A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.
There are two schools of thought regarding how to make anything go viral. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell emphasizes the importance of the messenger. In contrast, Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On proclaims that a properly structured message makes the messenger inconsequential. Which approach is correct?
As with most business strategies which migrate from the classroom to the real world, the “correct approach” involves combining the appropriate elements from multiple theories and applying them to your specific situation.
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The Faux Anti-Gladwell
Professor Berger’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, positioned Contagious as the scientific counter to the pop-culture Tipping Point. They hoped that taking a controversial stance against the immensely popular book would help Contagious cut through the clutter of the 11,000 business books which are published annually. Their approach was moderately success, as evidenced by the roughly 3,000 Google hits for the search: “The Tipping Point” & “Jonah Berger.”
When interviewed, Berger took a more diplomatic approach than that of his publishers, complimenting Gladwell, but in the same breath noting that, “I like to say in class, ‘Fifty percent of The Tipping Point is wrong. My job is to show you which half.’”
Igniting A Forest Fire
To make his point that the message matters more than messenger, Professor Berger writes, “…think about a forest fire. Whether it catches or not doesn’t depend on the size of the initial spark. It relies on having lots of trees that are ready to catch that spark.”
This is certainly a true statement. However, an errant spark from a campfire is far less likely to burn down a forest than a lightning strike which causes a large tree to burst into flames. Thus, both the message and its messengers should be considered when crafting a viral marketing campaign.
Gladwell Meets Berger
Mr. Gladwell broadly classifies the messengers which are best suited to help ignite a forest fire as: Connectors (uber-networkers which have a vast number of acquaintances they can influence), Mavens (information gathers who are ‘in the know’) and Salespersons (promoters who tell compelling stories).
Professor Berger breaks down the components of a highly viral message into six facets, using the acronym STEPPS. The description of each of these principles are from this 2013 talk Professor Berger gave at Wharton.
If you craft a message which embodies Berger’s Contagious principles and then entice Gladwell’s Tipping Point messengers to promote it, you may find that both Berger and Gladwell are “correct.”
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Image credit: Simon & Schuster
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