Contagious by Jonah Berger

Book: Contagious

By Jonah Berger

According to Book Jacket: Jonah Berger is the James G. Campbell Assistant Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

He has published dozens of articles in top-tier academic journals, and popular accounts of his work have appeared in places like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Science, Harvard Business Review, Wired, Businessweek, and Fast Company. His research has also been featured in The New York Times Magazine’s annual “Year in Ideas” issue.

Berger has been recognized with awards for both scholarship and teaching, including being named Wharton’s “Iron Prof.” He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For more, visit his website,

Social Currency

A Hot Dog Diner

“It’s marked by a large red hot-dog-shaped sign with the words ‘eat me’ written in what looks like mustard. Walk down a small flight of stairs and you’re in a genuine old hole-in-the-wall hot dog restaurant.” – Jonah Berger

When inside, you’ll find them serving crafty gourmet hot dogs such as The Good Morning or The New Yorker. The Tsunami is topped with teriyaki, pineapple, and green onions! Check out the fascinating menu here.

A great atmosphere and delicious dogs are enough to distract anybody from what is really going on in this place. There’s a phone booth in the corner…a keen eye may even notice people stepping into this booth and disappearing!

A Phone Booth

Stumble on over in curiosity, take a step inside the phone booth, pick up the phone, and follow the instructions clearly printed on the sheet of paper in front of you. A voice on the other end will ask “Do you have a reservation?

Reservation? You’re already knee-deep in frankfurt and mustard sauce, what do you need a reservation for? Before you know it the back of the booth swings open and to your astonishment, there is a swanky bar on the other side! What is happening? What have you stumbled upon? Is this the best-kept secret in New York City? 

Those are the exact questions owners Brian Shebairo and Chris Antista want people to be asking themselves when they first hear about their bar, which is so appropriately named Please Don’t Tell.

The pair opened Crif Dogs in the East Village on October 6, 2001. After winning awards and receiving acknowledgments from countless publications, Brian was ready for a new challenge. He always wanted to open a bar so when the bubble tea lounge next door closed down, he jumped at the opportunity.

How The Bar Started

Crif Dogs already had a liquor license that could include the property next door. Brian initially wanted a grungy rock-and-roll bar but eventually figured he’d probably need something much more remarkable to stay afloat in the cut-throat NYC bar industry.

While trying to come up with ideas, Brian crossed paths with a friend of his who owned an antique business. His friend mentioned he had just gotten this 1930’s phone booth that would look great in the place he planned to open! The thought of this booth in the bar instantly brought to mind a childhood memory.

When Brian was a kid, his uncle worked as a carpenter. In addition to helping to build houses and the usual things that carpenters do, the uncle built a room in the basement that had secret doors.

Thus the top-secret phone booth entrance to Please Don’t Tell was born.

On another note, it’s crazy how true the idea that “everything happens for a reason” can be. This guy’s uncle was building hidden passageways in his basement for the fun of it. Little did anybody know at the time that this would inspire what would become one of the most buzzed-about bars in New York City!

A Personal Recommendation

Careful just trying to stumble into this place, Berger notes that the reservation telephone line opens at 3:00 p.m. and by 3:30 all spots are usually booked. How does a bar that is hidden, doesn’t market itself, and actually encourages its visitors not to tell anybody about it stay open?

According to Berger, “As it turns out, if something is supposed to be secret, people might well be more likely to talk about it. The reason? Social currency. People share things that make them look good to others.

Brian and his partner Chris created something that makes people feel special and inadvertently captured the gold standard of marketing, word of mouth.

The creator of Please Don’t Tell’s cocktail menu, celebrated mixologist Jim Meehan, proclaims “The most powerful marketing is personal recommendation. Nothing is more viral or infectious than one of your friends going to a place and giving if his full recommendation.

Minting a New Type of Currency

Our social-media addicted world has revealed a virtually unlimited number of ways we can achieve organic marketing similar to word of mouth. Take for example Taco Bell’s Cinco De Mayo Snapchat lens which garnered 224 million views. That’s over twice as many views as the Super Bowl that year!

People are literally LOOKING for an opportunity to post something interesting on their social media pages, business owners just have to give them the reason!

Berger adds, “Not surprisingly, people prefer sharing things that make them seem entertaining rather than boring, clever rather than dumb, and hip rather than dull.”

Imagine when a friend of yours rolls off the lot with a brand new Ferrari, it makes you stop and think “What the hell has that guy been up to?” The car and brand are both status symbols.

As we see in the Please Don’t Tell example, creating this kind of Social Currency doesn’t require ridiculously expensive products, rather an inner remarkability, the capacity to leverage game mechanics, and a unique characteristic which makes people feel like insiders.

Berger finds, “Just as people use money to buy products or services, they use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues.

Inner Remarkability


In 2002, executive VP of Snapple’s ad agency, Marke Rubenstein was looking for ways to further the companies marketing practices. During one meeting, somebody suggested using the unused space underneath the cap. They had used this real estate in the past to print silly jokes on, though, that didn’t prove very engaging.

After further thought, they then decided to put interesting facts, in their own words, anything “out of the ordinary that [Snapple drinkers] wouldn’t know and wouldn’t even know they’d want to know.”

Now when John opens his Snapple, he sees “Fact #12 Kangaroos can’t walk backward.

Acquiring this knowledge may likely compel John to tell the person nearest him the odd information he’s just learned. This then creates a conversation entirely centered around the strange fact beneath the Snapple cap – hence generating word of mouth.

A Wharton Study

The Definition of remarkable: unusual, extraordinary, or worthy of notice or attention; worthy of remark.

Berger teamed up with fellow Wharton professor Raghu Iyengar to get to the bottom of how much word of mouth different companies generated based on their remarkability. The study included 6,500 brands and products.

Berger and Iyengar learned, “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…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.”

Blair Witch Project

Mysteries and controversy are also often remarkable The Blair Witch Project is one of the most famous examples of this approach…shot on a handheld camera with a budget of about $35,000, the movie grossed more than $248 million worldwide.” – Jonah Berger

The movie came out in 1999 and follows the story of several students who hike into the woods looking to investigate a local legend called the Blair Witch. Viewers were told that the kids ultimately went missing and the movie was pieced together footage from their cameras – which had been found in the woods.

Remember, this is before social media and naturally, everyone was asking the same question, did this actually happen? This question would lead to other questions such as are witches real? Is there a serial killer in those woods? Where did they find the cameras?

All of this word of mouth turned the movie into a blockbuster. $248 million from a movie shot on a handheld camera again goes to show that it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money to be remarkable.

Leverage Game Mechanics

A few years before writing Contagious, Berger found himself planning a trip from the east coast to California. He noticed that if he were to somehow add another 222 miles to his trip, he’d then be eligible to upgrade his United Airlines rewards program status.

At the time he was Premier status, which has its perks, however, if he could get to Premier Executive he’d be able to check an extra bag for free, access exclusive lounges for international flights, board the plane earlier, etc.

There was urgency too, if the 222 miles were not achieved around the time of his trip, he’d lose the opportunity to upgrade.

What’d he do? He turned down the cheaper direct round-trip flight from coast to coast to instead pay more and add a 2-hour layover in Boston to his itinerary. Needless to say, he was excited to earn his new ranking in the hierarchy of the United Airlines membership program!

He adds, “These programs have motivated millions of people to pledge their loyalty to a single airline and stop over in random cities or fly at inopportune times just to ensure that they accrue miles on their desired carrier.

This all ties in with the theme of the chapter: social currency. Berger and millions more jump at the chance to achieve some kind of higher status because it makes them look good. They tell their friends how they got to upgrade to first class on an international flight or about how they saw something odd in the executive lounge.

Airlines have found a way to exercise game mechanics, which can be considered “the elements of a game, application, or program – including rules and feedback loops – that make them fun and compelling.”

Building a Good Game

In order to heighten the user experience, Berger recommends that “metrics need to be created or recorded that let people see where they stand – for example, icons for how much they have contributed to a community message board or different colored tickets for season ticket holders.


Burberry once created a website named “Art of the Trench” which was essentially a montage of people rocking the iconic Burberry trench coat. While professional photographers flooded the submissions, anybody was welcome to send in their photo for a shot at being featured on the page.

As people began seeing their photos posted, they’d tell their friends about it, then their friends would check it out and eventually research showed that, “the Burberry site garnered millions of views from more than a hundred different countries. And the contest helped drive sales up 50 percent.

Maybe you’re not a massive international clothing brand. You’re just a local shop on the downtown strip. Great! Bars and restaurants can have contests too. Reach out to local organizations, fraternities, sororities, clubs, and anyone really and give them a shot at creating or naming an item to be listed on your menu.

They’ll be proud to do so and maybe you just found a few more regulars in the process.

Legendary Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton once said: “I have always been driven to buck the system, to innovate, to take things beyond where they’ve been.” Get creative, take risks, put yourself out there or you’ll never know what could have been.

Make People Feel Like Insiders

Rue La La

Ben Fischman was declared CEO of in 2005. The website offered everything from discounted apparel to home decor – think online Ross. By 2007 the company was hitting a rough patch. People just weren’t as enthusiastic about the brand as they used to be and it was reflecting in their declining sales.

Fischman decided to create a new website called Rue La La. He had recently learned about a French concept know as vente privee – private sale. He began to sell high-end designer goods in a “flash-sales”  format. The deals were only available for a limited time.

Not only this, but he made the sales “members-only,” meaning somebody needed to achieve membership status in order to have access to the discounts. What did it take to become a member? Nothing more than being referred by a current member.

Sales took off to that point that Fischman was able to sell both websites for a cool $350 million by 2009.

Exclusivity of Knowledge

Rue La La literally offered the same items as so what made it’s outcome different? Nothing more than the fact that it made people feel like they were getting an insiders scoop.

Fischman notes that “It’s like the concierge at a hotel. You go down to the concierge to ask about a restaurant and he tells you a name right away. The assumption is that he is getting paid to suggest that place and the restaurant is probably mediocre. But if a friend recommends a place you can’t wait to go there. Well when a friend tells you you’ve gotta try Rue La La, you believe them. And you try it.

Berger chimes in, explaining “when we think of exclusivity, we tend to think of flashy $20,000 diamond-encrusted Rolexes or hobnobbing in St. Croix with movie stars. But exclusivity isn’t just about money or celebrity. It’s also about knowledge. Knowing certain information or being connected to people who do.

Going back to the matter of social currency, “scarcity and exclusivity boost word of mouth by making people feel like insiders. If people get something not everybody has, it makes them feel special, unique, high status. And because of that they’ll not only like a product or service more, but tell others about it.

The McRib

The McRib. Is it an urban legend? Could it be that it still exists? Where did you hear they’re serving it? You haven’t tried one?

There are Facebook groups dedicated to hardened supporters sharing information as to the whereabouts of locations that McDonald’s is selling the item for – as always- a limited time only. The McRib represents more to McDonald’s than just an occasional addition to the menu.

To begin with, the McRib was a total failure when it was first rolled out in the United States. It was eventually scrapped from the menu altogether as the company mostly cited a lack of appetite for pork in the region, among other things.

McDonald’s got clever about a decade later and decided to use the McRib as a promotional piece. They’d offer it at particular locations for a limited time only with hopes of generating word of mouth. It worked!

Berger says, “the mere fact that something isn’t readily available can make people value it more and tell others to capitalize on the social currency of knowing about it or having it.

Not to mention, I just noticed the McRib is available at the Anaheim, CA location near the intersection of Brookhurst and Orangethorpe. Get there while you can!

A Brief Note of Motivation

People don’t need to be paid to be motivated…as soon as you pay people for doing something, you crowd out their intrinsic motivation. People are happy to talk about companies and products they like, and millions of people do it for free every day, without prompting.” – Jonah Berger

Please Don’t Tell? Well, Okay. Maybe Just One Person…

People like to make a good impression, so we need to make our products a way to achieve that.” – Jonah Berger

For more on creating social currency, purchase the book Contagious using the link below: