Contagious Gamification & Influence — Oh, my!

Wendy Kelly
Apr 06, 2016

Make your stuff contagious and game on!

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Who has not read the Tipping Point and been influenced by Malcolm Gladwell's writing? 

You Gotta Know When To Fold 'Em

In case you haven't been touched by Gladwell's writing, he's a Canadian author living in the US who writes vignettes that help explain why we do what we do. The Tipping Point postulates that after a certain point, there is a tidal wave of activity - a "tipping point" after which growth is exponential.

His ideas have merit on their own, but perhaps his greatest gift is that he really spurs others on to think and expand on his ideas. 

Influence - The Starting Point

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell introduces us to the idea that the world is made up of connectors, mavens and salesmen. The very short-form paraphrase of this idea is that if your message is heard by the right person or combination of people, it'll go viral. Based on Stanley Milgram's 1967 "Small World" study that introduced us to the idea of 6 degrees of separation, Gladwell extrapolates the idea to try to explain why some messages take off.

He's been widely and harshly criticized in the years since. Fair enough. He took an idea and tried to paste it on top of outcomes neverminding whether cause or coincidence was at play.

If Gladwell Were Right, We'd All Be Rich

Several commentators and scientists have made the astute point that if Gladwell were correct, we'd all be very rich by now. If we simply had to put our brilliant idea in front of the right person, advertisers would be way more successful than they are and marketing would be child's play.

Unfortunately, and really, quite obviously, that just isn't the case.

Jonah Berger, a Wharton professor and self-proclaimed data nerd (he doesn't actually use that term for himself, it should be noted) has done years of research into why ideas spread and why some messages become viral. He had written so many academic papers that people began to ask him to write something more easily digestible - and so he did. The book, called "Contagious" takes a look at why we do what we do and what becomes "viral".

STEPPS - 6 Degrees of Virility

The six things involved in virility according to Berger are:

  1. Social Currency
  2. Triggers
  3. Emotion
  4. Public
  5. Practical Value
  6. Stories

 Contagious had been on my reading list for quite awhile. The book came out three years ago and in the time since it came out, I have read and blogged quite a bit about some of these six pieces to the virility puzzle.

People want to share things that make them feel good, that make them look good, and that tell a good story.

The other three: triggers, "public" and "practical value" are new to me and a bit surprising. Perhaps they will be for you as well.

Triggers - Top of Mind

We share what is top of mind. Duh. But really? Berger asks which is shared more often Walt Disney World or Cheerios. Obviously, we expect Disney to be shared more often. 

Certainly, an exciting one-off event is shared immediately, but is it shared often? Probably not. And that one-off share doesn't end up getting the results needed in many cases. The playing field is nuanced. Blockbuster films need immediate sharing, certainly. But sustained sales need people to remember the brand and talk about it often.

Kit Kat is the example that stuck with me. The brand was losing sales, had very little budget, and came up with a campaign which paired the chocolate bar with coffee. Bam. Sales went from 300 to 500 million and climbed steadily. As Berger mentions, there are many factors at play, but one unmistakable one is that coffee is a substance people think about and consume several times a day in the United States. 

When you are creating content that you want people to share, consider pairing it with triggers that will bring your content to mind as often as possible.

Public - Seeing is Believing

This category relates to social proof - the idea that if you see someone you admire doing something, you're likely to copy that behaviour. Get your product out in the open where people can see it and see other people using it.

Feel like that doesn't relate to what you do? Think about Movember. Started as a dare between friends to see who could grow the best moustache, it has turned into a great awareness campaign for what was a very private disease. When the private becomes public what was hidden becomes visible. And behaviours change. 

How can you make what you do public? Create a way for people to consume your brand publicly? 

Practical Value - Usability

This one is so obvious. We like to share and receive practical information. We just do. As I read this chapter, examples from my own life just kept coming, flooding my thoughts as I read. 

I would be willing to bet the same is true for you. Of course I share interesting things on social media or in conversations with friends. But the bulk of what I share without hesitation are things that I feel are practical. I immediately tweeted about Contagious because I felt that this book is so full of practical value the tweet would be received well and appreciated.

Ultimately, you want to be providing value in whatever you do. Are you transmitting that to people in your content? Is it clear - and can it be clearer - that what you do helps people?

Ultimately - Make it Fun

Before reading Contagious, I had just finished Actionable Gamification by Yu-Kai Chou. I would like to be able to introduce Yu-Kai Chou to Jonah Berger because their ideas overlap (I feel) and if they knew each other, the world would be just that much richer. (Perhaps they already know each other. What do I know?)

Yu-Kai's grasp of gamification, though, created a framework for me within which to neatly organize all these ideas about helping people to share great stuff.

Let me explain. Yu-Kai comes from the understanding that gamification is all about what drives people and is not about the actual devices we use to help people game life. In other words, you can't just slap a badge on something and expect that badge to have meaning or be useful. It's not the badge that matters as much as the drive behind the badge.

In this way, for example in the chapter on social currency in Contagious, Berger (I think) misses a bit of the story. He suggests using gamification to help promote the social currency of your product. And he's right that this is a good strategy. But without the context of coming from the drive first, I think trying to add in gamification falls flat.

8 Pieces to the Gamification Puzzle

Yu-Kai Chou builds his gamification framework around 8 core drives which he calls "Octalysis" 

  1. Core meaning 
  2. Empowerment
  3. Social Influence
  4. Unpredictability
  5. Avoidance
  6. Scarcity
  7. Ownership
  8. Accomplishment

His grand idea is that by using "human centered design" rather than "functional design" we can make anything fun. He wants to bring that same level of fun and entertainment to every aspect of our lives through incorporating these 8 drives in a systematic way in to the design of, well, everything.

I've taken huge liberties with his content there, so if I've exaggerated or gotten his mission a bit wrong I'm very open to correction.

What I do understand, though, is that by trying to come from where users are driven to engage with you, you are meeting them where they are and ultimately making their experience more enjoyable. And that is a wonderful thing.

I suggest learning more about his ideas - they run deep and need quite a bit of thought to fully understand how to put them into play. As he notes, used poorly, you can create addictive experiences that focus on "black hat" drives like scarcity, avoidance and unpredictability. Or you can use mostly "white hat" drives like core meaning, ownership, empowerment and accomplishment (with a bit of black hat sprinkled in) to create a meaningful, fun and engaged experience. 

To get you started with Yu-Kai's ideas, watch his TEDx talk from the University of Lausanne: 

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