Use the Power of Word-of-Mouth to Your Advantage

By Dori Meinert Jun 24, 2014

ORLANDO, FLA.--The secret to getting your idea or program to catch on is to understand why people talk and share, author Jonah Berger told HR professionals attending the June 24 Masters Series session at the 2014 Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference & Exposition.

“It’s not random; it’s not luck,” Berger said. “There’s science behind it.”

To learn why things catch on, we must accept that “our intuition about how ideas spread might be wrong,” he told the audience.

For example, word-of-mouth generates twice the sales of advertising, according to a McKinsey & Co. study. That’s because people trust the recommendation of a friend over a message from an organization, he said. Just 7 percent of all word-of-mouth takes place online, he noted.

“Rather than chase the technology, we have to understand why people share in the first place,” he said. “The benefit of word-of-mouth is it doesn’t cost anything.”

Whether you’re trying to sell a product as mundane as a blender or trying to persuade employees to adopt a new initiative, six basic principles determine whether your ideas will take off, said Berger, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Berger, who has spent 10 years researching why some products and ideas gain popularity and others don’t, details the principles in his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

The six principles are:

Social currency. You develop social currency by making people feel like insiders, as if they know something others don’t. For example, McDonald’s McRib sandwich wasn’t popular with customers—until the fast-food chain took it off the market and released it for short periods only and only in certain cities. That inaccessibility created a buzz, generating a group of fans who track McRib availability on a website and translating into sales.

The makers of BlendTech blenders were having a hard time getting their product noticed until the company began a series of YouTube videos called “Will it Blend?” The owner put various objects, including an iPhone, into the blender and showed off its abilities. The series received more than 200 million views.

Triggers. Another way to gain popularity is to associate your product or idea with something else that will keep it top-of-mind, Berger said. The makers of Kit Kat candy bars, for example, developed an ad campaign that associated Kit Kat bars with coffee, something that consumers use daily.

Emotion. An ad for Google’s search engine would seem dull, except that Google showed a series of searches that outlined milestones in a young man’s life and tugged at viewers’ heartstrings: “looking for jobs in Paris,” “how to impress French girls,” “churches in Paris” and ultimately “how to assemble a crib.”

“When we care, we share,” Berger said.

Public knowledge. The idea or product will only catch on if others know about it. “If we can’t see what others are doing, we can’t imitate it,” Berger said. How do you determine if a restaurant is any good? It’s crowded and hard to get a table, he said.

Practical values. People share information that is useful. That explains why an 86-year-old man made a video about corn that went viral, Berger said.

Stories. People don’t like to share facts, but they love to share stories, Berger said. People weren’t likely to share with friends Subway’s claim to have five subs under 5 grams of fat. But Subway’s ad campaign focusing on a man who lost more than 180 pounds eating nothing but Subway sandwiches was popular, he said.

If you can turn other people into advocates for your idea or product, they will spread your message for you, he said.

Dori Meinert is senior writer for HR Magazine.


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