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Brand engagement, Social media marketing

A book review with a difference: Part 3 (Contagious by Jonah Berger)

In this post we look at the three ways brands can make give people social currency (that is, a way to make them look good) via 1) inner remarkability, 2) game mechanics and 3) making people feel like an insider.

1) Inner Remarkability:
To be remarkable you have to be worthy of remark.  When someone finds out something that is novel, extraordinary or entertaining, it is virtually impossible NOT to pass it on.  You feel like you’re bursting to say it.

This is a trick used well by Snapple.  Already known for its quirkiness as a brand, a cunning chappy at Snapple’s marketing department noticed that the space under the cap wasn’t being used.  What could they put there?  To begin with they tried jokes, but the sort of fell flat as they weren’t that funny (or therefore remarkable).  Then they had the genius idea of putting ‘remarkable’ facts such as ‘#12 Kangaroos can’t walk backwards’ and ‘#73 the average person spends two weeks over his/her lifetime waiting for traffic lights to change’ under the cap instead.  They suddenly had a hit on their hands.  Not only were people finding facts ‘worth of note’, the only intelligible way to drop these facts into conversation was to link it to their Snapple find, thereby including the brand.  (As an aside, the fact that the only way people could access these facts was to first purchase a bottle (and therefore increase Snapple sales) made each person an insider as well – see section below).

The remarkability of something also links to the viral potential it has.  This is because remarkability shapes how stories evolve over time.  As the story is passed on, the remarkable elements become more remarkable and the less remarkable elements start to get dropped. So what you end up with is a truly remarkable story.  Or, in some cases, an urban myth.

Jonah has also found that stories become more extreme of entertaining particularly when people tell them in front of a group.  And what ‘group’ could be bigger than the twittersphere?

So how do you uncover your inner remarkability?  Jonah suggests finding something that makes your brand “interesting, surprising, or novel.” p42.

Surprise is a particularly good one here, as you perhaps have more control over that.  If your brand is generic (and therefore lacking particular interest or novelty) you can still create surprise.  The example Jonah uses is of the airline carrier JetBlue.  Despite being a low cost carrier, JetBlue gives you a pretty first class experience, with large seats, free TV programming from your seat, and a choice of snacks.  Here JetBlue had the control over how they made the customer experience remarkable.

Take a different sector such as accountancy.  Accountants are, in the main, viewed as grey, boring creatures.  You come across the occasional one that claims to be more ‘hip’ than the rest but they come across more like your Uncle who cracks the bad jokes or who wears the novelty tie to show he’s got a sense of humour, than someone who is really comfortable dealing with anything other than a neat spreadsheet.

So how could an accountant become remarkable?  Off the top of my head they could stage a rock concert at the local park.  Or they could take up rock climbing and organise a big climb for charity.  That would counter the ‘grey’ element.

Another way would be to look at how people engage with an accountant.  So much of what they do is number related, jargon filled and inaccessible that you’d have to be an accountant to understand it.  They also tend to talk about tax like it’s a good thing too, when that three letter word tends to drive fear into the heart of any businessman.

Why not shake up the way they talk about what they do and what you get?  Talk about the end result (ie more profit for the business rather than “we are well placed to advise you of the best tax position you could be in.” (yes that is an actual line from an actual website).  Well the best position to be in is for the taxman to simple not exist!  Basically you’re talking about whether I want to be stood in the mud or up to my eyes in a bog.  Where’s the positive?  Exactly.  Where is the positive?  Find it and you might start to be remarkable.  Save a company £1m in under 5 years?  That sounds pretty good.  Save a company £1m in under 5 years just by rearranging a few things?  That sounds pretty remarkable. It sounds simple, not complicated.  And yes I’d be interested in talking to them.

2) Leverage game mechanics:
The second way to generate social currency is to get into the gaming mindset.  The best example of this is airline frequent flier programmes.  Users generate airmiles for the travel they do.  The more miles they have the bigger the perks.  The nice trick is that you have to hit a certain level to progress to the next stage.  It’s a bit like how gold cards used to be.  If you had a gold card you’d earned it by having a good salary and basically buying lots.  Now you get Gold status on your Frequent Flier miles.  Or Platinum, or Silver, or Bronze…you get the idea.

Each level though is quite public as you get access to particular airport lounges or upgrades.  Anyone travelling with you, or talking to you about your travels, will be aware of which perks you have and therefore what status you have achieved.

In other words, frequent flier programmes generate social status and therefore social currency.

How does this help brands?  Well, the core of it is the ability to upsell together with the chance to create a loyal customer base.

Say you need to travel to Dubai.  A number of airlines will take you there. But you are a frequent flier member with Emirates.  Even though another carrier could take you there for less money you are more likely to consider the ‘perks’ you get by upping your miles with that one carrier.  That generates loyalty.

The upsell is the clever bit though (in my opinion) as, if you don’t keep up your miles you lose your privileges.  What does that mean? It means that people will buy MORE flights with you just to keep up their status level.  I know people who have booked flights they’ve not taken just to keep their miles up.  I know someone who travelled halfway around the world in the wrong direction before getting to their destination just because they needed to top up their airmiles.  It’s a game.  You want to reach the next level, stay there and be able to look down on all your friends.

This is an example of good game mechanics.  You want to keep people engaged, motivated and always wanting more.  Companies such as Foursquare have built their brands using game mechanics.  But everyone can include some game mechanics in their business.  A cafe offering a free cup of coffee once you bought 10 is using game mechanics.  Giving people the chance to win a prize by collecting points is participating in game mechanics.

Jonah uses a fascinating (some may say ‘remarkable’!) story to highlight game mechanics in relation to our social currency and status.  He cites a study by Harvard University where students were asked to make a “seemingly straightforward choice: which would they prefer, a job where they made $50,000 a year (option A) or one where they made $100,000 a year (option B)?  Seems like a no-brainer, right? Everyone should take option B,.  But there was one catch.  In option A, the students would get paid twice as much as the others, who would only get $25,000.  In option B, they would get paid half as much as others, who would get $200,000.  So option B would make the students more money overall, but they would be doing worse than others around them.  What did the majority of people choose?  Option A.” p46/7

That’s quite a shocking result, but it tells us one important thing – people care about how they are performing in relation to others. And this is critical to how you incorporate game mechanics into your brand.

3: Make people feel like insiders:The third aspect of social currency is basically being in on the secret.  The bar ‘Please Don’t Tell’ which we mentioned in Part 2 of this review is a good example of this.  Others include flash sales, pop up restaurants, limited time deals for members etc.  All of these have certain elements in common – you have to be in the know to be aware of them and, even when you are aware of them, you may have limited time to take advantage.  Secrecy and urgency underpin the insider mentality.

Jonah uses the online bargain sales site Rue La La as an example of this (p51).  The site was basically a remake of SmartBargains.com, a discount shopping website.  It did well, while SmartBargains didn’t.  Why?

Well, when SmartBargains was first launched there was a lot of customer excitement about it.  After all you could get designer items for up to 75% less than the retail price (what a ‘remarkable’ fact!).  However, after a couple of years interest waned.  Other sites were popping up and SmartBargains didn’t have a way to differentiate itself.

So the CEO, Ben Fischman, set up Rue La La.  Rue La La did exactly the same thing as SmartBargains but with one crucial difference.  It focused on flash sales.  People had a limited time to make a purchase (something that shopping TV channels are very good at).  And here’s the crunch.  Access was only by invitation only. And you could only be invited by an existing member.

The site went stellar and gave Fischman a $350m payout when he sold it (together with SmartBargains) in 2009.

Why did Rue La La become so successful when it did the same thing as SmartBargains?  Because it made the users feel like insiders.  And they used this status as ‘social currency’ amongst their friends.  By being in the know about Rue La La they could give their friends access to the same deals.  How cool is that?

So what have we learnt?

1) focus on the remarkable angle of what you have, and put people in a position to pass it on, ideally in a group context.

2) get people ‘playing’ and, most importantly, playing against their peers

3) create scarcity and exclusivity to make customers feel special, but with a way to pass on the love to their friends.

And here endeth part 3.  In Part 4 we’ll look at the second of Jonah Berger’s 6 ‘STEPPS’ to being contagious – Triggers.


About chichomarketing

Straight talking marketing from a team what works too hard but has lots of fun along the way! Websites, marketing strategy, social media, motion graphics and corporate animations for Small Businesses and Start Ups.


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