increased Mars Bars sales when NASA makes a trip to Mars. Triggers are playing a role in people’s consciousness.

With his six viral principles, KIRO Radio host Dave Ross wondered if Berger could make something go viral at will.

“We have,” says Berger. “It’s a book. It’s called ‘Contagious: Why Things Catch On.’ Right now it’s sitting on the New York Times best seller list in part because we harnessed the six concepts from the book.”

The cover of the book, for example is bright orange, which Berger says was no accident. The bold color gives the book good visibility when someone is carrying it around.

“You might be more likely to ask yourself ‘what is that book, let me go check that out,'” says Berger. “We’ve used the same principles to help the book become a success. We’re already a New York Times best seller. We’ve only been out a couple weeks now, so I think that’s some good proof that these ideas work.”

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