$100 Cheesesteaks and Jonas Berger

This is a guest post from digital marketing and social media expert Nate Riggs. It is a transcript from an interview Nate conducted with researcher and author Jonas Berger. There is some good, strategic thinking here we wanted to pass along.

Jonah BergerEver heard of a $100 cheesesteak?

It’s a restaurant marketing idea that spread virally, making Barclay Prime one of the top upscale steakhouses in the city of Philadelphia.

If you’ve ever wondered exactly how viral marketing works, this interview is jammed packed with all of the information you need to make your story and promotions spread from one audience member to next.

I had the chance to talk with Jonah Berger, professor at the Wharton School of Business and author of the New York Times best-selling book, Contagious – Why Things Catch On. 

You can read the interview below, or give it a listen here.

Jonah has spent the last 10 years applying the scientific method to studying what exactly makes some ideas catch on, and why some never make it off the ground. His research led to the development of the STEPPS framework, which outlines a formula that marketers can use as a guide while brainstorming that next big product, service or campaign idea.

Contagious has helped restaurants, non-profits and even a hip-hop rapper create and launch ideas with all the right ingredients to catch on. If your marketing department is small and you have to make what dollars you have count, you’ll want to hear Jonah talk through his STEPPS Framework.

Edited Interview Transcript

Tweetable Moment: “When you look at the data, only about 7% of word of mouth happens online.” – @jberger (Click to Tweet)

Nate: We’re talking with Jonah Berger, professor at the Wharton Business School and author of the best selling book, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.” Jonah, are you with us?

Jonah: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Nate: I appreciate you being a guest on the show. I understand you’re literally jumping off a plane and waiting for your bags right now.

‘Contagious’ is full of some really, really great ideas. Tell me a little bit about your background. I know that you have a history at Stanford as well as Wharton, but how did you get into studying this idea of how ideas catch on?

Jonah: I think we’ve always seen products or ideas that become popular whether it’s Greek yogurt at the grocery store; certain online technologies; big, hot, or viral videos we see on the web; even fashion styles, restaurants, certain ingredients – kale becomes the newest and coolest thing that everybody has to have, or lobster macaroni and cheese.

Why do those things become popular, and why do other things that sometimes seem similar not become popular? I thought it’d be really interesting to try to study that from a scientific perspective and really bring some rigorous science and statistics to the study of popularity and trends.

Nate: Your background, you actually got started in school studying biology and studying science, and then turned that into this type of research applying a lot of the methodologies and scientific method to this. Tell me a little bit about the years of research you’ve kind of put behind this.

Jonah: Yes. We really started almost without being exactly sure of what we would find. I actually started clipping articles. In ‘The Wall Street Journal’ they have a daily section with the most read and most shared articles in the newspaper. I just started clipping that little section and started trying to think of some patterns what made certain articles highly shared and others not, but soon realized that wouldn’t be a very good method. It wasn’t as precise. It wasn’t very quick.

Then, we actually used deeper technology. We built a web crawler that actually scraped all of the articles on ‘The New York Times’ website for six months. We were able to look at what made online content viral, why did certain articles make the most emailed list.

Then, we started doing the same thing for offline. We got some data on tens of thousands of brands that have been talked about with different amounts and again did rigorous statistical analysis to understand why certain brands are talked about.

What’s really neat is, again, we could start to see some patterns that otherwise might have been obscured. It’s not random or luck why certain brands get talked about more or why certain restaurants become hits. There’s really a science behind it.

Nate: It’s really interesting that you bring up this idea of offline versus online. The buzz today is really around this idea of what makes things go viral. That can go to video or other types of online content. But, really there’s a lot of data that shows that this idea of conversations on the ground or word of mouth is much more powerful. What really separates the two in your mind, and how do they also interconnect?

Jonah: You know, there’s a lot of hype and excitement around social media like Facebook, things like Twitter. Indeed, these things are new technologies and they are changing the way we communicate. But, when you look at the data, only about seven percent of word of mouth is online. I think if most of your listeners guessed they’d say well maybe it’s 50 percent or 60 percent. It’s only seven percent.

Particularly when you’re a restaurant, not only first of all it’s more word of mouth offline, but that’s really the type of word of mouth that’s likely to drive people to your establishment. It’s not just about hearing about a place online. It’s about hearing it from their friends or people in your neighborhood who said they went and they really liked it.

Read:  Social Restaurant Podcast #030

Online is important. Thinking about social media is a good thing. But, it’s important not to get so enamored with the technology that we forget about the psychology why people talk and share in the first place. Because if we don’t understand the why we’re not going to be very successful in getting word of mouth for our own products and ideas.

Nate: In the book you outline six elements or components of what makes things spread. You call these steps. Tell me a little bit about how you’ve landed on these six steps and the development. And, what do you think is most important about really outlining it in this way?

Jonah: You know, again, I think it’s important to put some structure to this problem so people can apply it. We talk about the six key STEPPS – Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Story. Each of those principles it’s been shown again and again to drive word of mouth whether we’re talking about online or offline, whether we’re talking about products or services.

In our analyses we can say a dose of this emotion adding a little more emotion to a message will make it much more likely to spread. But, notice it’s not just the product itself or the marketing that comes afterwards. Most people hear marketing they’d say okay, I’ve built my restaurant, I’ve built my product, I’ve built my business, now I just tack marketing on at the end.

But, I actually start the book with a really funny story about a restaurant in Philly that becomes popular. It’s a high end steakhouse. It had become popular by offering a $100 cheesesteak.

Now, you might say well a $100 cheesesteak, who’d pay $100 for a cheesesteak? It has Kobe beef and lobster and comes with truffles and a big bottle of champagne. But, the neatest thing is, you know, it’s not that many people order that product. Indeed, many people don’t get the $100 cheesesteak. It’s pretty expensive. But, when they hear about it they love to tell others about it.

So, it’s not just hey will this thing actually be purchased, but hey how can we design the product itself to drive discussion, how can we think about our menu, or our decor, or the way we set it all up so that people are more likely to talk about it and share their experience.

Nate: Having read the book and going into this idea of the Barclay Prime $100 cheesesteak case study, it has a lot of different elements that you talk about. One would be triggers. There’s obviously a lot of people in Philadelphia who are eating Philly cheesesteaks on the street very publicly visible. Every time you could see that that’s a public and a trigger that could make you think about this $100 cheesesteak.

Can you get by with only one of the steps, or is it always a combination of the six elements that make things really able to be talked about?

Jonah: I think the more elements that you could incorporate in the marketing you’re doing the better. It’s not that you have to have all six. It’s not like it won’t work if you only have one or two. But, the more you can incorporate the better off you’ll be.

When we introduced the book, for example, we thought a lot about different marketing efforts that might hit different dimensions. We made the cover orange, for example, to make it more publicly observable. We did social currency by thinking about how could we make people feel smart and in the know by buying the book. We thought about a lot of different dimensions, not in every single marketing effort that we do. We put together a set of efforts that really hit all the dimensions.

Nate: This is obviously research that’s still in development. Obviously, the book is doing very, very well. What’s next on your plate, and how much deeper are you going to go into this idea of studying how things spread?

Jonah: We’re definitely doing a lot of ongoing research in the area. Recently, for example, we’re working on a paper about how talking to one person versus many people might change the type of information or story that people pass on.

We’ve also been doing some research on online versus offline work now. We talked about in the beginning many of the drivers are saying, but there are some interesting differences. Online, for example, social currency matters more. We care a lot about how we look to others. We have the time to construct and refine what we say. So, we’re more likely to share things that make us look good even more than we might offline.

Offline, triggers matters more. What’s top of mind is going to be tip of tongue. That matters online as well, but it matters even more offline where people don’t have as much time to think about what they’re going to say.

Nate: Coming out of a world where people think that things simply have to be funny, or have cute pictures of cats, or silly stories to make them spread, it’s good to see that you’re actually applying science to this and kind of going forward with continuing the research on really what makes people talk about things and ideas spread.

Real quick, where can we find you, and what’s the best place to kind of learn a little bit more about the work that you’re doing?

Jonah: Sure. The best place to find me is

What’s Your Take?

Can you apply STEPPS in your marketing or menu innovation strategy? How can you develop your own “$100 cheesesteak”? Let’s hear your ideas in the comments, okay?

About the author

Nate Riggs

Nate is a marketing strategy consultant, keynote speaker, and noted restaurant industry digital marketing expert. He also publishes the weekly Social Restaurant Podcast, the only interview-based broadcast specifically for the restaurant industry.