Jonah Berger has descended to the lowest common denominator: breasts. "It's more difficult than you think to find a fully clothed picture of Kim Kardashian," Berger teases a lecture hall full of Wharton MBA students.
The reality star's Cinemascopic cleavage is hovering behind Berger, who at 32 could easily be mistaken for one of his students. Berger then makes the big reveal: Companies pay Kardashian some $10,000 for every tweet about a product. "Today we're going to ask," he says, striking a Dead Poets Society pose, a sneakered foot hanging off the table, "Is she worth it?" That is to say, is she an "influential"—a term thrust into the spotlight by Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 best seller, The Tipping Point. Then Berger pushes it one step further: Do influentials even exist?
"This is a really compelling argument, right?" he posits. "There's this notion that there are special people out there, and if we can just find them, our product will become popular." Berger admits to the class that he used Kardashian as a decoy to get their attention; she is more celeb than influencer. Ultimately, today's lesson is winding toward the heretical conclusion Berger has spent his entire academic career developing: "There is no data to show that influentials actually lead things to catch on, that they are more important than a randomly selected group of people," he says.
Berger might, ironically, be lecturing about himself. An influential scholar little known outside academia, he is working to tip himself into the mainstream with a new, contrarian book that sparked a high-profile bidding war. His book publicist and speaking bureau are also pitching him for the conference circuit, and he's hoping to consult with companies and sit on boards. But nothing defines Berger more than the specter of Gladwell—muse, alter ego, shadow, nemesis, figure of admiration and envy. In many ways, Berger is setting himself up as the anti-Gladwell: It's data that matters, not storytelling. "I like to say in class, 'Fifty percent of The Tipping Point is wrong. My job is to show you which half,'" Berger tells me.
Berger's course, called "Contagious," is one of Wharton's most popular. Its list of guest speakers is a Who's Who of new-age marketing—from BzzAgent to Klout—and the experiments that Berger assigns, delving into Twitter and Facebook, are like method pop science. Its appeal has been fueled by Berger's marketing. "I spent a lot of time thinking about the name," he says. (It may as well be called "Pot and Hallucinogens," amid a sleepy roster of classes such as "Pricing Policy" and "Models for Marketing Strategy.") "I thought it would be something that would get students' attention."
Berger's dismantling of Gladwell is at the core of the class and his new book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, out this March. Berger says marketers have been obsessed with the wrong part of the viral equation. "By focusing so much on the messenger, we've neglected a much more obvious driver of sharing: the message," he writes. The Tipping Point's notion that social epidemics are driven "by the efforts of a handful of exceptional people," dubbed by Gladwell as mavens, connectors, and salesmen, is just plain wrong, Berger argues. "Gladwell is great at telling stories," he allows, "but sometimes the stories get ahead of the facts. I really love applying hard-science tools to social science questions." Gladwell's response to all the campfire criticism: "I think anyone who is honest about what they're doing is letting stories get ahead of facts. Stories are the way of making sense of things where we don't have facts." He also admits that he has refined some of the ideas that made him famous. "The more I've thought about this since writing The Tipping Point, the more it strikes me that the argument I was making was really specific to a certain kind of idea—to complex, relatively new, and sophisticated ideas," he said. "If you are talking about a popular song, I think it's foolish to talk about connectors and salesmen and mavens." And as for the man who would dethrone him, when I first approached Gladwell for this story, he told me that he didn't really know who Berger was. Then he deftly disarmed any rivalry. "I was just a journalist describing stuff. These guys are actually doing the work," Gladwell said. "I'm far more interested in what he has to say about it than what I think about it."
Berger will be saying it in a crowded field. Ever since Gladwell spawned a literary subgenre, social science repackaged as pop culture has become big business, with publishers pumping out tomes on the next big idea to flog at airport bookstores. But few have set out expressly to topple Gladwell. The Tipping Point not only elevated the New Yorker writer to sage—hired by companies and trade groups at up to $100,000 per speech—but has also inspired a generation of business leaders to embrace strategies that Berger now argues are at least half off the mark. And what would prove Berger's point definitively? To have his own book reach Gladwellian heights.
Up until now in his young career, Berger has gracefully walked the line between academic and popular acclaim, finding a home for his ideas in both journals and the mainstream press. He's been hired to share his thinking with companies including Estee Lauder, Google, and Samsung. Yet as he sets out to take his ideas on the road, some precocious big-think authors—such as Jonah Lehrer, who was caught manufacturing quotes in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works—have become overnight cautionary tales. "It's very important for me to do things that people can use in their lives. But I think you have to be careful not to oversimplify things," says Berger.
It doesn't hurt that Berger has already packaged his ideas in a way that is conveniently reductive. "I can explain the entire semester in 10 minutes to anyone," says Lainie Huston, a peppy blond 20-year-old undergrad who took Berger's class this fall. She has applied his framework to her a capella group's fundraiser and plans to use it when she lands her brand-manager dream job at a company like Starbucks. "I'm thinking of going back to my high school and teaching them how they could use it in their lives," she says. "It's so easy to learn. Everyone should learn it."
Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Berger are both short. If someone were to draw a caricature of them, the curly hair that sits atop each of their heads would be the star of the show. Whereas Gladwell's curls are black and bushy and bloom from his wispy frame, Berger's strawberry blond corkscrews are packed as tightly as his muscled forearms, which rolled-up shirtsleeves often leave on display. When Gladwell speaks, he has the cadence of a seductive storyteller peeling away the veils. Berger talks with the rushed, if not neurotic-sounding, impatience of someone who can't squeeze out the data coursing through his brain fast enough.
"For him, using data to understand the world was just like riding a bike," says Berger's father, Jeffrey, a Washington, D.C., labor lawyer. Jeffrey recalls how one of Jonah's preschool teachers at the National Child Research Center noticed his son's unusual capacity. "She said, 'I'd be reading a story and Jonah would be staring up at the ceiling. But every time I asked a question, he'd raise his hand and answer, then go back to look at the ceiling. One day, he said, "5,622," and I realized he was counting the dots in the ceiling.'"
By age 7, Jonah's IQ was scored at genius level, but he wasn't considered exceptional in the D.C.-area private and magnet schools he attended. He excelled in math and science—"It was a fun way to socialize with people who liked being smart," he says of a Johns Hopkins summer camp—and credits his chosen sports, which included wrestling, with giving him grit. "It was one of these experiences where I was not very good at it, and I just got the shit kicked out of me," says Berger. "If you can go through these practices sweating and bleeding, you realize you can do anything." Even though he got near-perfect scores on his SATs, says Berger, "I got rejected from Harvard, I got rejected from Columbia, I got rejected from Princeton. I applied early to Wharton, and I didn't get in."
He did get into Stanford, where he planned to focus on math and engineering until he discovered social psychology, the study of how other people's behavior and decisions affect an individual's behavior and decisions. "I was really interested in people as they relate to other people," says Berger. As a freshman he began cold-calling Stanford researchers in the field and landed assistantships helping PhDs with experiments such as "Alone in a Crowd of Sheep." ("If you ask people, everyone thinks others conform, just not them," Berger explains.) An interest in game theory led him to take business courses, which aren't typically available to Stanford undergrads. "I was able to weasel my way in," he notes wryly.
Berger's grandmother introduced him to the book that would alter the trajectory of his life. In her seventies at the time, she had spent a 40-year career organizing focus groups for marketers. "My grandmother was like, 'You should check out this book called The Tipping Point,'" says Berger. "I read it over the summer [before junior year] and just thought it was so, so cool." He had never before seen anyone bring together the disciplines of social psychology, sociology, and marketing. "I owe Gladwell a great academic debt," he adds. "I would not be where I am today without him."
Berger found a mentor in another future New York Times best-selling author, Stanford professor Chip Heath. "I remember getting a message from a guy named Jonah Berger on my answering machine, talking about Malcolm Gladwell," recalls Heath, who with his brother Dan has produced three big-think books, Made to Stick, Switch, and Decisive. "I was expecting a grad student to show up and instead this ruddy-faced kid with big, cool sneakers who looks about 13 walks into my office." Berger began lapping up Heath's methodology, which would prove formative; instead of asking subjects about their behavior, he was tracking actual behavior online. Heath says that Berger, only a junior, was completing studies in three days that would take grad students three months to execute. Heath would go on to become Berger's PhD co-adviser. "My reference letter for him when he was looking for his first professor job was, 'If you didn't know this was a guy applying for a first job, you might think he's coming up for tenure seven years into his career,'" says Heath.
A slew of universities, including Harvard and the University of Chicago, wanted to hire Berger after he got his doctorate in 2007, but he had his eye on Wharton, which didn't have an opening. Again, Berger talked his way into the room. "Jonah called me on Thanksgiving Day and said, 'I have offers from all these other places. I love Wharton. Is there any opportunity?'" says vice dean and director of Wharton Doctoral Programs Eric Bradlow. Wharton was looking after its brand, too. Twitter and Facebook had just started to boom. "I called my department chair. I said, 'This guy has an immense amount of talent. Maybe this is someone who can provide insights on those things,'" Bradlow says. Then he adds: "Give us a little credit. We can spell success when we can see it. I mean, what does Jonah have that you wouldn't want?"
Once at Wharton, instead of collaborating with behavioral academics like psychologists, Berger began working with quantitative types: statisticians and economists. In five years, he published 25 papers, nearly three times the average. But despite the voluminous output, he was still trapped in the echo chamber of academia. By 2011, he decided he was ready to write the book that would thrust him into the mainstream. Ever since he'd read Gladwell's opus, he says, "I wanted to write what I'll call"—he catches himself—"I won't call it a better version of The Tipping Point, but a more research-focused version of The Tipping Point." Plus, he had recently turned 30. "This is going to make me sound like an asshole," he says, "but you read the business section of the paper, you read about these people doing startups, people who are famous playing sports and they're, like, 28 and they're gazillionaires and you're sitting there going, 'I'm working just as hard as these people. Like, what am I doing wrong?'"
Still, writing a paper is one thing; a book is another. Berger approached the job the way he goes about his research: with lots of analysis. "I tried to reverse-engineer The Tipping Point, Made to Stick, Predictably Irrational, [/i]and Freakonomics," Berger tells me on the way to dinner at Barclay Prime, a posh Philadelphia restaurant. "I looked at how their books worked, how the chapter structure worked, and what made each successful." In contrast to The Tipping Point, in which Gladwell tells long stories that take up an entire chapter, Made to Stick uses lots of short anecdotes woven around research. In both Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational, each chapter is based on a paper. "I realized that I'm not a good enough writer to do the Gladwell approach, and I'm not well read enough to do the Heath approach. I think my relative advantage is I do a lot of research, so I tried to focus on the research but build stories around it," he says.
The organizing framework of Contagious is an acronym representing the six principles that Berger maintains can lead to contagious content: STEPPS, for social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories. Unlike others' "theories," writes Berger, his findings are based on his own "cutting-edge science" of how the social transmission of products and ideas works.
Berger's book soars when he takes the reader inside his plethora of studies. He sheds new light on phenomena that may seem familiar, showing with precision why things catch on. One of his most fascinating studies drills into why certain articles end up on The New York Times' most-emailed list—something, he says, even the Times doesn't understand. Berger teamed up with a computer scientist to build a web crawler that for six months tracked every article the newspaper published. They discovered that science articles were the ones most frequently shared, so they ran a statistical analysis coding each story by the emotion it elicited. Berger concluded that the critical emotion was awe—the same feeling people experienced when watching underdog Susan Boyle sing on Britain's Got Talent. "It's hard to watch this video and not be awed by her strength and heart. That emotion drove people to pass it on," writes Berger of why Boyle's clip became one of the most popular videos ever. In his chapter on triggers, he explains that Rebecca Black's "Friday" song, which also went viral, "was equally bad every day of the week," but "each Friday it received a strong trigger that contributed to its success." Many of the anecdotes are fascinating—it turns out that people are more likely to vote for education-friendly funding if their polling place is in a school, or to buy French wine if a liquor store is playing French music.
So as a playbook for marketers, Contagious is a success. As a piece of writing, though, it is more Time magazine than New Yorker. Berger can't compete with Gladwell's literary sheen of "thin-slicing" and "Warren Harding errors." Contagious is peppered with mottoes that are intended to be memorable but that at times are cringe-worthy—"Top of mind, tip of tongue," "When we care, we share," "News you can use." While the STEPPS conceit helps simplify his complex research, the acronym is clunky and derivative, ripped right from his mentor Heath's Made to Stick SUCCESS framework, which he more or less admits. ("When I wrote Contagious, sometimes I was doing my best Heath brothers impression," Berger says to me.) For anyone who's been to a marketing conference in the past three years, some of his anecdotes feel like they've been sitting in the fridge a little too long, like the ones about viral Blendtec videos ("They can blend iPhones!") or Subway's weight-loss everyman, Jared. By the end of the book, Berger makes a dangerous, intoxicating promise. "If you follow these six key STEPPS," he writes, "you can make any product or idea contagious." And he is applying the recipe to his own product. He says he chose Contagious's bright clementine-hued cover to make it more public (P); the memorable stories (S) he told, such as his account of Barclay Prime's $100 cheesesteak, have social currency (S) so they become traveling "Trojan horses." But if Berger wants to claim that he's cracked the code for making things catch on, he had better end up on the New York Times best-seller list—and stay there.
It's five months before Contagious hits bookstores, and the cogs of the Jonah Berger marketing machine are gathered around their guru. All nine of them are at Simon & Schuster's midtown Manhattan offices, including Berger's editor, assistant publisher, and publicist, a level of attention more typical of a Robert Ludlum type than a university professor. Berger has just rolled into town from Philadelphia, wearing another pair of exotic sneakers and with a black Barneys suit bag slung over his shoulder. "Jonah, have you seen this?" Simon & Schuster director of publicity Tracey Guest says, fanning a copy of Philadelphia magazine. "Jonah is one of the innovators. They call you 'the Twitter Whisperer!'" The room is almost giddy. "I don't know where they get the word darling," Berger says with a slight blush, "but I'll take it. Awesome." Someone in the room quietly mutters, "There's a little irony here." Turns out Simon & Schuster has been pushing Berger to build up his Twitter following, but in his typical number-crunching manner, Berger isn't convinced Twitter actually works and is resisting hard. "These things [Twitter and social media] are great because you can see them," he argues later in the meeting, getting all academic on the team, "but it doesn't necessarily mean they are effective, or are more effective than other things that are harder to see."
Twitter or not, the Simon & Schuster team is working hard to make Contagious as contagious as possible, or to sound that way. Guest's update list reads like the itinerary for an Idea Man world tour: Will Berger be doing a TED talk? ("They told me, 'We haven't forgotten about Jonah!'") Be speaking at South by Southwest? ("There are still 200 proposals they are considering!") Be appearing on Good Morning America? ("Let's think of an experiment where something could go viral!") Associate publisher Richard Rohrer says, as if channeling Donald Trump: "I want to be able to say that this is the most shareable e-book this company has published. I want to do this more for bragging rights so it becomes part of the narrative of the publishing of this book."
Simon & Schuster bought Berger's book within two weeks of receiving the pitch. "I was at Random House when Gladwell's proposal for The Tipping Point was submitted and it elicited the same reaction—instant frenzy," says publisher Jonathan Karp (Little, Brown ended up purchasing The Tipping Point), adding that the company has already sold foreign rights for Contagious in 14 countries, from Estonia to Korea. "All signs are that he will be one of the leading business thinkers of his generation." The imprint paid a rumored seven figures, a sum that still mystifies Berger. "The amount we got in the end is just ridiculous," he says.
After the meeting ends, Berger pulls aside his editor, Bob Bender, to talk about something that's been gnawing at him. "Right now the book is 180 pages, and I'm slightly worried," he tells Bender. Berger starts riffing about psychological research on decision making as it relates to books—and it has to do with length. "Most business books of this size are over 200 pages for text," he says. "I think people will look at [Contagious] and go, 'It's a short book; it must not be worth it to buy.'" Berger takes out his iPhone to show Bender his evidence—a spreadsheet he had constructed that morning, breaking down not only the number of pages of his competitors' books, but also the number of words on each page. "We're coming in at 340 [words per page], whereas The Tipping Point is coming in at 290, Predictably Irrational the same, and Made to Stick slightly fewer. So that's like 50 fewer words per page, 10% to 20% on average. If we would spread the words out, we'd get to more pages like they have. People like feeling it's easy to turn the pages, they like that feeling of progress: It's 30 pages but I'm blowing through this, it's so easy to read, I want to read some more! So could we do something where there are fewer words per page?" Berger wins; Simon & Schuster agrees to reformat the book. "The designer will have a heart attack," concedes Bender, "but I'll deal with that."
Buried underneath all of the technical analysis is one final, clever meta-trigger. In Contagious, Berger recounts how, back in 1997, Mars bars experienced an uptick in sales when NASA's Pathfinder mission traveled to Mars. Ten years later, when Hershey's was trying to revive its Kit Kat brand, it engineered a similar effect by running an ad campaign that paired Kit Kats with something ubiquitous: a cup of coffee. "Coffee is a particularly good thing to link the brand to because it is a frequent stimulus in the environment. A huge number of people drink coffee. Many drink it a number of times throughout the day," writes Berger, who notes that since 2007, U.S. sales of the candy have grown from roughly $300 million to $500 million. "By linking Kit Kat to coffee, [they] created a frequent trigger to remind people of the brand."
Now take another look at Berger's own origin story. Recall how he tangles it up with Gladwell, a ubiquitous trigger himself. Perhaps the next time you hear about The Tipping Point, the first thing you'll think is, Hey, what's the name of that new book? You know, by the guy inspired by Gladwell who then went on to debunk him? Oh, yeah. It's Contagious.
[Photographs by Andrew Hetherington]
A version of this article appeared in the April 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.