Exclusive Excerpt From Jonah Berger's Disruptive New Book "Contagious" (Please Don't Tell)

In the first of a five-part excerpt series, the Wharton professor and author of a groundbreaking book on "Why Things Catch On" breaks down virality.

In Fast Company’s April issue, we’ll profile Jonah Berger, the 32-year-old Wharton professor who has become one of the world’s foremost experts on what goes viral and why. It’s easy to find examples of products or ideas that have spread and become popular, but as he writes, "it’s much harder to actually get something to catch on. Even with all the money poured into marketing and advertising, few products become popular." His new book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, being published March 5 by Simon & Schuster, tries to answer the question, Why do some products, ideas, and behaviors succeed when others fail? In this exclusive excerpt, which will be serialized in five parts, he explores the concept of social currency, one of the six elements Berger says helps answer the most buzzed-about question of our social age.


Among the brownstones and vintage shops on St. Mark’s Place near Tompkins Square Park in New York City, you’ll notice a small eatery.

It’s marked by a large red hot-dog-shaped sign with the words "eat me" written in what looks like mustard. Walk down a small flight of stairs and you’re in a genuine old hole-in-the-wall hot dog restaurant called Crif Dogs. Look beyond the gingham tablecloths and hipsters enjoying their dogs. Notice that vintage wooden phone booth tucked into the corner? The one that looks like something Clark Kent might have dashed into to change into Superman? Go ahead, peek inside.

You’ll notice an old-school rotary dial phone hanging on the inside of the booth, the type that has a finger wheel with little holes for you to dial each number. Just for kicks, place your finger in the hole under the number 2 and dial.

To your astonishment, someone answers. "Do you have a reservation?" a voice asks.

A reservation? For a phone booth in the corner of a hot dog restaurant?

But today is your lucky day, apparently: They can take you. The back of the booth swings open—it’s a secret door!—and you are let into a clandestine bar called, of all things, Please Don’t Tell.

New York City is flush with bars. In a four-block radius around Crif Dogs there are more than sixty places to grab a drink. A handful are even on the same block. Originally, co-owner Brian Shebairo had a grungy rock-and-roll bar in mind. But that wouldn’t cut it. The concept needed to be something more remarkable. Something that would get people talking and draw them in.

Everything about Please Don’t Tell suggests that you’ve been let into a very special secret. You won’t find a sign posted on the street. You won’t find it advertised on billboards or in magazines. And the only entrance is through a semihidden phone booth inside a hot dog diner.

Of course, this makes no sense. Don’t marketers preach that blatant advertising and easy access are the cornerstones of a successful business?

Please Don’t Tell is a classic "discovery brand." Jim Meehan, the wizard behind Please Don’t Tell’s cocktail menu, designed the customer experience with that goal in mind. "The most powerful marketing is personal recommendation," he said. "Nothing is more viral or infectious than one of your friends going to a place and giving it his full recommendation." And what could be more remarkable than watching two people disappear into the back of a phone booth?

Word of mouth, then, is a prime tool for making a good impression. Think of it as a kind of currency. Social currency. Just as people use money to buy products or services, they use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues.

So to get people talking, companies and organizations need to mint social currency. Give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting their products and ideas along the way. There are three ways to do that: (1) find inner remarkability; (2) leverage game mechanics; and (3) make people feel like insiders.

Tomorrow: How to find your idea’s inner remarkability.

[Image: Andrew Hetherington]

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1 Comments

  • Marc Posch

    We use a similar concept in developing brands. It's based on an analysis that compares religion and brands. Martin Lindstrom has done some research for his book Byology. Interesting read, btw. The key principles that are shared between great brands like Apple or Nike and religions can be summed up as

    - Story

    - Mission

    - Mystery

    - Symbolism

    - Belonging

    I'm curious about Jonah's book though. He's on to something here.
    Marc