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.

The pizza or the box?

Call me crazy, but I’ve always liked Domino’s pizza. I remember growing up and sitting in my father’s camera store and enjoying some of their thin crust pizza while the hours passed waiting for the store to close. We kept kosher at home and never ordered in, so having Domino’s was a real treat.

Admittedly, Domino’s was a go-to for me during finals when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland. As I was cramming and stress eating, I’d order Domino’s to my dorm room, always the same order: a medium thin-crust pizza with pineapple and cinnastix (again, don’t judge).

Aside from the nostalgia and pure habit, it was clear that the quality of the food was suffering. The pizza would usually arrive lukewarm and just edible enough not to send it back. The product itself was nothing special.

It turns out that I wasn’t the only person feeling this way. In the 2000s Dominos was facing stiffer competition from Papa Johns and other fast-food restaurants. When competition started to impact their business and marketshare, they asked a very important question: is our problem the pizza or the box? In other words, is our marketing the problem (the quick(er) fix) or it is that our product is the problem (much harder fix)?

Here is what they found out:

The answer was that the pizza was the problem. They had a sub-par product and that’s why the competition was starting to eat their lunch (no pun intended). As you saw from the short YouTube video, in 2009 Domino’s re-did their entire pizza recipe, essentially starting over to make a new, better tasting, pizza. The initiative was marketed as, “Oh Yes We Did”. The company owned the fact that many customers thought the pizza was terrible, enough for them to start from scratch.

I have to give kudos to Patrick Doyle, the CEO of Domino’s during this turnaround who left the company at the end of June. The results speak for themselves:

The lesson from Domino’s is that there comes a time where leaders have to ask the simple but important question: Is it the pizza or is it the box?

We have to ask this question in business all of the time. If we want to grow revenue or increase marketshare, should we start a new marketing campaign or is the issue that our customers are not recommending us because our product is terrible? As most of us know, word-of-mouth is still the most effective marketing.

The good news is that thanks to sites like yelp, google, facebook and others, we don’t have to pay for expensive focus groups (although I am a big believer in the need to do research and sometimes focus groups are, in fact, more helpful) to know what our customers are saying about us. For better or for worse, we can know whether customers are having a 5-star or a 1-star type of experience with our business.

I’ve been in positions in the past where we had to face the tough reality that we had to fix our “pizza”. Often, leaders have to go through the 5-stages of grief before they can fix the issue. Leadership groups often have grown so connected to their product and believe in it so deeply that changing it seems like heresy. But once they accept that it doesn’t represent the business well and can get better, possibilities open up (financial decline helps create urgency as well).

When we addressed our product and improved the customer experience at the urgent care centers, we saw instant results and a strong turnaround in the making. Changing the experience fundamentally was a good choice at the time and improved our revenue by more than 50%. It takes experience, judgment, and some luck to understand when you need to dig-in and fix your product or when marketing is really the issue.

Never rest thinking your product will always be superior. Give the customers credit. They will tell you when it is time to work on your “pizza”. I once knew someone who always said, “If they only understood, they would agree”. To me, that is a non-empathetic, about to go out of business mentality.

Don’t be like that guy. Stay hungry and listen. It is our job to listen and understand.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Listen to your customers. They will tell you if your product is failing them. If it is, jump in and change it. Let them know you listened to them. They will thank you for it and come back to you for another try.

If you were on the edge of your seat to see how the Domino’s customers who were most critical in their focus group reacted to the new pizza, please watch this video: