Practical Value

In the age of cat videos and vine compilations, it seems a little peculiar that a video about shucking corn would be a viral YouTube hit. It’s also a little weird that of all things, a group of hikers would be talking about vacuum cleaners while exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains. But useful things are important. People like to pass on information that is useful to others.

Of all the principles described in Contagious, “practical value” is arguably the easiest to apply. If a friend likes to cook, then sending her a new recipe would benefit her and strengthen the social bond. Unlike the principle of social currency, which is mainly about making the information sender look good, practical value is about the information receiver and what is useful to him/her. Nevertheless, things with practical value are contagious because people not only want useful information, they share it. Giving helpful advice does generate a bit of social currency but at the end of the day, practical value is about altruism, helping others save time, money, etc.

When people think of practical value, Berger says saving money is what most often comes to mind. He then dives into the psychology of deals and elaborates on prospect theory, a core tenet of behavioral economics: People don’t evaluate things on absolute terms; they compare things to a “reference point,” established by their own expectations. 50 cents for coffee may seem like a great deal in New York City, but may seem ridiculously expensive in rural India.

How promotions are framed can significantly affect sales. Deals and promotions are more successful when they are restricted or for a limited time. If a product is on sale all the time, then the sale price becomes the expected price. Furthermore, Berger details the “Rule of 100:” If a product’s price is less than $100, then percentage discounts will seem larger; If the price is over $100, then dollar discounts will seem larger.

In the final pages of the chapter, Berger makes a keen observation that information that applies to a broad audience is not necessarily shared more. Narrowly focused content often reminds people of a specific friend or relative, and they feel more compelled to pass it along. But if the information could be useful to literally anyone, then people may not necessarily share.

We all love things that help us make our lives more efficient, so it’s no surprise that practical value is held in such high regard. Whether it’s tips on how to save money at the car dealership or lists of home remedies to try when you have the flu, useful information is inherently contagious and does not need much marketing to be successful. This is especially nice for global health efforts that require community response. If an intervention is designed to improve the health of a community at large, then it may not matter if it generates a lot of social currency. However, it is important to note that the community would have to feel that there is practical value and community members’ perspectives need not always agree with those of healthcare providers or researchers.

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