Digging Into the Psychology of Contagious Communication

How to harness the science of social transmission

Robert Wheatley
6 min readOct 4, 2022

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“People do not buy goods or services, they buy relations, stories and magic.”

– Seth Godin

· Today we will weigh in on vital tools and ideas that can vastly improve the outcome of your marketing investments.

· For the very reason these tools and ideas access what we know about how people share information and recommendations with each other.

If there is one important, recurring theme in the guidance we provide at the Emerging Trends Report, it is our respect for the consumer we are working mightily to reach and engage. Too often, marketing activity is focused slavishly on firing up the latest social platform or digital tool. Preoccupation with algorithms wrongly assumes simple deployment of the tech guarantees engagement. Nope. It’s just not happening.

So many benefits can be gleaned and extracted through greater understanding and appreciation of human behavior — and how these insights can be deployed for profound impact on consumer engagement and successful outreach results. Buckle up. Here we go.

The painful lesson…

· Sorry, but most advertising just isn’t credible. If it walks, talks and behaves like traditional advertising — it is inherently untrustworthy to wary consumers.

· If anything, ads are predictable in form and function, signaling it’s time to tune out, move on. Repetition doesn’t help, it just intensifies the annoying interruptions.

· People increasingly refuse to tolerate advertising interruptions (hello streaming). Blatant brand self-promotion rarely resonates with consumers because the hero of the outreach is the brand focused on itself, not the consumer’s relevant journey.

It’s like that guy at the cocktail party who intrusively humble-brags about his career achievements. He cares little about his ‘audience’ beyond the attention he seeks. Meanwhile, we can’t wait to move on to something more interesting and maybe even useful.

What is actually sticky?

So much noise, so little time. How much of that messaging cacophony actually sticks with consumers?

Instead people are magically drawn to “remarkableness” — or what is:

Extraordinary

Novel

Exceptional

Unusual

Captivating,

Surprising

Helpful

Inspiring

When we build a marketing plan, we’re working to break the patterns of convention, disrupt the expected, violate the norm…why? When we’re able to get people to care, not only will they tune in to the message — they will share.

As marketers we work overtime to mint social currency around and within the product itself, how it is packaged and served up, the experiences we create and the stories we tell. This is ultimately showing appreciation for how and when people will transmit information to others.

Case in point: pressing the symbolism button

All purchases today are ultimately symbolic gestures; visible flags of what people want others to believe about their values, beliefs, priorities and status. How can we best employ symbols and markers of what consumers want others to see? What social currency flags can we help them visibly wave? To help them be…

In the know

Forward thinking

Sustainable

Successful

Caring

Informed

Resourceful

Exceptional

The desire for social resonance and approval is a fundamental human motivation. We can intentionally create ways for people to make themselves look good. We can help them feel like VIPs or insiders (exclusivity and scarcity). Everyone is a status seeker thus anything that elevates their position in front of others delivers social currency while creating talk value.

When people share extraordinary and entertaining stories it makes them appear to be extraordinary and entertaining.

The heart of it: emotion

Sustainability, global warming and climate threat represent compelling sources of competitive advantage and behavior change. Want people to do something about it? There’s a great temptation to point out how big the problem is and wallpaper messaging outreach with an unrelenting flow of statistics and factual evidence. When you want people to care about an issue, to weigh in, to do something, to share, emotion is going to be the primary lever.

Talk about how their children’s future, wellbeing, health and welfare could be impacted by runaway climate change. When you engage people in stories that hit home at the heart level — the most important human relationships we treasure for example, then we are engaging the subconscious side of the brain head on — the part of us that controls our actions.

Candidly, people don’t want to be told something. They want to be moved or entertained.

Observation delivers imitation

Social influence is enhanced when your product experience is more observable. Public visibility will boost talk value and sharing. Anything that is visible can engage the power of popularity and creates opportunities for imitation. If people can’t SEE what others are doing, they can’t imitate that behavior.

As marketers we’re looking for ways to take the product functionality or experience that is mostly unobservable and make it visible. That visibility will feed word of mouth. If it’s designed for show, it will likely grow.

Useful is powerful

People love to be helpful to others, to be a source of practical advice that improves experiences or makes life easier. When brands become enablers of guidance and coaching, another avenue is opened for social exchange. Simply put, people like to pass along useful tips, ideas and information to their peers. Creating a tellable tale around information of practical value is a sure path to contagious communication.

Look for ways to create news they can use.

Remarkable-ness will disrupt

If we hear the phrase “no frills airline” an image quickly begins to form of cramped seating, no food and the absence of any in-cabin entertainment. This bears out in reality as many “flying bus” experiences confirm the paradigm.

What happens when a discount carrier provides generous seating, good food options and in-flight entertainment — the shift immediately engages and disrupts the expectation. An opportunity to be remarkable is a game-changing moment that creates strong pathways to social exchange and transmission of extraordinary experiences.

How can you violate the standard rules of your category to deliver the exceptional and unexpected?

Activating the power of awe

When you see a breathtaking landscape, how do you feel? When you observe extraordinary human feats of daring, discovery or human kindness, it most likely moves you. Human inspiration is an endless treasure trove of share-able opportunities.

People desperately want to be part of something greater than themselves, to acquire purpose and value from being involved in a movement. The primary benefit of higher purpose marketing is the purpose itself.

Done with strategic thought and passion, we gain access to moments of wonder, excitement and strength. Awe is a powerful tool that triggers and motivates action. In short, engaging our sense of wonder is a sure path to share-able adventures.

Employing the magic of humanity

Frankly we could keep going because there are so many opportunities to take advantage of how people think and operate to jump over the stasis of self-centered, introspective marketing that fails to excite.

· The common ground in this thinking is how we turn consumers into walking, talking billboards because they’re driven to share what they’ve experienced or learned. We don’t do business in a world of classic persuasion any longer. Our ability to engage people occurs in direct proportion to how relevant we can make our communication to them, how they think, how they operate and live.

When this happens, magic happens — and that’s what people want.

If this stimulates interest on how the approach might apply to your brand and business, use this link to start an informal conversation. No expectations other than a robust conversation about people, how they behave, and your goals.

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Robert Wheatley

CEO of firm focused on helping brands understand, navigate and engage the consumer's growing passion for healthy living. Author, blogger, speaker. Home chef.