Book Review: Contagious – Why Things Catch On

One of my new favorite things to do is to wander around the Amazon Books store in our neighborhood. To the chagrin of my wife, anytime we go for a walk, I enjoy going into the store, always heading straight for the business/management section, just to see what they have in stock that day.

The store is small and is designed in such a way to encourage its customers to get-in, spend money, and get-out. Unlike most bookstores, there are no places to sit, no quiet nooks to hang out and read, and no coffee bar. This conscious decision for such a set-up has made me even more interested to try to figure out how they determine what books to keep in inventory.

I was doing my usual walk through a couple of weeks ago and stumbled upon an orange book called, Contagious by Jonah Berger. The book said “New York Times Bestseller” on the cover, but I didn’t recall ever seeing it on the list, which I check weekly. I thought to myself that I had already read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, which covers the same topic. Still, the psychology about why certain things “go viral,” has always interested me, and it applies to my everyday work of trying to spread a concept and story through the culture of a large organization. I added it to my audible wish list and downloaded it the next time I had a credit. I am so happy that I did.


When I started listening to it, I found out in the book’s introduction that Jonah Berger teaches at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He focused his research after reading The Tipping Point and wanted to learn more. After years of further study, Berger identified 6 principles to what makes something “go viral”. They are:

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

Berger uses a variety of examples (the $100 cheesesteak and a hidden speakeasy called “Please Don’t Tell”) as well as anecdotes to explain how each principle works and how they fit together.

In addition to being an entertaining and easy read, Contagious holds valuable lessons on an extremely important subject. Knowing how ideas spread is one of the most important competencies of a leader. Setting a vision and a strategy to achieve that vision are insufficient if they are not communicated effectively to members of the organization. A vision and strategy will only ever be a thought exercise if the entire organization doesn’t know what the vision and strategy are or how to connect their work to the overall direction of the organization. Ideas, stories, and messages that are important to the future of the organization must be packaged in such a way that makes them contagious.

Some leaders assume that once a strategy is set, it will automatically cascade to the rest of the organization. But, a message going “viral” in an organization does not happen automatically. Leaders must use psychological principles, like the ones described in Contagious, to make change happen in an organization. Marketing a strategy to employees is equally as important as marketing the product to the customers. Contagious helps to uncover how to do both.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leadership is about communicating vision and strategy so that it spreads to the entire organization. The six principles in Contagious can help leaders effectively package messages to proactively engage both organizational stakeholders and customers.

Contagious is available for purchase on Amazon for $17.00 (does not include Prime discount).

Book Review: The Tipping Point

An instant classic and Amazon best seller, The Tipping Point is one of Malcolm Gladwell‘s signature publications. As an urgent care leadership team, we read this book to try to help us create a better marketing plan and organizational culture. It has many other important applications in both marketing and business.

The Tipping Point unpacks the familiar diffusion of innovations theory. Gladwell asks and answers an important question: What makes epidemics (social or otherwise) tip and spread beyond the innovators and early adopters?

The answer is that epidemics tend to have three rules that they share in common:

  1. The law of the few, which includes discussion of connectors, mavens, and salespeople
  2. The stickiness factor
  3. The power of context

The Tipping Point describes these three rules in detail, providing many examples (i.e. connectors has a great section on the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”) from pop culture, news, and human psychology.

The important takeaways from this book are the lessons in understanding how things “go viral” and spread quickly. As a leader, I applied Gladwell’s rules in efforts to promote a culture of positive and consistent behavior, especially in patient experience and quality of care.

When I was working in public policy, I found that most people recommended, “just start in the schools” to solve most of society’s problems. In business, the corollary seems to be, “just change the culture”. What both of these have in common is that both are complex, decentralized, and difficult to change and move quickly.

Gladwell’s three rules are a good framework to use to do the work of deploying a new culture because it forces you to take deliberate action to reach the right people, create the right messages, and create the right environment for that new culture to take hold. It also means that the leader has to exercise their two most important skills to really map this out effectively: empathy and active listening.

How else would you find out who the connectors, mavens, and salespeople are in the organization without listening to people to find out who has the most people in common? Without empathy and listening, how do you work to craft effective messages that are “sticky” for your team? How do you create an environment for people to live organizational values, if you don’t understand the environment? Leaders can’t just put up signs and think everyone will read and listen to them!

I have used Gladwell’s lessons as a framework to effect positive change and I hope you do too.

KEY TAKEAWAY: For anything to “go viral”, it has to have three crucial elements: the right people, the right message, and the right environment/context. Gladwell’s lessons are applicable to situations requiring organizational change if leaders are willing to listen and empathize.

The Tipping Point is available for purchase on Amazon for $17 (not including Prime discount)

I listened to The Tipping Point on audible. I enjoyed it because Gladwell is the narrator, which makes it even more enjoyable to listen to. Highly recommend listening to this one.