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Jonah Berger On Black Toilet Paper And Discovering Your Inner Remarkability

In part two of our exclusive excerpt from Jonah Berger's book, "Contagious," the author and Wharton professor shows how breaking patterns can get people talking.

Jonah Berger On Black Toilet Paper And Discovering Your Inner Remarkability

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 unravel the mysteries of virality.

In part one, Berger explored the broad idea of social currency. Here, he delves into how every product or idea can have inner remarkability.

Remarkable things are defined as unusual, extraordinary, or worthy of notice or attention. Something can be remarkable because it is novel, surprising, extreme, or just plain interesting. But the most important aspect of remarkable things is that they are worthy of remark.

If we tell someone about a secret bar hidden inside a hot dog restaurant, it makes us seem cool. Sharing extraordinary, novel, or entertaining stories or ads makes people seem more extraordinary, novel, and entertaining. Not surprisingly, then, remarkable things get brought up more often.
In one study, Wharton professor Raghu Iyengar and I analyzed how much word of mouth different companies, products, and brands get online. We examined a huge list of 6,500 products and brands, everything from Wells Fargo and Facebook to small brands like the Village Squire Restaurants and Jack Link’s. From every industry you can imagine. Banking and bagel shops to dish soaps and department stores. Then we asked people to score the remarkability of each product or brand and analyzed how these perceptions were correlated with how frequently they were discussed.

The verdict was clear: more remarkable products like Facebook or Hollywood movies were talked about almost twice as often as less remarkable brands like Wells Fargo and Tylenol. Other research finds similar effects. More interesting tweets are shared more, and more interesting or surprising articles are more likely to make the New York Times Most E-Mailed list. Remarkability explains why people share videos of eight-year-old girls flawlessly reciting rap lyrics and why my aunt forwarded me a story about a coyote who was hit by a car, got stuck in the bumper for six hundred miles, and survived. Every time there is a patient in the ER with an unusual story (such as someone swallowing a weird foreign object), everyone in the hospital hears about it.

The key to finding inner remarkability is to think about what makes something interesting, surprising, or novel. Can the product do something no one would have thought possible (such as blend golf balls like Blendtec)? Are the consequences of the idea or issue more extreme than people ever could have imagined?

One way to generate surprise is by breaking a pattern people have come to expect. By using Kobe beef and lobster, and charging $100, the Barclay Prime restaurant got buzz by breaking the pattern of what people expected from a cheesesteak.

It’s possible to find the inner remarkability in any product or idea by thinking about what makes that thing stand out. Toilet paper? Hardly seems remarkable. But a few years ago I made toilet paper one of the most talked-about conversation topics at a party. How? I put a roll of black toilet paper in the bath- room. Black toilet paper? No one had ever seen black toilet paper before. And that remarkability provoked discussion. Emphasize what’s remarkable about a product or idea and people will talk.

Wednesday: The role game mechanics can play in creating social currency.

[Image: Andrew Hetherington]