The SXSW Interactive Featured Session Feature: Jonah Berger of the Wharton School

Written by Hugh Forrest | February 7, 2014

See Jonah Berger at SXSW on Saturday, March 8

Featured Sessions at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival showcase some of the world’s most innovative thinkers. Today’s installment of the Featured Session Feature focuses on the best-selling author Jonah Berger. At SXSW, be sure to attend his “What Drives Word of Mouth” session on Saturday, March 8 at 11:00 am.

The James G. Campbell Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Jonah Berger produces research that has been featured in a number of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Harvard Business Review and The New York Times Magazine’s annual “Year in Ideas” issue. This research focuses primarily on the subject of how ideas and messages become viral, a topic that he explores in depth in his best-selling book Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Simon & Schuster 2013).

For instance, why did “Gangnam Style” become a hit (1.3 billion YouTube views and counting) music video? What's with all the talk about that 30-minute Kony 2012 documentary? And why can't people stop watching the "Charlie bit my finger" clip? In Contagious and through a decade of research and scholarship, these are the kinds of questions Berger considers in order to unearth the secret science behind word-of-mouth and social transmission.

Berger has studied why certain New York Times articles make the paper's Most E-mailed List, which products separate themselves by word of mouth and the vast power of social influence on everything from the products we buy to the names we give our children. Berger has found that the answers lie in a handful of basic principles - social currency, triggers, emotional resonance, observability, usefulness, and storytelling - that explain why some things reach viral status and others don't.

Whether he’s capturing the genesis of the Apple logo or reminiscing about the effect of a NASA mission to Mars on candy bar sales, Berger weaves these and other tales into an interesting web of the purposeful efforts and simply happenstance circumstances that distinguish companies, products and ideas from their competitors. By understanding the core principles he’s identified, Berger says businesses - or just about anyone looking to develop a following - can use those concepts to create what he calls "contagious content."

There’s more to it than just posting a wacky video on the Internet. “Viral is great, but valuable virality is better,” Berger recently explained in a blog post. “Content people share that also increases sales, boosts product evaluations, or in some way helps the brand. If people can’t connect the content to the brand, or remember who made the video in the first place, the content ends up just being entertainment.”

Berger has been invited as a speaker at events across the globe, addressing business leaders, students and researchers about the keys to viral success. He’s also lectured extensively on other topics like avoiding “decision quicksand,” maximizing influence and crafting corporate culture.

A Stanford University graduate who also earned his Ph.D. in marketing from the school in 2007, Berger began teaching at UPenn the same year. He has been recognized with a number of awards for both scholarship and teaching, including the Iron Professor Teaching Award and the MBA Curricular Innovation Award from the Wharton School. He lives in Philadelphia.

Register now to be part of the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival and to attend the “What Drives Word of Mouth” session on Saturday, March 8 at 11:00 am. For the full picture of all sessions and evening events at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival, visit the day-by-day schedule. Also, learn more about the best of the best programming for the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival by visiting the new Recommendations page.