Social benefit and nonprofit organizations need to grow to be effective. They have an important message and are doing really good work, but they need to get their message out there. It’s not enough just to do good work; you have to get your ideas to catch on.

Unfortunately, many organizations don’t have a huge budget to spend on advertising. So, very simply, how can they get the word out? Word of mouth is a really powerful tool to do that. Not only is it ten times as effective as traditional advertising, it’s much cheaper. It’s much easier to diffuse that message if you can get people to talk and share your message.

You don’t need a big advertising budget – you just have to figure out how to turn your customers or, in this case, supporters, into advocates. That’s really where the science comes in. We all know word of mouth matters. The last book we bought or movie we watched often came from someone we know. But to get word of mouth to work for us and get our ideas to spread, we have to understand why people share some things more than others.

Sometimes we look at word of mouth, and at content that gets shared, and we think it’s random, it’s luck, or it’s chance. We think it’s a pot of lightning; there’s no way there’s a formula there! But there is a formula.


We’ve looked at thousands of pieces of online content, at word of mouth from tens of thousands of brands, and at millions of purchases and, again and again, we see the same six factors coming up. I put them in a framework that I call STEPPS. It’s not random, luck, or chance – there’s a science here.

STEPPS stands for

  • Social currency
  • Triggers
  • Emotion
  • Public
  • Practical value
  • Stories

Each of those principles is a psychological driver of what people share. By understanding them, we can get all sorts of content, ideas, and messages to be more successful.

We wonder too often how much people will like our message when they hear it. But we don’t worry as much as we should about whether they’ll remember to talk about it and share it later. You might be familiar with the GEICO ad for hump day, with the camel walking around the office, asking what day it is. At the end, someone says, “It’s hump day,” the camel gets really excited, and the ad says, “How happy are people to save money with GEICO? Happier than a camel on hump day.”

The ad is a little funny, but it’s not that funny. GEICO didn’t spend much money putting it out there, yet it was the second most-shared ad of 2014. When you look at the data to find out why, you see an interesting pattern: there’s a spike in shares, then it goes down, and another spike, and then it goes down, and another spike, and then it goes down. The spikes aren’t random. They’re seven days apart, every Wednesday or, as it’s colloquially known, hump day.

While the content itself doesn’t change, when Wednesday rolls around, it provides a ready reminder, what psychologists call a trigger, to make people think about it and talk about it and share it. Something that’s top of mind is much more likely to be tip of tongue. If I said peanut butter and…, you would say, jelly. If I said rum and…, you would likely finish with Coke.

The point is that some things remind us of other things, even if those things aren’t present in the moment. The more frequent those reminders are, the more likely we are to think of those things. Peanut butter’s almost like a little advertisement for jelly. Jelly doesn’t have to remind us to get it. Peanut butter does all the work for jelly.

If you look at what people talk about and share, much of it is driven by what’s top of mind, not just what’s interesting. If people are sitting around, you talk about what you’re doing this weekend and you talk about the weather. Those things aren’t the most exciting, but they’re top of mind. The weather’s right around us and the weekend’s right around the corner, so we’re triggered to think about it.

Remember the Link

Nonprofits too often ask if people like their message, not if people will think about their message. To make sure people think about your message, you’ve got to link your idea to something in the environment. You have to find that trigger, or that peanut butter, that is out there, so that every time they see it, they think of you. For example, Corona’s done a great job of linking their product with the beach. When you go to the beach, you can’t help thinking about Corona.

If I’m a nonprofit, a social organization, what in the environment is going to remind people of my message? How can I make sure to link my message to the things that are going to come frequently, rather than infrequently?

Let’s say you’re a cancer organization. When someone says that their spouse just came down with cancer, that’s going to be a reminder for us to remember the message for your organization. Beyond those sorts of things, people might not think about it. People say they love the environment and they care about it a lot, but if they’re not reminded to think about it, they’re not going to think about your environmental organization and take action.

We did a study trying to get people to eat fruits and vegetables. Everybody knows they should eat more fruits and vegetables; they agree with the message, yet they don’t change. It’s not that they don’t want to change. They just forget when they’re at the grocery store or at the restaurant what they’re supposed to be picking. If you link something as a trigger, for example linking eating more fruits and vegetables to a tray in a student dining hall, people are 25% more likely to pick fruits and vegetables. The message itself isn’t any better, but people think about it more often. They see the tray in their dining hall, they remember the message, and that changes what they choose. If you find that peanut butter, if you find that trigger, they’re much more likely to think about your message.

Case Studies: Livestrong and the Ice Bucket Challenge

When the Livestrong campaign was in full swing, it became a massive social currency thing. You saw that yellow silicone bracelet on everybody. It had that sense of social currency, and it also moved things forward as a trigger as people thought about cancer research. The social currency one gained in wearing that simple yellow silicone bracelet was important to why it became contagious. Nonprofits are a good cause, an important cause. People support these causes partially because of what it says about them. What does it say about you if you support one cause versus another? What does it say about you if you participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge? What it signals or communicates is actually very important, even if people sometimes don’t want to admit it.

I think lots of organizations saw the Ice Bucket Challenge as being exactly what they need to do. The challenge worked because it’s a perfect example of some of these principles. With social currency, for example, it’s very hard to back down, particularly if it’s in a public situation. If someone sends you a letter and asks you to donate, that’s very private, very unobservable, so no one knows whether you decided you’re willing to do it. But if someone asks you publicly, it’s like challenging someone to a duel; it’s much harder to back down from that. In Back to the Future, one character calls Marty McFly a chicken, and he can’t back down. If someone challenges you to do a pro-social thing in a letter, you can just throw the letter away and no one will know. It’s much harder to back down if someone in the middle of a room challenges you. That publicness really encouraged people to do it.

It also allowed people to put their own personal spin on it. It wasn’t just doing exactly what everyone else was doing. It was a mix of supporting the cause and showing how you’re going to pour the bucket over your head: lukewarm water rather than ice-cold water, for example. It allowed people to express some individual personality, which helped a good bit.

And, finally, there is emotion. It was very surprising the first time somebody did it. We hadn’t seen a campaign like that before and, because of that surprise, that higher level of emotion, people became much more likely to share.

But the campaign also showed us the value of slacktivism (the desire people have to do something good without getting out of their chair, as defined by Barbara Mikkelson) in a larger campaign. Two things are important here. First, it would be great if people not only donated money and poured a bucket of water over their head, but they also learned about ALS along the way. Even if this raised a small amount of money, and raised awareness among a few people, it’s better than nothing, particularly for the low-budget or no-budget that the ALS Association put behind this. While we hope that everyone is going to learn a lot from it, the bigger thing is it changed social movement; it became a part of culture, similar to the pink breast cancer and yellow Livestrong campaigns. The organization would love everybody to fully understand the details of the message. Even if not everyone fully understands it, but they encourage others to do it, that’s beneficial at the end of the day.

The Takeaway

That said, I don’t think that the goal of the board of a nonprofit should be to create the next Ice Bucket Challenge. Too many organizations want to do a version of that: take videos of spraying people with ketchup or mustard, post them online, and that will be really successful. But copying something that’s happened before isn’t going to make you successful, and you don’t need a viral video or viral message to get your ideas out there. You just need to turn your members or supporters into advocates. Millions of advocates would be great, but you need to be happy if every person who supported your cause in the past told just one more person about you. That would give you many more supporters than you had already.

The point is that the notion of viral videos has gotten people focused a little too much online, and a little too much on going huge, rather than just thinking about how to, person by person, build the message. Only 7% of word of mouth is online; much of it is offline. It’s important to think more about the psychology, rather than the technology. Too often we think we need a viral video or a social media campaign. What you need is a message that people share, online or offline.

Triggers are one of the things that prompt people to share and they are vital to anything being spread. When developing a campaign, I would ask four key questions, four keys to triggers:

  • Who?
  • When?
  • What?
  • How?

Who do I want to have triggered? I don’t necessarily want everyone to be triggered. I don’t need everyone from grandmothers to 16-year-old guys to be triggered. Who are the key individuals, the folks that I’m going after?

When is the right time to get them to be triggered? Take reusable grocery bags: everyone has them, but we tend not to remember them until we get to the store or when we’re in the checkout line, which is too late, because you’re not going to go back home to get them. It’s not just thinking about who we want to be triggered, but the right time, the ideal point, to think about it.

Then, what is in the environment around that time? For reusable grocery bags, what’s in the environment when people leave home, and how can we link those things together? I did a project with America Walks, trying to get more people to walk in the United States. It’s a big important cause. We realized that on every corner where there’s a traffic light, there’s often a Walk and a Don’t Walk sign. Why can’t we make the Walk sign a reminder for people to walk more? We see that often, but we don’t think about it. It’s a great potential trigger to remind people that they should be walking more frequently. So we thought a lot about how we could create that link.

You may not have a lot of money to create that link. But thinking about who, when, what, and how, is a way to begin to think about effectively creating those links.

Not every campaign is going to have the success of an Ice Bucket Challenge or a Red Cross Give Blood campaign, but if you approach your campaigns as each-one-reach-one, you are making great impact. When helping organizations set realistic targets, I focus on the nuts and bolts of getting each individual to talk to one more person, focusing on the why, the how these campaigns work, rather than creating a viral video.


Viral videos are often flashes in the pan – they’re here today, gone tomorrow. Most organizations don’t want just a flash in the pan; they want to create enduring change. Thinking about the mechanisms of conversation is important, and measurement is important, too. It is much better to focus on realistic short-term goals that will play out over a longer time span, rather than shooting for the moon and assuming that everybody can do it.

Sometimes it is hard for social causes, because people tend to believe the cause is so important that it shouldn’t need to be marketed: we’re curing diseases, we’re helping underprivileged individuals, we’re dealing with mental health. It’s a good cause, so we don’t need to market it. But it’s useful to think about the difference between broccoli and a cheeseburger. I often ask people which is tastier, broccoli or a cheeseburger? Everyone chooses the cheeseburger. But the government has spent huge amounts of money saying we need to eat more broccoli. Everyone knows eating more broccoli is the right thing to do, but they don’t always do it, because the cheeseburger’s tastier. It’s just the way we’re designed. The cheese is fantastic, it’s got bacon on top, it’s salty, it’s delicious, it’s fatty, and our tongues and minds light up when we taste it.

That analogy of some food being tastier than others can be put to ideas. Some messages, some ideas, are tastier than others, based on the way they’re billed – not based on the way they fit with our stomachs or our tongues, but the way they fit with people’s minds.

The broccoli, the good message, might be right, but that doesn’t mean it will resonate with people. We have to understand how to make that message tastier, how to build and package and market it. Think about Brussels sprouts, for example. It used to be a gross food and no one wanted to eat them, but if you roast them with a little bit of onion, they’re delicious. Thinking about how we market and package that idea is very important. It’s not enough to say that Brussels sprouts and broccoli are good for you. We need to think about how to wrap it in a package that will make it tasty for people.

Informational Influence

There’s the phrase, monkey see, monkey do. People look to what others are doing to figure out what they should do. But it doesn’t have to be really influential people or famous people. People often look to their friends and colleagues just as much as they look to celebrities, and they’re much more likely to be influenced by their friends and colleagues.

And sometimes testimonials feel a little fake. When you see a testimonial on a website, you think they got paid to say that, or you think that someone altered the quote to make it look a certain way.

It’s much more effective to use this idea of public. Take Livestrong wristbands, for example. Your friends and people on the street didn’t have to tell you that they supported the Livestrong Foundation; you could see that they supported the Foundation from what they were wearing on their wrists. It’s the same with the Movember campaign that’s done a great job with raising money for men’s cancers. You didn’t have to guess who supported that campaign. They wore a mustache as a visible signal of what they were doing.

With monkey see, monkey do, the see part is really important. If you can’t see what someone’s doing, it’s really hard for that informational influence to kick in. One challenge I give nonprofits is this: How can you make the private, the invisible, more visible? How can you make the number of people who support your cause easier to see and, in so doing, make other people more likely to support it too?

Building STEPPS into Your Design

I advise groups to build the STEPPS into whatever they design. Find your peanut butter, find your trigger, make it more observable, and also relentlessly prioritize the message. Too many organizations say there are seven or eight things that are important and think that they need to tell people everything. Sometimes when you try to tell people ten things, they remember nothing, because you split their attention. Do one key simple idea, figure out a concrete way to illustrate it, and show people rather than telling them. How can you show people in a remarkable way so they see it, they really understand how important the cause is and, in so doing, are more likely to become activated and support it?

Think about how you can simplify the message and make it accessible. If we want to further the impact of social benefit organizations, we need to use word of mouth to turn supporters into advocates. Think of your supporters not just as individuals, but as a channel to communicate your message. Just as you can communicate your message, you need to use your supporters as a larger channel to communicate that message. If you can turn them into advocates, it’s a much cheaper and more effective way of filling your coffers.

It is important for leaders to remember to show, rather than tell, and to simplify the message. If it’s so complicated that it’s hard to tell one person, how likely is it that that supporter will remember it and be able to tell another person? If it’s simple, and you show it rather than tell it, it’ll be easier for them to be able to remember it and easy for them to tell others.

Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, is author of the bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Dr. Berger has spent over 15 years studying how social influence works and how it drives products and ideas to catch on. He’s published dozens of articles in top-tier academic journals, consulted for a variety of Fortune 500 companies, and popular outlets like the New York Times and Harvard Business Review often cover his work.


This article is reprinted from Vol. 3, No. 1, of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!
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