Jonah Berger On Foursquare, Frequent Flyers, And Games That Stick

In an exclusive excerpt from the Wharton professor's new book "Contagious," Jonah Berger explains how gamification is a key to helping people themselves in an experience with brands or ideas.

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 next week 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 unravel the mysteries of virality.

In yesterday’s excerpt, Berger introduced the idea that game mechanics can be very effective in generating social currency. Today, he explains how best to leverage game mechanics to achieve those results.


Leveraging game mechanics requires quantifying performance. Some domains like golf handicaps and SAT scores have built-in metrics. People can easily see how they are doing and compare themselves with others without needing any help. But if a product or idea doesn’t automatically do that, it needs to be “gamified.” Metrics need to be created or recorded that let people see where they stand—for example, icons for how much they have contributed to a community message board or different colored tickets for season ticket holders.

Airlines have done this nicely. People have flown commercially for more than half a century. But flying was gamified in the 1980s, with airlines recording miles flown and awarding status levels. And because this provides social currency, people love to talk about it.

Leveraging game mechanics also involves helping people publicize their achievements. Sure, someone can talk about how well she did, but it’s even better if there is a tangible, visible symbol that she can display to others. Foursquare, the location-based social networking website, lets users check in at bars, restaurants, and other locations using their mobile devices. Checking in helps people find their friends, but Foursquare also awards special badges to users based on their check-in history. Check in to the same venue more than anyone else in a sixty-day period and you’ll be crowned the mayor of that location. Check in to five different airports and get a Jetsetter badge. Not only are these badges posted on users’ Foursquare accounts, but because they provide social currency, users also prominently display them on their Facebook pages.

Many contests also involve game mechanics. Burberry created a website called “Art of the Trench” that is a montage of Burberry and all the people who wear it. Some photos were taken by the world’s leading photographers, but people can also send in photos of themselves or their friends wearing the iconic Burberry trench coat. If you’re lucky, Burberry posts your image on its website. Your photo then becomes part of a set of images reflecting personal style from across the globe.




Imagine if your photo was picked for the site. What would be your first impulse? You’d tell someone else! And not just one person. Lots of people.

As apparently everyone did. The Burberry site garnered millions of views from more than a hundred different countries. And the contest helped drive sales up 50%.

Recipients of awards love boasting about them—it gives them the opportunity to tell others how great they are. But along the way they have to mention who gave them the award.

Instead of marketing itself directly, a company like Burberry uses the contest to get people who want to win to do the marketing themselves.

And this brings us to the third way to generate social currency: making people feel like insiders.

Friday: How to make people feel like insiders and why it works in promoting virality.

[Image: Andrew Hetherington]

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2 Comments

  • Jay

    wasn't there a book just a few years ago about viral marketing and so forth. This doesn't seem very new or different.