There’s a science behind word of mouth and why things go viral. Six key principles. Here is the second one.

Last week I wrote a post about the secret science behind viral that went, well…pretty viral. Many emailed to ask about Social Currency, but also wanted to know about the other five principles (i.e., Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories, or STEPPS). Here is more information about the second principle, Triggers.

Before we get there though, one quick point. Some people asked where the “science” was in the last post. Sure, stories about bars hidden inside hot dog restaurants are fun but where was the hard data? Is it really possible to predict whether people will talk about or share one thing rather than another?

Yes. Academic articles can be a little verbose, so I’ve summarized the research, and how to apply it, in my new book Contagious: Why Things Catch On. But for anyone who wants to see hard data on how I’ve quantified things like Social Currency, here is a link to the dozens of academic papers my colleagues and I have written on virality, word of mouth, and social influence.

Now, back to Triggers.

A few years ago, teenager Rebecca Black became an internet sensation with her mega-hit “Friday.” The song collected over 300 million views and became the most viral video of 2011. It made Ms. Black a millionaire many times over. There was only one hitch. Everyone hated the song.

Rebecca’s mom had paid record label ARK Music Factory $4,000 to put a song together for her daughter. The result was a somewhat over-produced number about getting up in the morning, going to school, and dealing with big teenage dilemmas like whether to sit in the front seat or the back seat of your friend’s car.

All in all, not the most amazing tune. Indeed, some critics called Friday “the worst song ever” (which if you really think about it is actually quite an accomplishment).

But, if people didn’t like the song, why was it so popular? Why did millions of people watch and share the video?

One clue comes from analyzing search data. If you look at the number of searches for “Rebecca Black” on YouTube over time, you’ll notice an interesting pattern. There is a spike in searches and then a decline. Then another spike and a decline. And so on, again and again. 

Searches for ‘Rebecca Black’ on YouTube

Look closer though, and you’ll notice that the spikes are not random. In fact, they’re exactly seven days apart. And if you look even closer you’ll notice that they’re always on the same day of the week. That day? Friday.

Rebecca’s song is equally bad every day of the week. I’ve checked. It’s bad on Monday, bad on Tuesday, bad on Wednesday, etc. But Friday the day provides a little environmental reminder, or trigger, to make us think about (and share) “Friday” the song.

The same psychology works with all sorts of products and ideas. Think about peanut butter. If someone were to say, “peanut butter and…” what thing comes to mind?

If you’re like most people, you probably said jelly. Seeing, hearing, or even thinking about peanut butter makes its frequent partner, jelly, top-of-mind. Peanut butter is like a little advertisement for jelly.

Triggers have a big impact on human behavior. They shape the choices we make, the things we talk about, and the products we buy. Playing French music at the grocery store makes people more likely to buy French wine, and playing German music makes people more likely to buy German wine.

Triggers even affect big, consequential choices like how people vote. We found that where people vote (e.g., a church or a school) actually changes how they cast their ballot. Voting at a school led people to support raising taxes to increase school funding. Voting at a church could have similar effects, changing whether people support gay marriage or stem cell research.

But the best part about triggers? Anyone can apply this concept. By linking your product or idea to prevalent triggers you can help your own initiatives succeed. In my own work, I’ve used it help companies like Boston Market increase word of mouth by over 20%.

Word of mouth isn’t restricted to hidden bars and crazy viral videos. If you understand whypeople talk and share, you can get the word out about any product or idea. From B2C to B2B. From recycling initiatives and logistics management software to political causes and new products.

Generating word of mouth or getting something to go viral sometimes seems like magic. Like catching lightning in a bottle. But it’s not. By understanding the science behind social influence you can make your own products and ideas contagious.

Jonah Berger is a Marketing professor at the Wharton School and author of the New York Times bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Want to make your product or idea contagious? Check out the free Crafting Contagious Workbook.

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