by Jonah Berger
Recommended Reading for those trying to change healthcare in this country:
Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
This is a good, not great, book for a certain limited audience. Then, why do I write about it and include it on a highly selective Recommended Reading list? Because, it is a book that offers useful insights into, and a formula for, effecting viral communications. We need more GOOD content about healthcare in general and eldercare in particular out there in the stream of communications commerce, which will give us a better chance to reach more people in a shorter period of time with the message about how we can change healthcare in this country in our own lifetimes for our own benefit and the benefit of millions of others.
The author, Jonah Berger is an assistant professor of Marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He writes simply and at times persuasively about why some content (stories, news, information) goes viral (“catches on”/becomes “contagious”)—some silly and meaningless like the hundreds of videos on u-tube in the past several years, which have millions of viewers, that depict various acts of inanity—while other content with far more usefulness gets little or no attention from the masses. He has an acronym to explain his findings: STEPPS, which stands for S--Social Currency, T—Triggers, E—Emotion, P—Public, P—Practical Valuable and S—Stories. To make content contagious you don’t need all 6, but you do need some of the 6.
Social Currency includes making the content something that will make people who talk about the content look good. Making the content remarkable in some way. Making people look like insiders. Making something exciting, fun or compelling about it (game mechanics.) Let’s face it, this element of making something contagious is not easy in eldercare particularly. At least in the western world, we tend to put a veil between us and our old age, including infirmities, dependence and ultimate death. Not many want to talk about the subject of old age; there certainly is not much remarkable in a good way about it—except fountain of youth stories perhaps. I have found in lots of my own research that almost no one--from Gen Xers and Millenials (Generation Y) to the Baby Boomers even think about old age for themselves; they certainly don’t read or hear much about it—it is a downer. It is sad stuff and that is another finding Berger has: it is hard (but not impossible) to make sad stories contagious (see below.)
Triggers are simply mechanisms for making people think about a particular content. They are the cues that make people think about your product or ideas. They contain the things that make the content come to mind more readily and often. Well, if people want to avoid the subject of old age, the subject of eldercare is naturally a hard area to create, let alone find existing, triggers to make eldercare something people want to talk about and to carry around “on the top of their heads.” We have some work to do in this area to come up with triggers that will make lots of people who are not old think about the subject and be persuaded to talk about the need for great change in eldercare. We have a long way to go.
Emotion is the easiest to understand as to what makes content contagious. Sorel King (see my review of her highly emotional story about the death of her daughter--Josie) uses emotion to great effect anytime she speaks. Now, with Sorrel’s story of Josie, it is sadness and empathy that triggers first, then it is anger. And as Berger points out, sadness draws people inward; it does not arouse people to action, which is what we must have if we are to make something contagious. That is why Ms. King has been so effective in her public appearances--she gets people aroused by making them mad. And arousal leads to action. We have too many sad stories (see the last element identified by Berger, Stories, below) out there that are simply not being used in a coordinated fashion so as to drive action. This is a key area of work for those of us who want to drive fundamental change in eldercare. We have the flicker of a fire—we need to kindle that tiny flame into a wildfire.
Old age is unavoidable for most of us, as is the dependency and poor care from “strangers” that unfortunately comes with it far too often. We need to take the emotion many juries have experienced, which turns to fury so often, and channel it into a message that becomes contagious. Those of us at the forefront of bringing accountability and transparency to eldercare need to work together in developing a coordinated plan to do that. A brief commentary here--The sad thing I have experienced personally over the last several years is that too many good people out there—seemingly natural allies--do not really want to focus on commonalities; rather, far too many with the right end goals have personal agendas that unfortunately preclude cooperation with others to achieve a critical outcome. This is a huge obstacle to creating the critical mass of stories and anger they drive that I prescribe above. Sad, but it makes me mad so I press on.
Public , Berger’s 4th driver of making content contagious, is making something readily visible—observable, especially in typical everyday circumstances. Well, that is hard if not impossible to do as best as I can identify right now in eldercare. Nothing much visible about eldercare facilities—except to those in them, loved ones who have contact with those in them and the people who work and volunteer in them. And this is a relatively small group of people. I am not sure how we can change this to our benefit at this point but I would love to get the thoughts of anyone reading this review about how to address this element in eldercare (also, see below.)
Practical value is exactly what is says—and talking about the state of eldercare has tremendous value not just to those giving, receiving or observing care for those in eldercare facilities, but for all of us who, despite strongly held beliefs that we personally would NEVER go into an eldercare facility, may one day have far more involvement in the eldercare system for ourselves or a loved one than we ever thought possible. We have to work on eliminating the desire of so many to avoid this subject, make it relevant to them NOW and then the obvious usefulness will help make our content contagious.
Finally, Stories are the strong point of what we can use to drive contagion in eldercare communications. As mentioned above, we have 1) real-life stories all around us that, if packaged correctly, will 2) drive emotion, 3) help bring social currency—we make the currently “non-consuming” public interested “insiders” to the eldercare industry, 4) display the obvious practical value and usefulness of our content, which will 5) make our product—better eldercare through transparency and accountability—quite public. If we can do this, I am confident we can find 6) triggers, which will then allow us to take all 6 elements identified by Berger as key to making our content—our story/news/information—contagious and work on making our content contagious. If you have read this and want to get started working together with only one agenda, please reach out to me and let’s go. While Berger does not give us—or anyone else in other areas really-- a blueprint for successful communications, he does provide a directional road map that can be used I believe to great effect in eldercare. Thanks Jonah for your effort in your book Contagious.