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Your Event Might Be Contagious

We all know the power of ‘word of mouth’, it has come out on top of every ‘how did you hear about…’ survey that ever existed. But do we know why things are spread?

Thankfully US Professor Jonah Berger has enlightened us as to why things catch on, what promotes word of mouth, and how ideas spread. Jonah spent a decade researching this stuff, and found six basic principles drive all sorts of things to become popular, from products to online content, news stories to You Tube videos. He released it all in a brilliant best selling book, Contagious, and so, we can now use this in our world of events.

Events, like all products and brands, rely on word of mouth (WOM) to spread the word. And there are three reasons why WOM is so valuable.

1. It is free

2. The messages are targeted. When we share a message, a story, a tip, we tend to select those who will value that piece of info. What we share is based on who we are speaking with, and is (usually, hopefully) based on what they are interested in. This means as marketers our message has been received by an audience that is receptive, a critical thing to have on side when we play our marketing game.

3. It is trusted. In personal interactions, we (generally, hopefully) trust the person who has given us the message, the tip, the idea. It comes with a layer of credibility. This is a crucial part of our marketing game. According to Eventbrite, 83% of us say we trust the recommendations of friends and family.[1] Delivering an influential message, not just gaining attention.

And WOM is rife around events. Research shows over 2/3rds of attendees are likely to hear about you via WOM. And once we are there, the amplification is even more powerful. Surveys find 98% will create and share content.[2] That is a lot of online WOM. And I’d suggest 100% share their experience ‘IRL’. We should never forget the vast majority of WOM is still in real life, face to face.[3]

So WOM is valuable, how do we tap into that some more?

Just to call out — this study is getting back to human psychology. Why we do what we do. We are not talking about the best tech to use, the best platforms, or tools. We are getting back to what drives human behaviour. This is for the ‘Experience Design’. Evidence to create elements that then give you the best chance to make your event famous. You can apply these features on any channel, Facebook, Insta, email, face to face, with any tool.

Jonah’s research looked at all manner of things that had gone viral, ideas that had caught on and spread… and found these 6 common themes. These are neatly packaged for memories sake as the ‘STEPPS’.

#1. Social Currency

“Did you hear about …!?”

People care about how they look to others. We value being seen to be in the know on something. Interesting things are entertaining, and make the person who shares them interesting and entertaining. This is our social currency. Knowing the inside word, the new place in town, the news, the gossip. We need to be seen to be in the know, and, have something to share.

Events thrive on this need for social currency. You could argue the industry is based on it. More than ever before. FOMO is a huge driver. Having content for your social feed is essential in many worldviews. In fact, nearly half of millennials (48%) say they attend events, so they have something to share on social channels. Even more for others; 61% admit to attending events to gain social media material. So tapping into this need to build social currency is valuable.

‘Experiences are the new luxury good.’
Will Dean — Tough Mudder

What is different about events, that other products and services would kill for, is that event experiences are naturally contagious. Your friends will always ask what your up to, and ‘how was that event?’ — that’s if you don’t tell them first. How often does someone ask you how your brand of toothpaste is going?

If your event isn’t providing some social currency, then it is dead. The whole point is to bring people together for something they can connect to, and something to share.

Share together, and share later.

Social currency has driven the growth of arguably all popular events. Our most famous examples have started with a small group of like-minded who were so invested and inspired they shared what they were involved with. They were in the know and wanted to bring others it. Others saw it and wanted to get in. The 177 runners in the original New York Marathon. Only 1,500 came to Glastonbury in 1970. The same year 145 people attended Comic Con. They now get 145,000. The early adopters were joined by the masses, and we have what we have today.

So how do we build social currency?

Use exclusivity and scarcity.

Exclusivity and Scarcity are pretty strong strategies to buy social currency. Special access and inner sanctum experiences work well to add to the experience, and, for highly shareable WOM. Giving people exclusive info, access, the VIP treatment, the best seats, that will create word of mouth. Having tickets to the sold-out gig, or pre-sale access works. You may have these features in play already, but you can also manufacture more social currency in many ways, in your messaging and positioning.

Be remark-able

Being different helps. Remarkable ideas spread.

As Seth Godin made famous with the ‘Purple Cow’ the most powerful form of idea dispersal by creating ‘remark’able experiences. Even if it’s not for everyone, it should be something people will ‘remark’ about.

You don’t have to be flashy or complicated to be remarkable. New Zealand’s ‘Katmandu Coast to Coast’ event concept is highly shareable due to its basic concept — race from one side of New Zealand to the other. Stories of Tough Mudder’s electric shock obstacles jolt our attention. These remarks provide a very sticky ‘elevator pitch’ that gets amplified again and again.

Be share-able

Be remark-able, and set your content up, so it is easily shareable. A large part of the success of TED, is the quality of the material, and how they have made it readily, freely available to everyone. In what is essentially a series of conferences, they have leveraged a theme of “Ideas Worth Sharing” brilliantly.

Be visual

Stories are great, as is visual content. Colour Run is built on highly sharable visuals. You can set up visuals for your event also.

Use the herd effect

Being popular is an ideal tipping point for events. The ‘Herd Effect is or ‘Herd Behaviour’[4] is evident when people do what others are doing instead of using their information or making their own decisions. The idea of herding has a long history in philosophy and crowd psychology. It is particularly relevant in our domain. Once events have people attending it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle. You could call it the FOMO effect, the social currency of being where the people are.

Did you go to the watch the race/game/gig/cricket/tennis/horses/band?
Or because everyone is going?

Many events hit an ideal status when they can claim to be ‘the biggest’. In the game of bringing people together, this can be an ideal positioning statement. However, it’s not always about scale. If you can demonstrate (as Seth Godin would say) ‘people like us do things like this’, even with a small crowd you can still apply the herd effect, and be on to a winner.

Use Influencers

Engaging ‘influencers’ as ambassadors has been a successful tactic to buy social currency, however like anything the strength is in the execution; the ambassador needs to offer some real social currency to the event, and, a personal association for the participants or it can be a big fail.

Find your events inner remarkability and make people feel like insiders wherever you can. Your efforts will be amplified.

#2. Triggers

As Jonah says, “top of mind means tip of tongue”.

Social currency gets people talking, but triggers keep them talking. Triggers are things that make us think of something. And in the world of word of mouth, it’s not enough to be known; we need to be remembered. To be remembered, and then talked about we need prompts. The ideal is an association with things that automatically create thought, discussion and action. What do you think of when you say — Knife and …, Fish and… . ? The Australian Cricket team and… . ? So ideally we can become front of mind when our audience sees or think of things in their everyday lives.

So how do we create triggers?

Be in front of people.

We need to get our triggers in the lives of our audience. In real life, and online. Where these triggers need to be placed is constantly changing. I participated in an annual event again recently and wondered why we hadn’t heard much from the organisers. On reflection the event comms had been the same, the problem was me, and my mates had shifted channels. We are on WhatsApp, messenger and facebook. Not email or websites. We had physically gathered in new places. The problem was the event organisers hadn’t moved their triggers to shift with us. Fortunately for the organisers, our trigger was it is March, so it’s time for the event. But we need reminders, we must be in front of our audience, not behind them.

Timing is everything

These triggers should be both in our face, and, timely. Timing is everything, whether the time of year (it is “X” season), or a time in peoples lives. And timing is critical in any event campaign. I’ve always found there are common ‘moments of impact’ across all events, with 4 critical moments that participants experience that can be used as triggers to mass sharing.

1. At Launch, the event is new and exciting, so use that moment for maximum effect.

2. Decision time, when people commit to attending, buy the ticket, register, the engagement is at a level where they are likely to proactively share what they are doing with others. Make sure you are giving them the tools to amplify their message at this point.

3. At the event — and…

4. Immediately post, these are the richest moments in which to add triggers. Help them produce their great content — this will leverage the heightened engagement and trigger further sharing.

Be more than a memory.

We must be memorable, and, top of mind, to be sharable. A study comparing the amount of WOM between Disneyland and a breakfast cereal showed surprising results, in that although people could talk at length about their Disneyland event experience, the cereal was talked about more often, due to the frequency of its appearance. Therefore, we need to be remembered, to be talked about.

When people think of golf, they think of the Masters. When people think mega events, they may think of the Super Bowl.

When people think ‘          x           ‘, they think… ‘your event’.

#3. Emotions

“When we care, we share”

As Jonah calls out experiencing emotion encourages us to share. Talking to others can heighten the emotions from experience. When we share feelings of excitement and joy, we feel it more as we share the story. When we feel angry, we can stoke the emotional flames when we share with each other. We feed off each other’s emotions in the interaction. And this connects us more. It is something we inherently need, and seek, as humans.

What Jonah discovered was not all emotions are created equal when it comes to amplifying messages. Unsurprisingly emotions with high physiological arousal, positive — awe, excitement and amusement, plus negative — anger and anxiety outscored lower arousal emotions of contentment and sadness. People may still feel it, but are less likely to broadcast it.

Once again we have the ultimate advantage in the events world. Functional products and services may solve a problem, but its tough to get talked about. How often has someone strolled into work on Monday morning and told you about how well their car started that morning? How often do they share the events they went to??

‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ And they will probably never let you forget either.

Having emotional connection on your side is powerful.

So how can we use emotion?

Sell the emotion

Find the emotion in your event. Why people get involved. The real why, the emotional why. And share it. They will share it again, and again.

Tough Mudder set itself the goal of being the talk of the water cooler on Monday’s, they achieve this by promising ‘adrenaline-inducing obstacles’, and, ‘a gauntlet of emotions’.

‘the emotions that Mudders experience are as diverse and exhilarating as the obstacles themselves’.

The Hawaiian Ironman has long lived on the legacy of the emotional stories it creates, and you can look out for emotional stories in yours. As Jonah’s study shows, they will ‘go viral’.

The famous finish by Julie Moss at the 1982 Ironman.

Sell it to partners

The leading ‘product and service’ category brands know that experiences and emotions make things catch on — I’d suggest that is the primary rationale for most event sponsorships.

Bottle up this emotion and sell it the best you can.

We cover ‘Stories’ in my next post, and how your message and a brand can benefit from using an event as the Trojan Horse.

One last interesting thing Jonah found about emotion was that when people were more active, they shared more. Physical activity heightened arousal, and then word of mouth. Keep this in mind, there are many advantages of shifting your event from a passive, to an active one.

#4. Practical Value. #5.Public. #6. Stories…

There are 3 more elements in ’STEPPS’, and we will discuss those next week. But, if your keen to ‘be in the know’ before everyone else, I have posted the rest here at

This is what I think. I hope it connects you to info that makes your life easier.

Let me know what you think?

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