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What Makes A Message Contagious? Here are 6 STEPPS

steps to viral marketing - people on their phones
STEPPS can offer a framework to help craft creative concepts for social content or ads, to give the message the best chance of being infectiously shareable.

Jonah Berger, a professor at Wharton, has developed 6 principles or STEPPS that help decode the mystery around how ideas can become contagious, in his book of the same name.

To generate effective brand word of mouth (WOM), brands need to focus on the message. As Jonah Berger points some people are better at telling jokes, but some jokes are funny, no matter who tells them. Similarly, if a brand focuses on the brand messenger, such as an influencer or celebrity, but the copywriting, tagline or premise of the promotion is weak, the messenger cannot save that campaign.

What are the 6 STEPPS and how do they relate to social media?

Social Currency

Forbes describes social currency and how consumers will measure brand credibility based on its social media presence. Authenticity is key here. Product reviews are a type of social currency. Another form of social currency Berger mentions is status by association. If you have “insider information”. A recent example in my life was discovering a hidden bar in Sydney, “Old Mates Place”, with no sign, opening to a softly lit bar and stairs to a tiny, exclusive rooftop bar. I told friends and co-workers, making it a poorly kept secret, in an effect to seem a bit cool. Blendtec’s will it blend, is another example.


Berger uses the example of Rebecca Black’s song, (coined “the worst song of all time”) Friday as an example of a product crafted around a frequent trigger, the end of the week. Triggers are cues or associations to that make the consumer think about the product, such as taking a break with a Kit Kat or Redbull giving you wings.

Have A Break Have A Kit Kat
Redbull Gives You Wings


People tend to share things that move them on an emotional level. Connecting to a sense of awe, wonder or excitement is one way you can help make a message more shareable. In HBR, Libert and Tynski (2013) state that negative emotions can elicit a viral response, positive emotions are more common for viral success. Dove uses courage and inspiration with the #showusyourbeauty campaign.

From the Dove #showusyourbeauty campaign
Superbowl “Fight Like A Girl” Ad


If a brand is highly visible, people are more likely to want to engage with it. Apple used white ear buds and changed the position of the Apple logo on laptops, men wear moustaches in November.

Practical Value

If the information provided in the message offers tips, advice or hacks, people are also likely to share the information. Viral hacks on TikTok are a good example of how brands can leverage practical value in messages. Fenty Beauty is the second most popular brand on Tik Tok, using the platform to offer makeup tutorials.


Telling a story is a great way to captivate consumers and generate viral content. Guinness Liberty Fields’ video is an inspiring story of a Japanese women’s rugby team who wins against the odds.

story telling guiness liberty ad
From the Guinness Ad below

View this ad on YouTube (it is age restricted).

To sum up, STEPPS can offer a framework to help craft creative concepts for social content or ads, to give the message the best chance of being infectiously shareable. Can you think of campaigns I haven’t mentioned that fit into this framework? I’d love your thoughts.



(1) Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    Call me weird but I always think of the ‘Charlie bit my finger’ video – gets me every time! Laugh so hard. Great input here and valuable information.

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