Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania professor Jonah Berger is an interesting guy. He is obsessive about understanding why we share – what makes digital content interesting and what makes content viral. He has written numerous papers and has even written aNew York Times bestselling book called “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” that dissects the science behind shareable content, and should be on the must-read list of all marketers.
Jonah is not alone of course. He carries on the work of great thinkers and researchers like Malcolm Gladwell, Dina Mayzlin, Shirley Brice Heath and others who have explored the phenomenon of sharing, as it relates to business and brand, from various angles. I’ve personally made it a habit of following some of this research over the years and found that there are indeed some common criteria for how we evaluate the value of content.
My personal take on it is that there are three common criteria we all look for in content. We value content that is useful, or helps us make decisions. We value content that educates and helps us learn, or stay current in our profession. We value content that is emotional,
or triggers our curiosity. I’ve found these criteria validated in my reading and in my work helping clients create great content for B2B marketing campaigns. In an era when information is abundant and time is scarce, these three criteria take on more importance for any content producer or marketer.
Back to Johan, in his book, he sets out a few criteria of his own (not entirely different from mine). He argues that there are six essential factors that make ideas (or content) contagious. According to Jonah, these are:
- Social currency, or insider information that make us look good or compare favorably to others.
- Triggers, or breaking news and events or content that is relevant to things we’re thinking about at that moment.
- Emotion, or things we care about deeply, makes us laugh and smile or invokes nostalgia (like the famous scene from Mad Men).
- Crowd-think, or things that we know others are doing or thinking about, so we follow and share.
- Practicality, or advice and tips.
- Stories, because storytelling is an intrinsic part of who we are (side note on a related and recom
mended read: “The Storytelling Animal” a great book by Jonathan Gottschall).
So, with Jonah’s ideas in mind, I thought it would be a fun exercise to look at how his six criteria – social currency, triggers, emotion, crowd-think, practicality and stories – are reflected in B2B content. More specifically, I looked at articles on our favorite Websites likeInformationWeek, ZDNet, GigaOm, Mashable and VentureBeat. In other words, in B2B tech, do Jonah’s criteria for contagious content matter?
I applied his criteria to the most popular and shared articles from those publications. With time of the essence, I limited my research to the most shared articles within a 24-hour period, between April 23 and April 24. Here’s what I found.
The most shared articles on GigaOm during the 24-hour period I measured were:
- When it Comes to Net Neutrality, Either the FCC Thinks we are Idiots, or it Doesn’t Care (Shared 261 times across Facebook and Twitter)
- Facebook Launches Newswire so it Can Help the Media – While it Competes with Them (Shared 206 times)
- Square Plans Major Staff Expansion in NYC and a East Coast HQ (Shared 178 times)
- Need an iPhone Battery Boost: Install iOS 7.1.1 (Shared 173 times)
GigaOm has a large readership and had a solid amount of social shares over the 24-hour period I measured. Their content uses Triggers (relevant breaking news) to stay current and is high on Emotion (taking a stance on a topic) and Crowd-Think (to tap into existing conversations).
The most shared articles on InformationWeek were:
- Microsoft Earnings: 6 Questions (Shared 84 times across Facebook and Twitter)
- Will Microsoft Launch Surface Mini-Tablet in May? (Shared 69 times)
- 10 Hadoop Hardware Lessons (Shared 42 times)
- Physicians Find Security In the Cloud (Shared 28 times)
InformationWeek also has a great readership, but doesn’t get as many shares of their content as GigaOm. They, of course, attempt to use Triggers, but also have a lot of Practicality (with tips and advice) in their content.
The most shared articles on Venturebeat were:
- VC Steve Jurvetson: Elon Musk is More Capable than Steve Jobs Was (Shared 399 times across Facebook and Twitter)
- Galaxy S5 Review (Shared 287 times)
- Facebook is Desperately Trying to Get into the News Business (Shared 201 times)
- Waiting for Patent Reform is Costing us Billions – Here are the Numbers (Shared 137 times)
- Apple May Soon Let you Interact with Floating 3D Images, Patent Application Shows (Shared 125 times)
VentureBeat knows that Social Currency matters, so you’ll find insider information and unique angles there that you might not find elsewhere. They also use Emotion well, like the first article pitting Elon Musk vs. Steve Jobs, to drive shares.
The most shared articles on Mashable were:
- Mark Zuckerberg Immortalized by Madam Tussauds (Shared 1,296 times across Facebook and Twitter)
- Facebook, Microsoft and Google Join Forces to Prevent Another Heartbleed (Shared 1,191 times)
- Facebook Acquires Move, a Fitness Tracking App (Shared 1,181 times)
- Facebook Launches a Newswire to Surface More Breaking News (Shared 1,141 times)
- Episode VII Will be Most Expensive Star Wars Ever, Says Disney (Shared 1,120 times)
Clearly, Mashable really, really likes writing about Facebook. Which seems to be a popular topic, as it also gets the most shares on the site. They use Social Currency and Triggers, but also attempt to evoke Emotion with their content. They also tap into Crowd-Think, writing about topics that are the most discussed across the Web.
The most shared articles on ZDNet were:
- Google Glass Becomes Available to Everyone and Promptly Sells Out (Shared 168 times across Facebook and Twitter)
- Facebook, Gmail, Skype Face Russia Ban Under “Anti-Terror” Data Snooping Plan (Shared 143 times)
- Microsoft Surface to Debut in Mid May (Shared 127 times)
- Netflix: Comcast is Charging us to Access our own Subscribers (Shared 124 times)
- Former CIA CTO Speaks out on Snowden Leaks; Amazon’s $600M Cloud Deal (Shared 115 times)
ZDNet uses Triggers, or breaking news, as well as information not found on other sites to create Social Currency.
Given these are mostly news site, the trigger of breaking news drove many of the shares. But, interestingly, the second most shares, 11 of the 23 articles, offered some sort of social currency, or new or inside information that make the sharers of the article look smarter to their followers – something to consider when blogging or writing your next news release.
Some were shared because they touched on emotional or charged issues for technologists, like data transparency, privacy and net neutrality. While in the short-form online publishing world, storytelling didn’t play much of a role. But, maybe that method of getting people to shares will play differently if we evaluate more long-form content sites like The Economist, Time, Salon or The Atlantic.Practicality was generally not a factor in these publications, other than InformationWeek.
So, most of Jonas’s triggers were applicable, but we’re also still learning what works and what doesn’t in this new digital and social era of content. The publishers are learning as well, and will adopt more of these triggers as they evaluate the performance of their content. So, are we as we help our clients make their content and ideas more and more contagious.