social media book reviewsHave you heard of the expression social media myth? Would you recognize a myth if you heard one?

There are those who believe that social media is about joining the conversation, engaging with your customers and being authentic.

Then there are others who believe that if you can’t measure it, you can’t control it. For them, it’s all about setting goals, experimenting, testing, analyzing and measuring.

facebook sharing by day of week

Measuring social media activity helps you figure out if you're on the right track.

Why can’t we all get along?

The fact of the matter is that both are equally important. What draws people to social media (whether for business or pleasure) is the opportunity to have conversations with others and to share the stories that are important to them.

For those conversations to thrive, everyone must listen, engage and practice transparency, empathy and even likeability.

But that’s not the whole picture. For business owners, social media marketing should have a positive impact on the bottom line—otherwise it’s a waste of time.

Business owners and marketers must (without neglecting the first set of rules) also employ social media strategies that help meet their business goals and increase their revenues.

Dan Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness reads like a boxing match between his own scientific approach to social media and those other “snake-oil salespeople” who believe in “warm and fuzzy” social media. So here’s what you need to know about the book.

Author’s Purpose

In this book, Dan Zarrella sets out to teach marketers what he refers to as “scientifically grounded methods of using social media.”

dan zarella

Dan Zarrella

He strongly disagrees with most of the social media advice that is out there today. Advice such as love your customers, engage in the conversation and be authentic is nothing but “unicorns and rainbows” to Zarrella. He believes that such advice is based on mythology and guesswork and actually does more harm than good.

In its place, Zarrella has developed a “scientific framework” for understanding how ideas are spread; thus creating an opportunity to optimize content for contagiousness or spreadability.

What to expect

Dan Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness

Dan Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness

At only 64 pages, this book is a quick read—you should be able to read it cover-to-cover within an hour.

In a nutshell, the author rejects the typical “warm and fuzzy” approach to social media marketing (i.e., know your audience, engage, be likeable, be authentic and so forth), and provides his own scientific methodology to achieve content contagiousness or “spreadability.”

In this book, you’ll find out:

  • What the author really thinks about the typical social media advice
  • What makes an idea contagious (i.e., contagiousness factors)
  • Three conditions that must be met before your idea spreads
  • How to practically apply this information to your social media marketing

And if you enjoy analyzing graphs and statistical data, then you’re in for a treat!


Optimizing content for contagiousness

Ideas don’t spread because they are good. In fact, many good ideas go nowhere and many bad ideas spread like wildfire. According to Zarrella, ideas should have certain reproductive qualities or “contagiousness factors if they are to spread:

  • They must have a long lifespan (longevity)—e.g., a tweet has a very short lifespan so it’s not easily spreadable.
  • They must have a high rate of duplication (fecundity)—e.g., if I retweet your tweet to thousands of followers, then it has a high fecundity.
lifespan fecundity

How does your content measure up?

Conditions for contagiousness

Zarrella says that before people can spread your idea, they must meet three basic conditions:

  • They must be exposed to your content—i.e., they must be a Twitter follower, an email subscriber or a Facebook fan.
  • They must be aware of your specific piece of content—i.e., they have to read your tweet or open your email message.
  • They must be motivated by something (usually within the content) to want to share it with their friends.

At each level you can optimize your content for contagiousness by using science and experimentation. How?


Be sure to optimize your content at all three levels.

  • Increase the number of people exposed to your content, such as growing your email list.
  • Create attention-grabbing content (do plenty of testing on your subject lines to improve open rates).
  • Include powerful calls to action in your content to motivate readers.

The bottom line is that your marketing shouldn’t be based on luck. You can produce results from social media that are reliable and repeatable.


This is simply the number of people who are connected to you through your social networks and your email list. If you have more people in your networks or list, then your content will have a wider reach and vice-versa.

The author suggests that to increase your exposure, you should identify yourself more authoritatively, avoid negative messages, don’t talk about yourself too much and try to connect with influencers.


This is your ability to cut through the clutter and grab people’s attention. Your goal should be to structure your content in such a way that it provokes interest and sticks to your audience’s memory.

You can grab people’s attention by using “bigger and louder” ads, personalizing your content—such as using readers’ first names in email marketing, addressing your audience in second-person (‘you’), priming your content based on current or breaking news and understanding the science of timing.


People like to share information that gives them a reputation of being a valuable resource to interact with. Hence, motivation requires that you include something in your content to make it more shareable.

In attempting to motivate your readers, the author suggests that you aim for personal relevance, use uncomplicated language, use highly retweetable words (e.g., please, free, social, media and others), avoid the least retweetable words (e.g., lol, game, hahaha, work, bored and others) and of course include a strong call to action.

Personal Impression

It appears that Dan Zarrella wants to pick a fight with what he perceives to be an opposing social media ideology. This bothers me for two reasons:

  1. The two perspectives are not really opposites. In fact, I believe they complement each other quite nicely.As a social media marketer, you’ll profit from setting goals, researching your audience, pro-typing content ideas, testing and measuring. But you’ll also gain much by listening to your customers, creating dialogue with them, inspiring them and being generally likeable—all those “warm and fuzzy” things that the author wants you to forget.
  2. There is a passage in the book (page 18 to be precise) where he talks about being positive as a classic “unicorns-and-rainbows” line. But then he goes on to say that this time, “the data supports it” and so it is actually not a myth after all!

Are we to accept good advice only when science can prove it? Do we really need scientific evidence to tell us that being positive works? According to the author, unless science sheds light on a matter, then it’s nothing but unicorns and rainbows. I find this to be highly disingenuous.

Furthermore, throughout the book there is an underlying presumption that ideas have a life of their own. The notion that “ideas spread themselves” (page 3) based on certain factors is incredibly simplistic.

The author would have you believe that the human mind is “an imitation engine” (page 46). I beg to differ. The human mind is a highly resourceful and creative engine. We don’t just replicate ideas, we process them, attempt to understand their implication and then decide whether to pass them on to others. That’s why you don’t automatically retweet content that you have not endorsed, even if it has a powerful call to action.

Having said that, I think the author’s insights regarding optimization of content (growing your email list, using attention-grabbing headlines and a strong call to action) are extremely important.

Other than that, my suggestion is to read this book with a discerning eye. If you have the time, try to read this article as well, for a more balanced point of view on social media marketing. I think then you’ll be better equipped to draw your own conclusions.

Social Media Examiner gives this book a 2.5 star rating.

Over to you: What do you think of the contagiousness of ideas? What do you think it takes to make an idea spreadable? Leave your questions and comments in the box below.

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  • CHopeMurray

    I can’t disagree with the conditions for contagiousness, as all are well established marketing principles.  Furthermore I agree with your conclusion that Dan Zarella’s methodology is a good complement to the practice of listening, empathizing and sharing, since success in Social Media seems to be dependent on both.  I find it amusing that Dan’s hostility to the “warm and fuzzy” approach is really just his way of satisfying the second step in his methodology – cutting through the clutter and grabbing people’s attention.  You both get A’s.

  • CHopeMurray

    I can’t disagree with the conditions for contagiousness, as all are well established marketing principles.  Furthermore I agree with your conclusion that Dan Zarella’s methodology is a good complement to the practice of listening, empathizing and sharing, since success in Social Media seems to be dependent on both.  I find it amusing that Dan’s hostility to the “warm and fuzzy” approach is really just his way of satisfying the second step in his methodology – cutting through the clutter and grabbing people’s attention.  You both get A’s.

  • Thanks for posting Mike. I coukld not agree with you more. There is no need for the hostility towards scientific and “warm & fuzzy” perspectives. Both are important for success in todays market.
    This is like trying to prove scientifically that faith works. Both sides will attempt to prove that an outcome occured because of faith or a specific action but the fact will still remain that the outcome occurred and the reason it happened could be because of faith or something someone did to make it happen.

  • I have been a Dan Zarrella fan for while, but with a discerning eye as you say. I am an engineer originally and I like to break thing down into simple and factual tidbits in my marketing. At times I feel Dan’s resentment toward “unicorns and rainbows” can push him to make decisions on data that assume people are completely logical All the time. In the other side, I have an issue with the number of people peddling misinformation in the social media and internet marketing community.

    I am of the opinion that goals are necessary to steer our marketing because they give us a chance to decide what we should focus on. As a marketer, we can spend a lot of time wasted on producing content that does not produce action, posting tweets that don’t steer our readers upwards our goals. I believe in Content Strategy with clearly defined business goals that translate to marketing goals which then allow us to use our unicorn and rainbow intuition to do some factual testing as Dan suggests.

    Remember too that not every method works the same for every business. We tend to want to objectify our testing to come up with general rules, but not every audience reacts the same to every stimulus (ie piece of content).


  • Hi Colin,
    I like your observation on his cutting through the clutter. This is a bit of branding at work. He uses the term a lot in presentations, posts, and content to resonate with readers. This repeatability of phrasing strengthens his relationship with his core audience and spurs conversation.

    Good catch!

  • predsicker

    I like the way you think Colin 🙂

    You’re right – there’s really nothing wrong with his ‘conditions for contagiousness’. In fact grabbing people’s attention is critical if one’s content is to get any kind of visibility. But there’s only so much ‘shouting’ and so on that one can do to gain attention – at some point you’ve got to have a conversation with people and hear their side of the story otherwise you might appear to be arrogant.

  • predsicker

    I agree with what you’re saying Keith. 

    I’m sure his branding resonates well with his core audience. I’m not worried that he repeats specific messages to strengthen his branding (don’t we all?). I’m concerned that in trying to spur the conversation he dismisses other tried and tested social media techniques that actually work. 

  • Hi Patricia,
    I completely agree with you. A lot is also trial and error. You have to first get in front if the customer as he mentions before anything else really matters. His concepts seem a bit like Malcolm Gladwell books for Marketing

  • predsicker

    Interesting analogy Lauren 🙂

    You’re absolutely right – A strategic approach towards social media involves some kind of ‘science’ — measurement, analysis, testing, experimenting and so on. All these things are important in giving direction to a project and helping us figure out how successful we have been in achieving our goals. 

    BUT, as you say, something else is required to succeed in today’s market. We should never forget that the word ‘social’ is right there next to ‘media’. And so the warm and fuzzy should complement the strategic, because at the end of the day, this is about people not data.

  • Interesting post here. I’m early in the blogging and writing game, but it seems that both the scientific and “warm and fuzzy” must be present. I’m picturing a diagram more as a circle with feedback loops, rather than a hierarchy. Remember we write for humans, not just robot (SEO engines…etc).  

  • Sima Chowdhury

    Thanks for the review. I thought about buying the book, but happy I didn’t. It’s nice someone’s measuring so I can use suggestions that data supports. By taking Dan’s advice about twitter link placement I’ve grown my twitter followers, so I have more people to read my warm and fuzzy stuff.

  • predsicker

    Brent – you may be early in the game but spot on in your analysis. One of the reasons this blog does so well is precisely because we write for humans and offer content that helps people to solve their problems. 

    I think the emphasis should always be on people. But I like your contribution regarding a ‘circle with feedback loops rather than an hierarchy’. Would be interested to see the diagram when you’re done sketching it 🙂

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  • predsicker

    That’s an awesome perspective you have there Sima – use the data to bring attention to your warm & fuzzy blog! Love it!!

  • Jana Papke

    I agree with you, Patricia, that the two concepts are not at odds. I believe that social media tools that are used as part of a marketing strategy need to be measured – just as any component of a marketing plan or strategy should use metrics to evaluate its effectiveness. I also think that consumers see through marketers’ insincere attempts to engage with their customer base. If the information being shared is not relevant or useful and seeks to only sell products or services, this will potentially have a negative impact on the company. Also, the notion of controlling the conversation is an interesting one. I think that’s the scariest part of social media for companies because companies do not control the message when consumers are using this medium.

  • What is this “scientific” method that Zarrella speaks of? At most, his work fits under social science and even then presents only a singular (and somewhat unconvincing) approach. Consequently, he can’t claim rigour, repeatability, etc. as an argument against emerging best practice, intuition, trial and error and so on practiced in social media. I have not read the book but followed the blogs and was unsatisfied with the chart-heavy “evidence” he put forth over the years.

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  • I’m not sure I agree with everything Mr. Zarrella believes in. Some of his points are understandable. Others are downright confusing. My advice: Follow basic human nature. It’s been a proven concept since mankind. Best wishes to all!

  • predsicker

    Couldn’t have said it better myself Jana. 

    The only way to truly control a conversation is to talk to yourself. Otherwise, when you exchange ideas with others, there is a good chance that it may not go as you planned. 

    Having said that, Zarella’s insights on facilitating contagious ideas are spot on, though not new. As bloggers (I would hope that) we innately know about exposure, attention and motivation – we may call something else e.g. a large audience, catchy headlines and a strong call to action – we know this. And while these are controllable and even measurable, they do not in any way indicate how a conversation will go. 

    It may very well be, that even when you’re doing all the right things (analytically) you could still alienate a lot of people with your content. And that’s where being positive, sincere, empathetic, responsive et al. become critical.

  • predsicker

    You make a good point ‘Know Social Media’ 🙂 – the steps of a scientific methodolgy must be repeatable to guard against mistake or confusion. According to Zarella every time I use a strong catchy headline (say one that as been tried and tested via A/B split test) I should be able to get an open rate of ‘such an such percentage’. 

    But there are so many reasons why people might not open that email even if I follow the very same steps all the time. How then can that be a scientific approach? Where is the evidence? At best as you say, I would say that this book is based on some research and some data collected over a period of time but not ready to be called ‘science’. I agree with you entirely – there are just too many holes in his theory.

  • predsicker

    You sound like you’ve read the book David – you’re right there were many areas that were downright confusing (even though I didn’t include them in this review). For example his comparison of the world that we live in (currently) and that of ‘The Matrix’, and his conclusion that the two are similar! Can’t say I see a remote connection between the two. This is certainly not a book that you want to hang your hat on.

  • predsicker

    Thanks for your thoughts Lauren. Indeed both perspectives are important. 

    While it’s true that some audiences prefer analytics more than intuition (or vice versa) one cannot simply dismiss one for the other and conclude that it has no place in our collective experience. For example, if your blog is a ‘likeable’ and fun place to hang out, you will see you audience grow (analytics) and the blog sentiments become more and more positive (fuzziness). 

    The two are very important in providing direction for your overall social media strategy.

  • So how does one create a content that would spread with such rate? As with every idea, I believe and stand on the middle ground, there’s always room for both scientific quantifications and evidence and the warm fuzzy side of a subject.

  • Patricia, yes, I did read some of his book, but I must confess, I did not finish it, even though it’s a short read. The reason being exactly what we’ve talked about as being “head scratchers” in the book. I agree with you about his theory of “The Matrix.” I think that’s when I began to simply skim through the book instead of continuing to read it. Some of his concepts made me say, “hmmm.” Others made me say, “What the…” Thus, yes, it’s certainly not a concept to completely build your social media marketing around. To his credit, I did like the “Exposure, Attention, Motivation” funnel. Thanks, Patricia, for this post. Lastly, please provide a link to your “Content Cheerleader” blog. I’d love to check it out!

  • From this article it seems that the book is a very shallow look at what spreads content with a catchy title attached… 

    From my own blog experience there is so much more that going into an idea spreading than this surface scratch.I’m going to pass…Thank you.

  • predsicker

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts David. You can find me here – Thanks 🙂

  • Hi Patricia! I like your way of explanation regarding the social media and its use in spreading the ideas. As you mentioned above, social media plays a vital role in sharing our feeling and ideas with others and communicating with different people.

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  • predsicker

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful ideas Keith. 

    I agree with you on so many levels. Particularly the point you make about goals being necessary to steer our marketing in the right direction, and thus giving us a chance to decide what we should focus on. 

    As a content marketing practitioner myself, I understand how important it is to create content that is strategically aligned to business goals. Unfortunately too often marketers create content haphazardly, without giving much thought to what purpose it will ultimately accomplish. And as you rightly say – there is in there, a place for intuitive content as well. Thank you for the value you have added to this conversation Keith.

  • predsicker

    That’s a great question! Like I said in the review, Dan Zarella’s conditions for contagiousness are relevant and still very important considerations when creating content:
    #1. expose your content to as many people as possible#2. grab their attention with catchy headlines etc.#3. close with a strong call to action (e.g re-tweet and share my content with your friends)However within the content itself, remember that you are writing to people who have real problems – and your job is to help them solve those problems with your content. So be sure to give valuable information, to show empathy, sincerity, appreciation and so on when speaking with your audience. Because at the end of the day, after you have captured their attention, you need to RETAIN their attention. And they way to do that is to create content that people connect with on an emotional level.

  • predsicker

    Hi Ryan, Thanks for your feedback. 

    I agree that there is more to spreading ideas than this particular book advocates. But you know, there are so many resources out there that talk about social media. You will find some of them useful and others, not so much. 

    I like to read a lot of different material and to test different ideas on my own blog. If they work for me, I include them in my overall strategy, and if they don’t work, oh well…next!
    So I think the best thing to do is to read widely, expose yourself to as many ideas as you have the time to digest, and then figure out which ones work for you.

  • predsicker

    Thanks so much for your feedback Henry. Appreciate your thoughts 🙂

  • That’s great advice… Thank you!

  • Interesting comments, everyone. Before reading this article, I thought that using the “join the conversation” approach was key to engaging with your customers and fans, even though it’s “warm and fuzzy.” However, even after reading the article I still agree that going out and engaging with customers and fans is key, but I think more of the questions is where to find the conversations you want to join. In other words, looking in the right places for your conversations. In order to give your content and posts the virality that it needs you need to go out and find the conversations you wish to join, then start posting meaningful content. 

    Bottom line: The challenge is not necessarily posting meaningful content (your business exists for a purpose and you have clients for a reason), but knowing where to find the conversations to give your content the most exposure. Thanks for the read! 

  • Waleed ALGhamdi

    Good evening Mrs.predsicker.
    I am studying marketing in king fahd university of petroleum and minerals ( ) and i wanna to translate your article to Arabic so i can share it with my class , so frist i wanna to take your approval to do that 🙂

    Thank you so much

    Waleed ALGhamdi


  • predsicker

    Go for it Waleed! Thanks 🙂

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  • Eric Walters747

    Hi Patricia – commenting from Down Under. I write for my own small company (a financial services firm) – and in our experience, size of the market and capacity of the SME also need to be taken into account. Whilst the numbers may not be as impressive as for larger enterprises, the relative results from being open in sharing ideas and engaging to an apprpriate level with others in ‘your SM community’ seem to establish those features as desirable in getting the desired reaction. (b.t.w. – haven’t read the book you critique, but appreciate your commentary.)

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  • I think both ideas complement each other, because I disagree when the books’ author says that the currently strategy to share in Social Media is “fuzzy”. It has a very important value because in Social Media you are not a company or a business anymore: you became a person like your fans so It’s important to understand them and make them feel glad with your attitude like a person who represents the company online. Great article, best regards! 

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  • predsicker

    Thank you so much Ricardo. I really appreciate what you’re saying because it’s clear that you ‘get it’. What you and I understand is that people do businesses with PEOPLE that they know, like and trust. It is so important to reach out to them on a human level and create relationships that will draw them close to your brand. ‘warm and fuzzy’ is as much a social media strategy as measurement and analytics.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective Ricardo 🙂

  • predsicker

    Appreciate you sharing your experience Eric. 

    You can see for yourself that your “open-ness” and engagement with people in your community is paying off. The numbers will come as result of the foundational work that you’re doing right now (I have no doubt about that 🙂 But again (if you choose to read the book) remember that the author’s insights on exposure, attention and motivation are extremely important to consider, no matter what size of company you operate.

    By the way Eric – would love to read your content. Would you please send me a link to your site (you can find me on Twitter as predsicker. Thank you 🙂

  • Colin O’Neill

    Interestingly, Mr. Zarella’s recommendations for making ideas spread are the exact same tactics that direct marketers have used for generations: relevance, simplicity, common language and strong call to action. These elements alone don’t seem to account for the spread of much of the most popular viral content out there. For example, “Will it Blend?” has proven incredibly popular and long lasting series with no strong call to action, very little relevance to most folks daily information or education needs. It’s just unusual, short and easily consumable. I have a great deal of respect for Dan’s company, HubSpot, but to me the approach you summarize in the article does not seem to amount to a science of contagious ideas, its marketing 101! What social adds to these very basic tactics is the ability to engage around the content or ideas being shared. If a company is willing to do that they can build not just more, but deeper relationships with their audience.

  • Patricia,

    Great article. In light of mostly liking much of what Dan has written, I do think you
    hit the proverbial nail on the head here.

    The science of social media is interesing and seemingly always evolving (just like consumer behavior). My personal opinion is that things like ‘fecundi…what?’ are far above the heads of many SMB’s. I would imagine that even many professional marketers would find themselves scratching their heads.

    Ask your local small or medium sized business what quantitative or qualitative data is?

    You’ll probably receive blank stares.

    It seems that some of the content is re-hashed tidbits, such as the grabby headlines, CTA’s on emails etc.

    Truly, most SMB’s don’t have the luxury of big time “market research data”, much less on a social scale. Even if they did, most wouldn’t know how to turn data into information and even know what to do with that.

    There are good tidbits apparently, but most would have to read between the lines to get anything out of it.

    It might be awhile, but the research that has built some of the most amazing instruction on the subject of marketing, has yet to be transformed into simple and actionable items in social media and even less for the ‘mom and pop’, medium sized and even some big corporations. It seems mostly non-specific and clouding it all with buzzwords and scientific jargon.

    Maybe that’s because social media marketing doesn’t always fit into specific boxes, all the time.


  • @twitter-90128336:disqus I’d have to say I agree with you. “chart-heavy” evidence doesn’t necessarily translate into actionable or convincing evidence to do anything with social media. Maybe for the “big boys” who have tons of data. 

    I’m somewhat torn. In a constant study of “marketing”, I’m not sure the understanding or blend of the subject has really been articulated just yet with social media. 

    Let’s just say you have the “marketing” prerequisites and you know stats, market research, advertising…yada…yada. It is still sort of the dinosaur age for combining it all. Some may disagree and put forth charts and such, but I can certainly see the same social goals, strategies and tactics may work for one organization, but not the other. Even adaptations don’t always fit the audience not matter how much you customize the angle. 

  • predsicker

    Hi Frankie,

    I can’t believe it took me so long to respond to you. My sincere apologies 🙂

    I agree with you on so many levels. Like you, I don’t believe that small businesses care about such marvelous things as fecundity or longevity of content. Nor are they likely to spend too much time on marketing data, research and the like. Their pain points are entirely different. 

    However I can see larger organizations spending the time and money to understand and apply these concepts. I also like what you say, that SM marketing doesn’t always fit into specific boxes – you just have to look at several facebook pages to see the assortment of social media strategies employed by different brands. Thanks for your input!

  • predsicker

    Hi Colin,

    Thanks for your comment! Yes some of the ideas in the book are Marketing 101. And you’re right, ‘Will it blend’ is an outstanding example – no real relevance but simply remarkable (with almost 50K comments by the way!) Look, no matter how scientific you want your SM approach to be, you can’t rule out people and you can’t rule out relationships – some things aren’t going to change.

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