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J


onah Berger — the James G. Campbell Assistant Profes- sor of Marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania — has been named the school’s “Iron


Prof” in recognition of his stellar faculty research. But while Berger’s fascinating original research and little-known study results pepper Contagious: Why Things Catch On, his new bestseller, it’s his laser focus on the science behind the influ- ence that word of mouth has on everything — from the cars we buy to the clothes we wear to the names we give our chil- dren — that makes the book so widely appealing. We caught up with Berger shortly after Contagious was


published to ask him how meeting organizers can market their events so that people will want to attend — and encour- age their peers to join them. He spoke with Convene from a southbound Amtrak train while he was traveling to Wash- ington, D.C., for several television interviews. Requests for him to speak at meetings and conferences have been coming


“fast and furious,” he said. It would seem that Contagious has caught on.


What makes word of mouth so influential, and how can meeting planners harness its potential to spread interest in their events? People trust word of mouth much more than they trust ads. So if you see an ad that says, “This conference is great, you should go check it out,” you are well aware that of course the ad will say the conference is great. The ads are always glow- ingly positive; the comments they put up from attendees are always going to be positive. Word of mouth is much more nuanced. We know that our friends and colleagues will tell it to us straight. They’ll say if it was good, it was good; if it was bad, it was bad. And they will also tell us, well, maybe it’s good for certain people and bad for others. So word of mouth really provides a nuance and objectivity that is much more trusted. The second benefit of word of mouth is that it’s much


more targeted than traditional advertising. Let’s say there are some medical professionals [who might be interested in] a particular conference. You may put an ad in a magazine, but some of the people that read that magazine might not be interested in the conference. Word of mouth … is like a searchlight that goes through a social network, finding the people most interested in your content, and … they’re going to tell someone else they think will be most interested, not someone else who won’t be interested. And so the value of the customers that are found through referral and other types of word of mouth now are much higher.


How believable are video testimonials from a previous at- tendee that encourage people to attend a conference? I think that is more believable than a static ad with a testi- monial on it. That said, people know that the conference


70 PCMA CONVENE JULY 2013


organizers cherry-picked that contact. They’ve shot the video a few times to make sure it’s good. And so people rec- ognize that it’s selected to be good, it’s selected to persuade them. Whereas, we don’t feel like our friends are trying to persuade us, we feel like our friends are trying to help us. So we are much more likely to listen to what they have to say.


Given social media’s prevalence, is there a way to foster that kind of recommendation online? Certainly. I mean, many companies and organizations use things like Facebook or Twitter to allow people to submit more objective sorts of comments about their events. One important thing to remember is that most word of mouth is actually offline. It’s not on Facebook, it’s not on Twitter, it’s not on blogs. It’s face-to-face conversation, and 80 percent of word of mouth is face-to-face. Another 10 percent or so [takes place] over the phone, but most word of mouth is in an offline context. It’s employees talking at work, it’s friends get- ting together after work. And so it’s important to think about social media and how to harness that, but [recognize that] only 7 percent of word of mouth is on social media. So it’s equally important to think about offline as well. What is much more important is to turn existing custom-


ers or existing conference-goers into advocates. How can you make sure that if someone goes to a conference that you put


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