Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

010: Professor Jonah Berger on the Science Behind Contagious Content (And Why You’re Probably Doing It Wrong) [Podcast]

You’ve heard me say it (a lot): Create for yourself first. Don’t focus on numbers. But here’s the truth: I still want my ideas to go viral.

If I’m being honest, I don’t just write to write. I also write to be read.

Most of us want to influence others with our words and actions. We want to see our message spread to those who need it most. And that’s not such a bad thing.

Whether you’re writing to inspire or inform or even to entertain, you want people to engage with your content and share it with friends. That’s what a life of impact is all about.

In this episode of the podcast, Jonah Berger shares with us six principles to craft contagious content and destroys a few myths in the process.

Jonah Berger is the Associate Professor of Marketing at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, and bestselling author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, a fantastic book on the science behind how ideas spread.

Click to listen

To listen to the show, click the player below (if viewing this in email click here).


You can also download it at iTunes or on Stitcher.

It’s not about luck

Jonah and his team have researched thousands of examples of viral content, both big and small. They’ve analyzed data and identified patterns. And they’ve discovered that most of us are thinking about virality all wrong.

Going viral isn’t random, magic, or luck. It’s a science. (Tweet that)

They discovered six principles driving popular content:

  • Social Currency
  • Triggers
  • Emotion
  • Public
  • Practical Value
  • Stories

Remember Gangnam Style? Jonah explains why it (and a bunch of other hot trends) spread so fast. (Check out the stories at ViralityExplained.com.)

It’s not about influencers

I used to think that one or two powerful influencers sharing my content could help it go viral. But while influencers are great, Jonah discovered that the key to virality is creating content that’s contagious regardless of who shares it.

It’s better to get ordinary people talking about an extraordinary idea than to try getting extraordinary people to share an ordinary idea.

I found this out when my blog post about travel went viral six months after I wrote it. It wasn’t through a big influencer or a coordinated campaign. A group of everyday people found it and shared it, because they found the content relevant and inspiring.

It’s not all about online traffic

Those average, everyday people? They spend about two and a half hours a day online. That’s a lot of time, so it’s natural to focus on online promotion. But that same person spends about 12 hours offline every day.

Face-to-face is the original social media. (Tweet that)

To create truly contagious content, you need to capture offline conversations: at breakfast with family, at work with colleagues, or at coffee or drinks with friends.

What this means for you

All this data is great, but what do you do with it?

It’s really not all that complicated. While nothing can guarantee virality, you can take a few steps to improve the sharability of your content. Here are two places to start:

  • Focus. Broad content is bland and not very sharable. Narrow, niche content will get your audience interested because it fits.
  • Get emotional. Content that activates a strong emotion, whether it’s joy or anger or anxiety, will make people care enough to share.

Want to spread your ideas faster? Jonah is offering a free workbook to guide you through the steps to creating your own viral content. Get your copy here.

Let’s put this to the test

I love using this platform to help you, and I want to hear what you’ve got to share. Tell me (and the rest of the community here) about what you’ve created and which of Jonah’s principles you’ve applied. Be sure to include a link.

Let’s see what happens.

As for me, I’d love for this podcast to go viral (or at least reach a few more people than we did last week). If you’re enjoying it, please tweet about it or share it with your friends on Facebook. And I’d love for you to leave an honest review.

You can also copy and paste this URL into the podcast player of your choice: https://feeds.feedburner.com/ThePortfolioLifeJeffGoins

Also, if you have any questions for future episodes, let me know (just shoot an email to jeff at goinswriter dot com).

What have you created to go viral? Tell us about it and share your link in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Thanks for the chance to share what we’ve created and are proud of, Jeff.

    Dan Hayes and I initially thought we were building a simple living event for an isolated community when SimpleREV was conceived. But now? We think SimpleREV (context right here: https://simplerev.com/about) can become a movement within the greater push to simplify all aspects of life.

    We’re releasing content (podcasts mostly) right now, yet the most rewarding contributions aren’t ours. They come from the simple living community and have taken the form of videos under our project, “What Simple Living Means to Me.”

    We have 2-4 minute shorts on tiny house life, escaping the city to float on a river, minimalist travels around the world, simplicity within the family structure, and more. We’re using many of Jonah’s principles here, mostly social currency, emotion, and stories. You know this better than most, Jeff: people want a platform to share their story. And when you encourage that sharing from a place of safety, compassion, and positivity, cool things happen.

    I hope this podcast episode goes viral. I’ll certainly be sharing it and talking about it. But don’t count on any of your episodes to be shared widely. Online audio content just doesn’t play by the same set of viral rules as text, images, and video. This article, “Is This Thing On? (a.k.a. Why Audio Never Goes Viral),” explains what I mean: https://digg.com/originals/why-audio-never-goes-viral

    • Interesting article, Joel. I never stopped to pay attention to the content that went viral and notice that it’s never in the form of audio. Thanks for sharing that. And I don’t really care if the podcast goes viral in the typical sense. I just want to reach more people, to keep growing and sharing. That stuff excites me, but I have to be careful I keep that in check with the need to be creative.

  • You know, it didn’t go viral in the truest sense, but a blog post and podcast I created called ‘The Problem with Kitsch Jesus’ (http://sheridanvoysey.com/036-the-problem-with-kitsch-jesus) got 1000 downloads and hundreds of likes/shares within its first couple of days online – one of my better performing posts to date.

    Looking at it now, I can see it was niche and it did provoke significant emotional reaction, so those two key points you’ve mentioned have currency.

  • Heather C Button

    I think the cover idea is really interesting, that you’re creating an orange cover to get people to notice what they’re reading. How would you do that for e-readers or where people are reading on their phone. Having been judged for what I read on the bus once, I prefer e-readers now for this very purpose.

    • Interesting. Judged on a bus? That doesn’t sound like fun. Sorry, Heather. Yeah, I thought the orange cover idea was interesting, too. I think the same principles would apply online, though, since orange is an eye-grabbing color.

      • Heather C Button

        Yeah. I was reading a Jane Austen book and someone in a suit made the comment that they couldn’t believe I was reading that junk. Online would work. But it probably doesn’t translate to the e-ink, which I find so much easier on the eyes.

        • That’s ridiculous. I thought you were going to say 50 Shades of Gray or something. Jane Austen, junk?! That’s pretty ignorant. Sorry to hear that, Heather.

  • Clark Gaither

    Excellent podcast. Very interesting! I’ll be getting the book Jeff.

  • I think I’ve inadvertently figured out a way to do the precise opposite, namely how to produce online content that goes so completely unnoticed on a consistent basis as to defy the laws of probability. Over the course of the five years I’ve been blogging, tweeting, and facebooking, my reach has gradually diminished to a point where these days every time I draw any sort of reaction on social media or on my blog, I’m literally shocked. Online, I feel like the main character in The Sixth Sense. In a way, this may be a useful skill in its own right. If I ever write a book on the topic, I’ll call it “Safe — How to Put Stuff Out There That No One Will Ever See.”

    • Ironically, I would probably read that book. 🙂

      • Oops. I guess the title needs some fine-tuning then. You know, I’m thinking that writing a book that NOBODY will ever read (or would, if it were published) might be just as hard as writing a bestseller.

    • Derek

      That’s pretty funny, Cyberquill! If you want a guest interview on my own blog – http://www.alongthewritelines.blogspot.com just say the word. I have around 2000 Twitter followers so you might reach some new people off the back of it.

  • Thanks Jeff. It’s always a joy to check out your work. I just reviewed your podcast, with 5 stars of course. Because you asked, here’s something I’ve created using Jonah’s principles. HOW TO TURN YOUR BOOK INTO A BUSINESS. It’s a free call on July 8th. https://bit.ly/1pXr7Is Enjoy.

  • Jevonnah Ellison

    Thanks for this opportunity Jeff. I’ve used Jonah’s principles by launching my own Deep-Dive VIP Days. These are live events that I offer to serve my tribe “outside of social media”. The next one is scheduled for July 12. https://ladyjevonnahellison.com/vipdays/

    • Excellent, Jevonnah. I’m very interested in this, as I’m thinking of doing something similar. Let me know how it goes!

      • Jevonnah Ellison

        Sure! My first event was sold out within 1 week. I know your event is going to be extraordinary!

        • Wow. Awesome! congrats!

          • Jevonnah Ellison


  • Jeff, I love your podcasts, blog, and book. I’m starting to podcast and the quality of your audio during the interview is wonderful. Would you mind briefly sharing your formula for optimal podcast sound quality – Skype Call Recorder? Screenflow? Do your guests use a microphone, etc. Thanks!

    • Hi Matthew. Thanks for listening! I use Skype Call Recorder. I also use a Heil PR 40 on my end, but guests just use whatever they have.

  • Awesome stuff, Jeff, as always. I’ve been digging into curiosity lately, and using it as a driver to accomplish goals, because if you’re curious enough, you’ll take action, right?

    check it out at https://areyoucuriousenough.com


  • Pam H.

    Loved this podcast, Jeff, and think I have another book to read now! I recently self-published a book with a message that I’m driven and passionate about getting out there. I wish I’d had all of this info sooner, but it’s never too late to do more. Thanks so much for all of your encouraging content.

  • Lori Robinson

    Great questions and interview Jeff. Thanks.

  • Great interview Jeff. Jonah’s books is a fabulous read.

    • Thanks, Kimanzi! I really enjoyed it.

  • Awesome! Congrats, Sheridan.

  • Jeff – I was blown away at hearing Jonah say how only 7% of the spread of ideas comes online. That puts a new perspective on the old ways of connecting.

    • It really does! I highly recommend his book if you haven’t read it yet.

  • Kathy Brunner

    Jeff, Thanks for another great podcast. Really enjoyed it. Makes business owners think about what is truly important for connecting on a deeper scale.

  • Sarahsiders

    Jeff, thank you for sharing Jonah’s work – it’s a helpful paradigm switch for me. I created a short eWorkbook, Called To Come Alive, designed to help people discover their calling and develop a personal mission statement. I will be banking on two of the STEPPS: Emotion (primarily curiosity because I think most people want to know heir calling but feel confused) and Practical value because the book will clear up personal calling confusion in an hour or less. The book link is here and I would love you to check it out since we are both obsessed with helping people find their calling. Thank you for this opportunity.


  • Delightful conversation. Thanks to Mr. Jeff and Mr. Jonah. I like the triggers idea to connect my product, service, etc. with offline objects that humanity happens upon while doing life, which in turn triggers them to not only be reminded of you, but to talk about you. Intrigued by the orange tissue.

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