How to Amplify Your Message in a Crowded World

Cathy Goodwin
Dec 4, 2020 · 6 min read
Photo by Saad Chaudhry on Unsplash.

We used to talk about messages “going viral.” With the pandemic continuing, we need another word for the process of generating that “I see you everywhere!” response. But if you’re in marketing, you still need to think about the process.

Maybe we could call it the Dandelion Effect. Some plants disperse their seeds readily, like dandelions. Others depend on luck and occasional visits from nearby wildlife.

Jonah Berger’s book answers this question.

In his book, Contagious, Jonah Berger asks why are some messages get spread widely while others just die quietly, unnoticed. It’s a question of interest to everyone who’s marketing today.

Think of those funny cat videos, “United Breaks Guitars,” and the US Naval Academy stepping out “Gangnam Style.” What are their secrets? How do they drift through cyberspace like dandelion seeds?

Photo by Manja Vitolic on Unsplash.

More specifically, how can we get noticed? How do we motivate people to pass the word along?

It’s not the who — it’s the what.

It’s not a matter of getting to the right influencers but creating something that is likely to generate buzz. For instance, a new restaurant in Philadelphia created a $100 cheesesteak. That particular item made sense because cheesesteaks are SO Philadelphia. and they’re usually a little on the cheesy, greasy side. This cheesesteak was made with the finest ingredients, cooked to perfection.

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

Social Currency

That’s “currency”in the sense of value, not being current. Examples include a secret bar inside a pizza restaurant. It’s also about novelty, status, scarcity, and exclusivity.

Unfortunately, so many online marketers are using this strategy it’s no longer WOM-worthy. We all promise to share secrets, which now seems to be interpreted as “Very Special” or “I’m the only one who’s saying this” even when our audiences don’t believe us.

Scarcity? Well, often you’ll see a price break with limits to promote sales or genuinely keep demand reasonable.


People respond to triggers that bring up associations with what we’re currently experiencing.

A song about Friday comes to mind on… Fridays, which come every week. Hot dogs, says Berger, are associated with baseball, summertime, street food vendors, and “even wiener dogs.”

Adapted from Erda Estramera on Unsplash.

We tend to forget things unless we’re reminded. It’s not surprising that when I go to the natural food farmers’ market, I forget to bring my own bag; there’s no trigger till I get there and realize they charge for bags, being totally into environmental support.


Anybody who’s studied copywriting knows the importance of emotion, but Berger points out that certain emotions are more helpful than others when it comes to getting the word out. Usefulness and awe were associated with re-direction of articles from newspapers and videos from YouTube. Sadness doesn’t motivate sharing because it slows us down; anger and anxiety are high-arousal emotions that support sharing.

Berger points to the video “United Breaks Guitars,” which got millions of views on YouTube. Berger associated the video’s popularity with anger that resonated with so many travelers who felt ill-treated by airlines in general and United in particular.

Photo by Felipe Furtado on Unsplash.

Berger stops there, but you can dig deeper through Dave Carroll’s book, also titled United Breaks Guitars. Dave’s not the world’s greatest writer but his book explains how he deliberately set up the video to go viral, choosing music that would be catchy and an appealing storyline.

Copywriters won’t be surprised to learn that emotions will resonate even in a left-brained product like “Google search.” Berger explains how artistic designers encouraged Google to show the power of search engines by presenting a funny, romantic love story instead of a collection of statistics. We can all learn from this one.


It’s no accident that the apple logo on Mac laptops is backwards to the user but upright, visible to others, when the laptop is in use. We talk about products we use publicly (cars) more than those we use privately (toothpaste). Social proof works: it’s why we get those “I voted” buttons at the polls and why researchers found that binge drinkers tended to think everyone else binged. Hotmail generated buzz by p promoting itself with every email (today you couldn’t get away with it).

You can make the private become public, as a cancer fund did with the mustache campaign and yellow wristbands called attention to the Lance Armstrong foundation. Some of these programs can backfire, as we’re seeing with the “Think Pink” breast cancer campaigns.

Practical Value

It’s all about perception. If people think they can apply the message takeaway immediately, they’ll share. For instance, one video went viral with a demonstration of how to shuck corn without leaving any threads. On the downside, myths about health also go viral, because people are looking for solutions.


Best for last. You’re probably reading this advice everywhere. People remember narratives — even everyday stories. Berger gives an example of someone who wanted to send a coat to Land’s End for repair; instead, the store sent him a whole new coat, saying, “It’s too cold to wait for yours to come back!”

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash.

That’s not just a great story but a lot of useful info, says Berger. We learned that Land’s End makes warm winter coats, has outstanding customer service, and fixes things for free.

Of course, the key to a successful story is the link to the message we want to communicate. A video about transforming an ordinary young woman into a model can be a compelling “Trojan Horse” for Dove soap. But, adds Berger, a man diving into a pool wearing a tutu doesn’t do much for casinos.

I like to tell the story of a famous beer commercial, featuring a dog who goes to the kitchen to fetch beer for his master. We hear the refrigerator and the can opener and then we hear lapping sounds, to the owner’s dismay. It’s a great story but I can never remember the beer company sponsoring the ad.

In contrast, remember the commercial about the Budweiser puppy — the one who returned home after he was adopted? He had help from the Clydesdale horses — the Budweiser icons that are easy to recognize.

Getting the Word Out

Viral isn’t a popular word these days … but getting widespread attention is more critical than ever. Ultimately, the most critical predictor of “going contagious” in a good way will be your ability to relate to your customers and understand their motivation. Then you’ll tell the right story and send the best message. They’ll love it and they’ll tell the world in their own way.

I’m Cathy Goodwin, dedicated to giving my clients an unbeatable advantage by using storytelling as a strategic marketing tool. I’ve got a free ebook about telling stories to build your brand. Click here to download.

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Cathy Goodwin

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Helping entrepreneurs and independent professionals grow their businesses one story at a time.

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Cathy Goodwin

Written by

Helping entrepreneurs and independent professionals grow their businesses one story at a time.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

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