The Science of Sharing


By Sam Milkman, Executive Vice President, Music Forecasting

I recently interviewed Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, about the application of his work to the music industry. I hope you will find his insights as interesting as I did.

You’ve obviously studied a number of music artists….beyond Rebecca Black and Susan Boyle. Can you share other examples of an artist who understands how to create contagious content?

Nipsey Hussle is a great example. Most music now can be found somewhere on the web for free; so some artists are changing the payment model. Rather than selling his music for regular price, Nipsey upped it substantially but provided something extra as well, something I call Social Currency. Mix-tapes are usually $10 but he came out with one that costs $100. He only released 1,000 copies, signed most of them and people also got to meet him. He called the campaign “Proud2Pay,” for people being proud to support him as an artist, and sold out of the first printing in a day. It generated huge buzz because it was remarkable; not the same old same old, but something different.

Lady Gaga has used the “caring when sharing” element well. Can you think of other examples of music artists or entertainers who have spread content this way?

Many artists have emotionally connected with their fans. Groups like One Direction or artists like Justin Bieber get their fans excited, but Katy Perry has touched on some emotionally raw topics to connect.

If you had to give advice to music artists and their labels on how to be “contagious” and get as much attention as possible in social, what would you advise?

Follow the six STEPPS (Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories) I outline in the book. How can you be like Nipsey and generate Social Currency for your listeners? Make them look smart and in-the-know? What are the right Triggers in the environment to link yourself to so that people will think about you more often? How can you evoke Emotion, both to connect with your fans and get them to share? What can you do to make fandom more Public? To show people how many others support you? Practical Value is a little tougher in music, but can you give people useful information that they can share? And finally Stories, or finding a Trojan Horse that that carries your message along for the ride.

It’s one thing to get publicity and attention, but if the goal is to sell music, does your work provide any clues on how to make that happen?

Word of mouth is over 10x as effective as advertising in boosting sales. People trust it more and it’s more targeted. But the “Proud2Pay” idea is also instructive here. Don’t only focus on the traditional sales model. Think about the best way to generate revenue, whatever it might be. Whether it’s selling traditional albums, giving the music away for free and making it up on touring, or selling limited edition releases, Nipsey made over $100k in a day just by approaching this differently.

Is there an analytical layer to this that business people need to become familiar with, such as how particular algorithms work, for example, how Facebook prioritizes entries—or is the idea that if you create compelling content with built in triggers, stories and the other factors outlined in your book, your material will spread?

The framework is based on science but applying it is definitely an art. To help people, I built a simple, free workbook on my website to help companies and individuals think through each of the STEPPS and how to make them work in their space.

How would you advise studying and analyzing the performance of music artists in the social space? What metrics should we be following as a music industry to track whether our artists are actually connecting with people in this way?

Views, friends and followers aren’t enough. Focus on metrics that track engagement: share rate (shares/views), comments, retweets, clicks or other actions that track whether people are actually involved with what is happening.

How can an artist take advantage of the social aspects of iTunes Radio and other streaming services to get the word out?

There are many more channels now to get the word out than there used to be. This makes it easier to get some people to find out about an artist, but also makes it harder to cut through the clutter. The key is to use these new channels as discovery platforms; ways for people to learn about an artist they might not have otherwise find out about.

Have you studied so-called “Tastemakers?” Is there content that these people share at higher rates than the average person? Can you suggest specific strategies to target these consumers?

There’s not really any evidence that certain people are more influential than others. It’s a compelling idea but there’s no real evidence that it’s true. It’s much more important to find the right audience in general rather than trying to target a few “special” people and hoping they’ll do the work for you.

Why do you think we decided to share your book? Did you consciously build in elements that would cause that?

Hopefully because you realized how useful a tool it was to help artists catch on. There’s a lot of hype around social media but this is really the first book to take the science of social transmission and use it to help people craft contagious content.