Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and the bestselling author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On and Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior.
This was a great interview. We talk about what makes things go viral and how authors can create a word-of-mouth campaign to sell more books.
Jonah’s undergraduate research focus was in human decision-making. He went on to earn a PhD in marketing. He’s always been interested in why people do what they do and what influences the decisions they make. His academic career allows him to study these questions deeply.
He wrote his first book Contagious: Why Things Catch On after he taught a course on the subject. A lot of people sent requests for the course materials even though they were unable to actually attend the class. That’s when he came up with the idea of bringing together academic research on the subject of why things go viral, then collecting that research into a book accessible to a mass audience.
Jonah’s Publishing Journey
Jonah went the traditional publishing route when he decided to write his first book. He got an agent by connecting with friends who had already published popular academic books like his. After he got an agent, he wrote a proposal that was submitted to publishing houses. He estimates it took him about three years from coming up with the idea to having a published book available in stores.
Most of that time was taken up in the back-and-forth of the editing process.
The 2 Things You Need to Know If You Want Your Book to Sell Well
- Who is your audience?
- Why are you writing this book for them?
If you have a good handle on these two questions, it can really help focus your writing efforts.
Thinking of your audience during the planning, writing, and marketing phases helps to ensure you’re going to provide them with massive value—which is key to gaining traction, building a fan base, and selling lots of copies.
The STEPS You Can Take to Start a Word-Of-Mouth Marketing Campaign for Your Book
The secret to creating a word-of-mouth marketing campaign is to identify your audience and convert them from consumers to advocates for your work.
There are six reasons people will share content on the internet. Any one of these factors can make something shareable. The more factors you can stack, the more likely it is that your idea/book will go viral.
Remember: Only 7–10% of word-of-mouth communication happens online. The majority of word-of-mouth communication happens face-to-face.
Social media can be a powerful tool to get your message out there, but the channel the information comes through is far less important than the psychology behind what makes people share things.
Take these STEPS to ensure that you’re creating sharable, potentially viral content:
The better something makes you look—the better it reflects on you—the more likely you are to share it.
How can you make your reader look smart, special, and in the know for sharing your book with others?
If you’re a nonfiction author, what piece of information is going to make your reader look smart or clever at a cocktail party?
If you’re writing a fiction book, what are the snippets that are going to make your reader look smart, sophisticated, and well read if they pass them on?
The more something is “top of mind,” the more likely it is to be on the tip of your tongue.
In other words, if it’s the first thing someone thinks of when asked a given question or in a given situation, they’re likely to share it.
People often talk about the weather to fill conversational space. They don’t usually talk about it because the weather is particularly interesting, but because weather is a topic we all experience frequently. It’s something we all have in common.
What are the hooks in your book that relate to things going on in popular culture? What are the things in your book that are time of year-specific? (Think holidays. How many stories about Christmas come out around Christmastime?)
Crafting triggers is about finding links to things in the environment that can remind people of your book.
When considering triggers for your book, try to find ones that happen regularly. The more often a trigger occurs in the environment, the better it’s going to be for your word-of-mouth campaign.
The Four Key Elements of Triggers
- Who do you want to be triggered? Who is your target audience?
- When do you want them triggered? What time should you trigger them so they’re most likely to take action appropriately? If your book is a summer read, you want your audience to buy your book in the summer. If your book is a gifting book, you want your audience to take action around gift-giving holidays like Christmas.
- What is around that time? After you’ve identified the time that you want your trigger to take place, you have to think about situations and events that occur around that time that you can link your book to.
- How can you create a link to that thing? After you’ve identified the trigger, you should brainstorm ways that you can connect your book to that trigger.
The more emotional something is, the more likely it is that people will share it. Surprisingly, content that elicits a positive emotional response is shared more often than content that elicits a negative emotional response.
This is because the content we share is a reflection of who we are—remember that first step, social currency. People want to be seen as positive in general.
Sharing isn’t just about positive versus negative, though. The other factor to consider is whether your content elicits an “arousal emotion” such as anger, anxiety, inspiration, or humor.
This isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Just think about how people act when they feel certain emotions. Think about how you act when you feel certain emotions. Ask yourself, when I feel [choose your emotion], am I more likely or less likely to share content?
How does your content impact your audience on a practical level? Can it help them achieve some desired outcome? Can it help them move through their lives in a more efficient and effective way? Will it impart knowledge that can help them deal with their circumstances or environment?
These are the kind of questions you want to ask to find the practical value that will encourage your audience to share your content.
A story becomes more shareable when it contains a moral or a grander idea. Often, the moral or theme isn’t actually spelled out in the text of the story.
When you create stories as a storyteller, you want to create valuable virality. You want to create stories that carry you as the storyteller along with them.
That is, you want to create an author brand that helps your audience instantly recognize that you are the author of your stories.
Links and Resources Mentioned in This Interview
Contagious: Why Things Catch On — Jonah’s popular academic-based book looking at why things go viral
Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior — Jonah’s follow-up explores the subtle influences that affect human decisions
http://jonahberger.com/ — Jonah’s website
https://twitter.com/j1berger — Connect with Jonah on Twitter
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