Whether you’re an inventor, an entrepreneur starting a new company, an employee pitching a new strategy to your team, or a parent trying to get your child out the door, we all need to persuade others to do things our way. Sharing ideas is an essential evolutionary practice. And yet, there is no formula for the convergence of new ideas and cultural appetite.
Though it’s often impossible to predict what will catch on, we can all benefit from learning some basic tenets about what makes ideas stick. The odds of influence increase by combining novelty with fresh ways of communicating that create associative triggers, and by seeking the right messengers to evangelize ideas.
Ideas that link to other ideas stay at top of mind
Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, says 70% of what drives consumer spending is consideration. Meaning, when it’s time to make a purchase, you’re most likely to buy (or act on) whatever is at top of mind. You may enjoy a particular restaurant, but if you’re not thinking of it when you’re hungry, you’re not likely to go there for dinner. This is a form of cognitive behavior called recency bias.
Triggers link an idea or product to another so that thinking of one brings the other to mind. Basically, triggers are a way of harnessing our tendency toward recency bias for a strategic purpose. Some standards include rum and Coke; peanut butter and jelly; and the strategically aligned Kit Kat and coffee.
“We trust our community far more than we trust paid media to tell us what’s worth checking out."—Jonah Berger
See what happened there? “People liked Kit Kat well enough, but they weren’t buying the candy. So, the company paired the candy with a daily habit for many adults: coffee,” says Berger. “By linking their product to an established behavior, they created a context that inspired consumption.” The campaign’s success coincided with the Kit Kat brand’s revenue doubling from $300M in sales to more than $600M in a decade.
Think your product, service or idea is too uninspiring to be memorable? Geico’s “Happier than a camel on hump day” commercial, in which a camel walks around an office giddy about “Hump Daaaay” on a Wednesday will make you reconsider. Why is this the second-most shared ad of all time? And why did it do so well for a dry, commoditized product like insurance?
“It may not be funnier than other ads, and Geico’s insurance may not be more remarkable than other insurance,” explains Berger, “But it’s talkable—and at top of mind. Every Wednesday is a trigger that makes people think about and share the ad.” This is how Geico came to “own Wednesday” according to Mashable reports. The campaign is credited with the company’s rise to number two auto insurer.
The results of these ad campaigns indicate that when thoughts are at top of mind, people are more likely to act on them. Sights, smells, and sounds in a person’s environment can also trigger related thoughts. “If you see a puppy while jogging in the park, you might remember that you’ve always wanted to adopt a dog,” says Berger. “A hot day might trigger thoughts about climate change…Triggers are like little environmental reminders for related concepts and ideas.”
Stories that surprise are more likely to be shared
Research shows that every $1 spent on word of mouth goes 10 times as far as money spent on traditional advertising. “Though we tend to think of social media as a primary influence channel, only 7-10% of word-of-mouth sharing happens online,” advises Berger.
The rest happens face-to-face. “We trust our community far more than we trust paid media to tell us what’s worth checking out. People naturally talk about what they expect their listener will find interesting. When you create a story that inspires or entertains people, they’ll pass it on—because it makes them look good to do so.”
"You don’t need to be a great storyteller to tell a great story. You just need to listen."—Jonah Berger
Blendtec’s Will it blend? campaign is one such story. With a $50 marketing budget, the company generated 200 million views by blending an iPhone in its blender. Why was there so much interest in a category we wouldn’t expect people to care about—for a blender that isn’t even the most powerful one on the market? Because Blendtec found a story with “valuable virality”, advises Berger. It demonstrated the blender’s capacity in an entertaining way that people were inspired to talk about.
“Chances are good, nothing you are working on is less exciting than a blender,” Berger says. “Whether you sell plastics, logistics software, or a back-end service, you can find that inner remarkability in any offering, and find an unexpected way to show it. A powerful story can’t just entertain, and it can’t be too informational. It must show, not tell, something surprising, novel, interesting, that makes people want to share it.”
“The good news is, you don’t need to be a great storyteller to tell a great story,” advises Berger. “You just need to listen. What stories do employees tell others? What stories do customers tell? Which stories have an impact—and are already being repeated?” Stories that connect simply leverage and amplify those.
For example, the guy who announces that Maui Jim has great customer service at a cocktail party can expect to clear the room. However, when this same guy describes how, when his dog tore his sunglasses to shreds such that he couldn’t even find the SKU#, Maui Jim sent him a free replacement, along with a dog bone—he conveys a unexpected customer service story that will inevitably be repeated.
Stories that offer a deeper meaning are also more likely to spread. Berger recommends “Trojan Horse stories” that convey a specific, but not explicitly stated, message because they tend to get remembered and shared. People love the story about the boy who cried wolf, for example, because it shows the liabilities of lying.
Ideas that connect with higher ideals inspire action
Colin O’Neill, VP Experience Design at Connective DX, creates nuanced content designed to help each listener move forward. With every communication, his team considers: “Can this idea, product, or content meet them where they are? How does it connect with their higher ideals and support their immediate goals?”
O’Neill describes how his team created an experience for Kindercare offering parents a range of content that addressed their greatest pain points. Some were most concerned about convenience of location, others were making a choice based on cost or quality of teachers, and still others were struggling with separation issues around returning to work.
There are people on the fringes who aren’t just waiting to embrace fresh ideas—they’re seeking them out.
By speaking to these different mindsets, Kindercare was able to meet each parent where they were on their journey of choosing childcare and help them take the next, informed step toward enrollment.
Fringe ideas get noticed by influential mavens
In his TED talk on What Makes an Idea Go Viral, Seth Godin reveals the power of fringe ideas. Though they are risky, this is their strength. When an idea is “remarkable” or “worth making a remark about,” it stands a better chance of being noticed by the right kind of people who will spread the word—eventually.
When the famous baker Lionel Poilane first introduced his french bread, the French didn’t want to buy it. “It didn’t look like French bread. It wasn’t what they expected. It was neat. It was remarkable.” says Godin. But eventually, the bread caught on, one passionate customer at a time, until it became “the official bread of 3-star restaurants in Paris.”
An important takeaway, advises Godin, is that there are no guarantees that remarkable ideas ensure instant adoption. In fact, when an idea is different enough to stand out, it’s often met with resistance. Disruptive ideas are rarely welcomed by the large group of traditionalists who take comfort in what’s familiar.
But there are people on the fringes who aren’t just waiting to embrace fresh ideas—they’re seeking them out. These “mavens,” described in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point as "people we rely upon to connect us with new information” often get obsessed with something and feel compelled to tell all their friends about it. In this way, fringe ideas become familiar ideas. As word of mouth grows, so do acceptance and often adoption.