How Contagious Can Social Media Really Be?


How Contagious Can Social Media Really Be? Antonio Nunez

Image by PhotographyMontreal

THE SOCIAL MEDIA advertising industry has been built on the idea of Contagiousness. Social Media’s promised paradise was that of effortlessly making fans promote branded content until it went viral through word of mouth –ideally, at a global scale and for a very reasonable price. More than a decade later, has this promise been fulfilled? Is Contagiousness still the marketing god to worship?

How Contagiousness became contagious

After the demise of interruptive marketing, marketers collectively embraced Google’s advertising model where commercial messages target people already interested in a subject via search query, solving their needs trough content with the less friction possible. Marketing’s main functions became managing a brand’s PPC budget, SEO and SEM while constantly optimizing its digital properties. SEO agencies and Digital Media agencies boomed.

The Consumer Insight and the Emotional Single Minded Proposition were discarded; Content, Utility and UX become marketing´s new gods to be worshiped.


The second-wave, the ¨after Google Era¨ -we could say, appeared with the Social Media revolution. We marketers studied the meteoric penetration of Social Media. Even the most skeptical admitted its influence, as they watched how it could ignite political revolutions across countries and instant over night celebrities. Books like The Tipping Point, The Anatomy of a Trend and Made to Stick became mainstream in the marketing world. We admired the first truly global viral campaigns like Dove’s Evolution and Burger King’s Subservient Chicken.

We revisited traditional ideas from PR (networking, influence, listening, empathy, recommendation). We also learned that the promised Social Media paradise was very inclusive as even small businesses could join: you could launch a campaign for as little as 25 dollars. We got hooked on Social Media’s totally addictive analytics and comforting short-term metrics.

Social Media became CMO’s safest bet; they could show immediate results without the big investments required by traditional media. It was the perfect marketing tool to survive their ever-shrinking tenures. Digital ad agencies rejoiced in the belief that, thanks to Social Media, they would be back in the industry’s driving seat. Their belief being that crafting contagious campaigns was not supposed to be mainly about media investment but about creative talent.

With Social Media, Short-term Data and Contagiousness became the new marketing Gods.


By inoculating the right people with the right content, marketers could spread ultra-targeted campaigns. A robust and influential fan base would be in charge of doing the heavy lifting of the message distribution -practically for free. Contagious became the most influential magazine of that era. In 2013, the book Contagious, Why things catch on became a New York Times bestseller.

It’s author, Wharton’s professor Jonah Berger, synthesized his research in the acronym STEPPS. There are 6 major reasons why people share content in Social Media:

-The content has Social Currency value
-The content has Triggers that make it recurrently interesting
-The content awakes high arousal Emotions
-The content offers Public Practical value to the community
-The content has the shape of a Story

Three years later, Publicis’s digital creative agency DigitasLBi created the Contagious Index, together with Jonah Berger.

These are the top brands in the index on Facebook:

And these are the ones on Twitter:

This new Contagious Index improves the bland “engagement” metrics by being more demanding than the easy “likes” and “favorites”. When people share content, they are reflecting their identity and values.

“What we share is a signal of who we are”, Jonah Berger

The Contagious Index will help to improve the perception and efficacy of the entire social media industry, adding more value and respect to the notion of “engagement” and showing that having many followers and having true engagement don´t always go hand in hand. The question now is how to use it and if messaging´s contagiousness should be the top goal of the advertising agenda.

Should marketers keep worshiping Contagiousness?

After almost two decades of Social Media history and brand’s having to fight with ninja cats, burping babies and barely-dressed celebrity photo memes for consumers’ attention, brands have learnt some things:

Viral campaigns are usually paid campaigns, sometimes very expensively paid campaigns. You need PR and Digital Advertising to propel viral campaigns and to keep them alive.

People don´t accept advertising in Social Media. Advertising was not part of the initial deal they signed up for when they joined so they abhor it.

-Social Media users are in an active, well…, social mood. They are not there to be entertained by brands, their ¨friends¨ are their entertainment. Any interruption while they navigate is rejected by any means possible, including ad blocking.

People like their ¨friends¨ and what they have to say, not brands and what they want to say.

-People have started to distrust influencers’ and celebrity endorsements.

-It’s too expensive for brands to sustain a conversation with millions of people 24/7.

-People expect immediate answers when they raise a question or complain through social media and this is not always possible (see above).

-Recent studies show that brand growth happens not because of the frequent usage of loyal clients (the typical social media brand fan), but theoccasional usage of new customers or disloyal customers, as professor Byron Shapiro has proven, category by category, in his books How Brands Growth.

We are all guilty of having created over-expectations about Social media. Maybe in the future it will live closer to Customer Care, PR programs and Promotions than many Social Media agencies prefer to believe today. However, making messaging contagiousness the priority of advertising doesn’t seem like a smart decision, when the actual acceptance of advertising through social media isn’t clear and the correlation of social media with more sales or long-term brand building hasn’t been proven yet.

What god to worship in the next Marketing Era then?

There is no denying that social media is here to stay. However, while we navigate towards the post Social Media era, maybe we can take a look back and learn a few things from what the ancient ¨interruptive¨ TV has been doing to survive. Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime and Apple TV have all walked the same harsh journey of brand marketing: consumer empowerment, UX improvement, technology upgrade and usage of big data.

-As Ian Leslie wrote in FT and Michael Wolff studied in his book, paradoxically, ¨the passive nature of TV turned out to be it’s hidden weapon¨. Consumer’s still tolerate advertising when watching TV.

-TV never gave it’s content for free. If viewers want ad-free content, they know that they will have to pay an extra for it.

Original, premium-quality content has over-come any difficulty and is the foundational pillar of the business model.

Data is always to service Storytelling, never the opposite. Netflix doesn’t produce pilot episodes or rely on focus groups to validate their shows’s storytelling. They know their customer’s needs and interest and cater to it.

While we try and learn about what the new marketing trend (the tandem of native advertising and programmatic advertising) can do to increase sales, brand loyalty and brand building, maybe, the next gods for brands to worship could be Storytelling and Data, in that order.

One thing is clear: Not only will marketers need to regain patience and long term vision, but also the marketing religion of the future will not be monotheistic any more, but polytheistic.

For ideas and tips on marketing, storytelling and communication, you can join Antonio Nunez´s free newsletter at or follow his Twitter @AntonNunez


Guest blogger: The art of Digital Storytelling

By MERCEDES BELL, guest blogger at*


“The medium is the message.”

— the great Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan

More than a century ago, German composer and operatist, Richard Wagner, strove to transform musical drama into a “gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total work of art.” His controversial ideal called for the subordination of music to theater, which he felt to be the superior artform. While Wagner’s radical ideas did much to irk many of his musical contemporaries, the flawed concept of the “total work of art” has had a tremendous impact on the practice of storytelling.

Today, digital storytelling tools could become this generation’s “gesamtkunstwerk.” We say this because today’s audiences have access to enormous amounts of highly specific, interactive content online. (We’re talking about the technology used to build the New York Times’ Snowfall project, not your Facebook timeline.) So if you’ve got a story to tell, you can afford to start dreaming–there’s never been a better time to find ways in which to enrich your work with multimedia storytelling tools.

What is Digital Storytelling?

Simply put, the art of digital storytelling is all about telling stories using digital media. For example, a student may want to create a digital story using a video camera and simple video editing software to discuss a major event in their life, or even their own family history. Digital tools empower us to bring a new and vibrant dimension to our stories and the ways in which audiences experience them.

Of course, with so many tools available, sometimes it can be difficult to know where to start. In addition to effectively relaying your story to a wider audience, digital storytelling can convey a sense of innovation and mastery of several different creative tools on the part of the author/creator. Below are a few examples of how digital storytelling tools are making a difference today.

Digital Storytelling in Primary and Secondary Education

The University of Houston provides an excellent resource for using digital media in educational storytelling. The primary goal of the site is to show students and teachers how digital storytelling can be used to augment various educational activities. In addition to tools and other relevant pieces of information, Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling showcases several digital storytelling projects, such as The Reality of Television, which uses digital video to explore the effects television has on life and society.

The National Writing Project and the Pearson Foundation are currently collaborating to find out how digital storytelling can help students improve their literacy and writing skills. Together, the two organizations have been hosting workshops and professional development programs to help communicate the educational benefits of digital storytelling throughout the country. This great documentary produced by the Pearson Foundation provides a glimpse at how powerful digital storytelling can be as an educational resource.

Digital Storytelling for Higher Education

In addition to its many uses for educating primary and secondary school students, digital storytelling has also been shown to have tremendous benefits for college students. In fact, several major universities, such as the University of Maryland and the University of California, Berkeley, offer extensive programs and resources for digital storytelling.

While traditional reading and writing will continue to be a major component of higher learning, digital storytelling promises to offer students a richer palette for communicating their ideas. Moreover, the shareability of visual content is opening up new possibilities when it comes to teaching students through the use of video lessons and social media. The Center for New Design and Learning Scholarship at Georgetown University hosts the Digital Storytelling Multimedia Archive that offers great tools and examples to help students and educators understand the value of digital storytelling at the college level.

Digital Storytelling for Business and Creative Professionals

Business and creative professionals are also finding ways to incorporate data visualization and interactive media into their work. In response to an increased demand for user-friendly “storytelling tech” tools, sites like Prezi and Tableau Public have popped up to provide non-techies with tools they need to communicate complex or data-heavy ideas digitally. For anyone with a passing interest in finding out more about creating digital stories, sites such as these are great places to begin experimenting with the medium.

For quite some time now, authors have been turning to digital storytelling as a way to expose their writing to a more tech-savvy audience. Visual novels, which continue to be extremely popular in Japan, have proven to be a great way for writers to share their stories using digital mediums. In fact, visual novels accounted for nearly 70% of Japanese PC game sales in 2006, and the influence of the medium has been growing internationally ever since. Only the future will tell what kinds of new technologies this growing demand for digitally enhanced literature will bring about.

Storytelling for a New Generation

As the great Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote: “the medium is the message.” Indeed, the medium is a crucial aspect of how we experience and interpret a story, and without it, a story would dissipate into nothingness. That said, the rapid evolution of multimedia and digital storytelling tools shouldn’t alarm us. Today’s stories still serve the same purpose that stories always have–to entertain, inform or arouse their audiences.

From woodblock printing to Wagner’s “gesamtkunstwerk,” it’s fascinating to trace the ways in which mankind’s storytelling tastes have evolved alongside technology. Even though digital storytelling could be the primary storytelling medium for generations to come, who is to say that a more effective storytelling medium won’t come along in the next 10 years or even the next 10 minutes?

This post was originally published in

*Occasionally we invite bloggers to enrich this blog with diverse point of views. MERCEDES BELL is a researcher currently finishing up her communications degree and spending her free time getting some real world experience by helping out and contributing to

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