How to Go Viral in Six STEPPS

How to Go Viral in Six STEPPS

by Mary Ellen Stepanich, Ph.D.

I confess – I’m addicted to learning. Rather than enroll at a university, I buy The Great Courses – DVDs, CDs, downloads. I love them all. The latest one I purchased is titled, “How Ideas Spread,” by Dr. Jonah Berger. Although at first glance the lectures appear to be directed toward advertisers, I find that several notions in the presentation might apply to my efforts to sell my memoir, D is for Dysfunctional…and Doo Wop.

In the video, Dr. Berger discusses what makes messages “go viral,” or why some ideas catch on. Research has shown that word-of-mouth is the best way to get information from one point or person to another, and there are six key factors that drive people to talk and share. I decided to apply these factors to the question, “How can I get my book to go viral?” There are six STEPPS that cause ideas to spread: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories.

Going viral in 6 STEPPSSocial currency is anything that signals identity – whatever makes a product special or interesting. All the choices we make signal identity, and it is the inner remarkability of a product that gets people thinking and talking. So, how do we increase the “remarkability” of our books? Dr. Berger says that showing, not telling, is more likely to get people to remember a message. Perhaps that explains why I sell books when I give a personal reading accompanied by my Doo Wop quartet, but very few books sell as a result of my press releases.

Triggers are things that are closely associated. When we hear one word, we automatically think of the other, such as thinking “jelly” when we hear “peanut butter.” As Dr. Berger says, “Tip of the mind is tip of the tongue.” Therefore, it’s a good idea to link whatever we market with a trigger topic. That’s why I’ve included the word Doo Wop in the title of the novels I’m writing now, linking them to my nonfiction memoir.

Emotion is important because, according to Dr. Berger, “When we care, we share.” Positive emotions – such as awe and arousal – lead to action. Sad stories make people less likely to share, but humor drives sharing. I was very glad to hear that. My writing doesn’t inspire awe and I hate telling sad stories, but I love to write with humor.

Public means, “If it’s easier to see, it’s easier to imitate.” A standing ovation or a “wave” at the ball game has to start at the front of the audience if it’s to catch on. When you see a café full of people, you assume the food is good and you’ll eat there. Perhaps that explains why authors put multiple good reviews in the fronts of their books. Readers think, “If all these people like the book, I’ll buy it.”

Practical value refers to pure, useful information. In an interview, William F. Buckley was asked what book he’d want to have with him if he were marooned on a desert island. He replied, “A book on shipbuilding.” Therefore, books offering advice and information are more in demand. Another interesting notion involves how to offer a “deal.” Do you offer a $5 discount on a $20 book, or 25% off the selling price? The “rule of hundred” is to state the percentage discount for anything costing less than $100, and the dollar amount of the discount for items costing more than $100.

Finally, stories carry information like a Trojan horse. Rather than giving cold, impersonal data, a story conveys the message in a format that is interesting and delightful to the listener.

Therefore, dear writers, I hope that using these STEPPS can help your books “go viral.” Or at least, sell like hotcakes!

Dr. Mary Ellen Stepanich is a retired professor of organizational behavior who always
Mary Ellen Stepanichtold her students at Purdue, “I’m very organized, but my behavior is a bit wonky.” She has published articles in academic journals (boring), show scripts for barbershop choruses and quartets (funny), and an award-winning radio play, “Voices from the Front,” for Sun Sounds of Arizona (heartrending). Mary Ellen lives in Peoria, Arizona, with her cat, Cookie, and blogs on her website,

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