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A new case study in the vein of “Freakonomics” and “The Tipping Point” addresses the “why” of viral marketing.

Contagious by Jonah Berger
Simon and Schuster
256 pp.

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Did you know that if you microwave an unshucked ear of corn for eight minutes, then cut off about a half-inch of the bottom, and then remove the corn from the leaves, none of those pesky silks will get stuck to the ear? This information comes from a YouTube video that was posted by an 86-year-old man. It is the only video he’s ever made and it has almost 7.5 million views. According to studies, less than one percent of all videos on YouTube get more than a million hits. So why did this one go “viral”?

That’s exactly what Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has set out to explain. In Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger lays out the principles that affect the "virality" of any product, idea, or message. His study focuses heavily on the human element of social epidemics. According to Berger, “Word of mouth [advertising] is the primary factor behind 20 percent to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.”

While the Internet may be a great tool for tracking buzz for products, Berger found that only 7 percent of that buzz took place on sites like Facebook and Twitter. The rest was generated almost entirely by face-to-face interaction. So what makes people talk about something?

Berger writes in a straightforward, conversational tone. Each chapter sets up the first halves of several cases, then explains the principle that the chapter is focused on, and then shows how that principle affected the outcome of each case.

Style and structure aside, the book is just plain interesting. Berger’s cases are not only topical and relevant, but his principles seem practical and are easily understood. Reading it feels like sitting in on one of his college courses. His research can also be overly simplistic (rate how sad you are on a scale from one to ten), but I'd rather take on the 179 pages of this than fake my way through another 400-page Malcolm Gladwell epic any day.


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