How Ideas Spread With Social Media : Social Media Examiner

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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