NEW YORK -- Jonah Berger was raised an Orioles fan, cheering for Cal Ripken Jr. through his Iron Man streak, from old Memorial Stadium through later days at Camden Yards. Berger remembers Brady Anderson's sideburns. They would talk about them all the time, word of mouth.
"Those are the Orioles I loved growing up," Berger says fondly.
That was before the Internet, long before a squeaky singer named Rebecca Black surpassed 300 million views on YouTube simply because she recorded a catchy song about "Friday" -- not coincidentally the day of the week her page views always spiked. It was long before "Contagious" became a New York Times bestseller for Berger, now an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, a "viral guru" who advises companies and baseball fans alike "why things catch on."
"People have always shared word of mouth," Berger said Tuesday night in the first public lecture at MLB Fan Cave University, where he signed copies of his book. "The Internet didn't start word of mouth. Even today, only about seven percent of word of mouth is online. But I think what the Internet does, what social media does, it allows us to experience things even with others who aren't there.
"So for example, now fans can watch the game at home or at the stadium, and tweet and connect with friends of theirs who aren't there at the moment. They can send emails to check up or call their friends when maybe their friend can't watch the game or is out of town. Even friends might be at different games and compare notes about the games that they are watching. It allows us to connect in ways we have not been able to connect before, but the fundamentals of word of mouth are still the same."
"Contagious" is an academic study involving years of scientific research into what makes things go viral these days, and recommended reading for companies wanting to grow their brands or fans wanting to build social followings. He points to six basic principles that drive all sorts of things to become contagious, and he highlighted those "six key STEPPS" in his lecture: Social Currency, Triggered, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories.
At MLB.com, it is not unusual for a unique fan moment or the occasional fight in the stands to suddenly get legs across social media. Of course, game footage often goes viral as well. Berger was asked to analyze the success of two particular videos that have been wildly popular recently: Troy Tulowitzki's "double-hit single" in 2011 and the "Thunder in Texas" video last July.
In the former video, the Rockies' shortstop swung and his bat actually connected twice with the ball. Everyone seemed to pass it around, something no one had seen before.
"If you look at why people share sports moments, it's similar to why people share other things as well," Berger said. "It has to be remarkable in some way, or be triggered by the environment, locomotion. I think in that case, no one's ever seen a double base hit before -- at least I haven't seen one. So the first time you see something, it's pretty remarkable. It's worthy of remark. I think people have shared that because it's exciting and different than they might have expected."
In the latter video from Rangers Ballpark, Roy Oswalt was pitching to Minnesota's Ryan Doumit when a bright flash of lightning appeared and a deafening clap of thunder immediately ensued. Mike Napoli said at the time that it "freaked" him out, and those who shared the video obviously concurred.
"It sounds like it's highly emotional, very surprising or unexpected," Berger said. "The more high-arousal emotion something evokes, whether it's positive emotion or negative emotion, the more likely people are to share it. Whether it makes us feel really good and excited -- maybe it's really funny -- or even if it makes us really angry or anxious, that high-arousal emotion drives us to share."
It is so easy, too. You can watch a live out-of-market game anywhere on MLB.TV, and within that environment, you get the immediate highlights with the ability to promptly share them on social media. But let's face it, some things are more worthy of sharing than others.
The question is, what makes something go viral?
That is what Berger is always asked, and why he wrote the book. He said he can't help you go out and rack up 10 million views on your latest YouTube clip, but he can give you insight on the science. For one, "make people feel like insiders." Two, "Find the inner remarkability." Think of triggers like the "Friday" example that made Black a sensation, or why tweets about Cheerios spikes during the morning (when you eat cereal) and why it spikes later on weekends (when you sleep in).
He recommends the "Trojan Horse" example, where you can try to hide a message within a story. As an example, he pointed to Subway's success with those Jared Fogle commercials, starring the guy who lost 200 pounds. Berger said people aren't looking to spread product information for a company, but in a case like that, Subway was able to "bake the product info inside the message," like a Trojan Horse. The commercials worked, he became company spokesman, and people were able to find out that the food chain had a variety of low-fat sandwiches.
"Remember that there's a science behind why people share," Berger said. "It's not random and it's not luck, it's not chance. Just like if you understand the science of hitting, you can get on base more often in baseball, by understanding the science of word of mouth, you can make sure more people talk about and share your content. Whether they are hitting retweet on your tweets, going to your blog and sharing with their friends, or even helping your business catch on and become popular. It's really about understanding that science of word of mouth and using it to make all products and ideas contagious."
At a time when there are so many so-called experts on the subject, Berger said the book represents the "first time anyone has brought data to social media." He quickly notes that he is faculty, his worth the stuff of studies and long research papers -- not unproven bravado.
"It's really easy to have theories and assume they are correct, but this is the first time someone has actually studied the science behind why we talk and share," Berger said. "We looked at thousands of pieces of online content, tens of thousands of brands and millions of car purchases. We've sifted through a whole host of different industries to see repeated patterns about why people share some things rather than others. It's not just a theory, it's backed up by hard science, and we've shown it a number of times how we can apply it to get people to talk and share about any sort of product or idea."
Before leaving, Berger talked about Ripken and Anderson's sideburns and why Camden Yards caught on.
"This whole conversation about baseball is making me want a hot dog," he said.