Q&A: ‘Contagious’ author Jonah Berger on how financial services can go viral

Alex Sword


The Financial Services Forum

Jonah Berger is the author of Contagious, a bestselling book which explored the factors that make certain things go viral. He identified several key attributes that generate authentic sharing via word of mouth. This was later followed by The Catalyst, which explored how to achieve change in the face of resistance. In this exclusive Q&A he discusses how his ideas apply to 2022 and to the financial services world. (The below is a transcription of a recorded interview).


  • FSF: It’s been nearly a decade since you published the book “Contagious” – how do you think the world of word of mouth has evolved since then?

Jonah Berger: In some ways it’s easy to argue it’s changed. digital technologies are only becoming more and more prevalent. social media is only becoming a bigger part of our everyday lives. The volume of consumer views on almost every platform we can imagine has doubled, tripled or quadrupled even in the past year or two. In some ways it’s easy to say it’s changed a lot.

That said, the underlying drivers of why people talk and share are very much the same. Whether we’re sharing with people online or offline, whether we’re talking to one person or many, whether we’re writing an online review or talking to a neighbour, our motivations for doing those things are the same.

It’s easy to think of word of mouth as a new and online phenomenon, but it’s been around for thousands of years. People have been sharing word of mouth since the caveman era, telling people “don’t eat that, it’s poisonous”. The way we share word of mouth has changed and its impact has grown even more, but the drivers are very much the same.


  • Do you have any advice for translating your main principles of why things go viral to a sector that for many people is a utility, is not emotional and does not necessarily have social currency?

Even in financial services, the same principles apply. Think about the idea of social currency. I remember the first time someone told me about Venmo and saying, “Oh, hey, I paid this particular way. And you know, I don’t have to calculate things. I don’t have to count out change or can’t keep track of the money. I could just pay you through the system.”

And I said, “Well, that’s pretty cool. Sounds neat. I want to learn more.” I remember the first time I heard about an American Express black card and I went, “Wow, what is that thing? How do you get one of those?”

I remember the first time I heard about lots of new, exciting or valuable financial services that are out there. So I think even while financial services can seem like a utility, I think, in those cases, things can have social currency.

The same goes for triggers, right? We pay for things all the time. That’s a trigger; it reminds us of new, different and valuable ways to pay for things.

Financial services obviously have clear practical value. We have to differentiate ourselves. We have to have an engaging story. We have to give people a reason to talk and share about it because it makes them look good or they can help others.

But I think the same principles apply even internally, like financial services, where it may not seem like social currency, for example, plays the biggest role.


  • You’ve worked with a number of major consumer brands, eg Apple and Nike. What could financial companies learn about virality and persuasion from these companies?

I think one key insight is understanding your customer and your customer needs. I’ve worked with a lot of credit unions and spoken to a lot of financial service organisations. And I think one challenge is many of these organisations are very focused on things like security, rates and very sort of functional and utilitarian basic attributes.

I don’t want to say those things are wrong: when we get credit cards, or financial service products like a bank and a bank account, we care about the rate, we want our accounts to be safe and secure and all those things.

But that isn’t really understanding the core reason behind why consumers back there isn’t understanding the core reason behind why consumers leverage and use financial services.

There are some deeper motivations at play. We’re not just interested in accumulating money, we’re interested in getting that house we’ve always dreamed of. We’re not just interested in paying someone, we’re interested in having a faster, more flawless experience so it’s easy to get together with friends and do things and share costs afterwards. So by understanding of deeper customer motivations about why people do the things that they do, the underlying customer insight behind these things, I think we can certainly be more effective.


  • More recently you have written “The Catalyst”, which looks at factors that drive people to make decisions. Can you explain your concept of the parking brake and why it is so crucial to understanding consumer behaviour?

Everyone has something they want to change. Marketers want to change behaviour to drive sales. Folks want to change the client’s mind leader. Employees want to change their boss’s mind. Leaders want to transform organisations. Start ups want to change industries. Non-profits want to change the world.

But change is really hard, right? Often we push, we pressure, we cajole and nothing happens. The key question is could there be a better way? In the Catalyst, indeed, I lay out that there is a better way.

You know, pushing seems like a really effective approach: more facts or figures, more reasons, more information. But often the more we push, the more people just push back, the more they find reasons they don’t want to do what we’re suggesting.

So rather than pushing, what we really need to do is identify the barriers to change, the obstacles that are getting in the way and mitigate them.

Imagine you’re in your car, you’re parked on a hill and you’re getting in your car to go. You get in the car, you stick your clinician, you turn the key, then you step your foot on the gas. If the car doesn’t go, we think, “oh, we just need more gas.” If that parking brake is engaged, we can step on the gas all we want, the car isn’t going to go anywhere.

The same thing holds for change. We’re stepping on the gas, stepping on the gas, wondering why something isn’t moving.

We need take a step back and say, “well, what are those parking brakes, those barriers or obstacles that are getting in the way? And how about understanding those barriers or obstacles?”

In that book, I talk about the five key barriers to change and how by identifying those obstacles and reducing them, we can make change more likely.


  • In financial services the bias towards the status quo and the uncertainty about new products, as highlighted in your book, are high. How might you apply the concepts of the Catalyst to, for example, persuading a customer to try a new banking service or investment product?

One big strategy is reducing uncertainty. We all have the status quo bias: old things are safe, new things feel risky, so we don’t want to change.

There’s also always switching costs, cost of change, and these are often up front. And so the question is, how do we lower the barrier of trial? To make it easier for people to experience the value of what we’re offering, so they’ll be more likely to want to do it.

Think about freemium. Freemium makes it a free version of a product or service and then upgrade to a paid version. We can’t necessarily do a freemium in all financial service things, but think about test drives at a car dealership. Same concept behind freemium, even though it’s not exactly the same idea.

In car dealerships there’s no free version of a product and premium version of the product, all it is a car and a test drive. But it’s allowing someone to experience the value that offering without having to pay all the costs up upfront. That’s just one example how I think we might apply those insights to financial services.


  • What brands and companies in 2022 do you think are doing the best job of navigating the modern marketing landscape?

If you look at great brands, great organisations, they start with customers or consumers.

They really understand those customers’ needs, and they meet them and build products and services that meet those needs.

I think Amazon does a really good job of understanding their customers’ needs and their underlying motivations, I think Nike does the same thing. I think there are lots of companies that do it, but less than, you know, who does it well and who does it badly, the key is understanding what they’re doing so well, and that really starts and ends with the consumer.

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