Contagious content: STEPPS and the Science of Shareability

  • Cute Kitten
  • Cute Kitten

Luck and cats. According to Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, these are the two most popular misconceptions about why content goes viral. As the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah is an expert in social epidemics and the science of shareability. And thats precisely what it is: a science.

Unfortunately, there can never be an absolute guarantee of widespread exposure with any idea, no matter how great it might be. Content and PR campaigns do require that little bit of luck, of course, but it is by no means the only (or even the most significant) factor involved in succeeding. As for cats, there weren't many of them in Gangnam Style or WRENs First Kiss video, and I seem to remember both of those doing okay.

While we might not be able to assure 100% blanket coverage, what we can do is apply a series of proven, scientific methodologies to every campaign we embark upon. Creating content that people genuinely want to share is a complex and challenging task, but one that we embrace in PR. Each idea needs to be analysed and scrutinised, and a good place to start is with Jonah Bergers six STEPPS.

STEPPS Contagious Framework
Jonahs framework, which consists of social currency, triggers, emotions, public, practical value and stories, gives marketers a tried and tested structure to apply to any potential undertaking, so that ideas can be evaluated scientifically for the best possible chance of success.

Social currency

The first of Jonahs principles is concerned with the nature of the content that we share and the reasons behind our decision to do this. Essentially, sharable information possesses social currency and we post and tweet about it to look good. Just like in real life conversation, we want to come across as intelligent and interesting to improve the way others perceive us. This is reflected in the kinds of things we share online.


Triggers are absolutely vital for a great piece of sharable content. They are the hooks that keep an idea 'top-of-mind' and 'tip-of-tongue'. While they might seem the simplest element, creating something that is genuinely memorable is extremely challenging.


One of the main reasons we share content is because it has an emotional effect on us. If we see something that genuinely makes us laugh or cry or smile, we are far more likely to want to share that emotion with others. Providing your target audience with something they can really empathise with allows you to engage with them on a much more personal level and will provide you with a greater chance of succeeding with your content.


Achieving coverage (especially from the right outlets) is important because, as Jonah claims, "the more public something is, the more likely people will imitate it". Always aim to create something with longevity that will continue to generate interest and remain popular as more people become aware of it. Regarding PR, think of how you can use your products and services in a public environment, both online and offline.

Practical value

This one is almost self-explanatory and its a principal that, as an industry, weve been applying to content for years and years: solve a problem. Give your audience something that is genuinely useful and beneficial to them. Fill a gap in the market and provide them with unique insight and knowledge that will help them overcome an obstacle. This could be an age-old conundrum, or a life hack that reinvents the wheel and applies to everyone.


As Jonah says, "Build a Trojan horse." Create a story or narrative that your user will invest in, with a product or service wrapped up in the middle. Unless its utterly ground-breaking and revolutionary, its unlikely that your product itself will be strong enough to warrant sharing socially. Instead, think about the pub factor and create a story that people will honestly be interested in discussing.

For more information about Jonah Bergers STEPPS principals - take a look at the video below: