Why does content ‘go viral’?

Are there any similarities in the type of content that goes viral? Or are we just getting too emotional?

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We’ve all witnessed digital content going viral, highlighting the massive potential of reach that exists online. However, creating videos, blog posts, infographics, images, or social media comments that travel virally is no easy feat, even for the savviest of marketers.

In order to become a sensation online, a huge number of people must emotionally relate to your content in one way or another. Marketers generally accept that virality is not a product in itself, but rather an effect. A viral reaction to content can occur, but content cannot be specifically created to be viral.

Why do people share content?

Predicting whether or not content will go viral is arguably impossible – but are there any similarities, or even differences in the types of content people just find irresistible?

Jonah Berger and Katy Milkman worked together on a research paper titled “Social Transmission, Emotion, and the Virality of Online Content”. The study involved analysing every article in The New York Times over a period of three months, equating to a total of 7,000 articles. They also conducted detailed laboratory experiments with individuals.

The aim of the research was to uncover the emotional sentiment hidden in the articles that were shared the most to see if there were any patterns. They then followed this with laboratory experiments to manipulate and measure arousal levels in humans to study how this might affect social sharing. Berger & Milkman found that;

  • Positive content is more likely to go viral than negative content
  • Content that evokes high arousal emotions (such as surprise or anger) is more likely to go viral than emotionless content
  • Highly practical and useful content is most likely to get shared
  • People share content in the hope it will increase their social standing or generate some reciprocity

A follow up study by Marco Guerini and Jacopo Staiano looked at 65,000 articles across two websites where readers could score content based on emotion. They found that while arousal emotions are indeed crucial for generating audience engagement and discussion, it is actually feelings of high dominance and being in control that act as a strong driving force for social sharing behavior online.

How can marketers apply this knowledge?

For marketers, it’s important to understand the role of dominance and arousal in content creation, and the relationship between these feelings. Fractl asked 400 people to rate their emotions toward the 100 most shared images on Reddit’s subthread r/pics to see the levels of both arousal and dominance ignited by each emotion.

via frac.tl
via frac.tl

On the surface, it may seem that all it takes for content to go viral is a feel-good vibe; but the relationship between arousal and dominance lets us dig a little deeper. The most frequent combinations of these responses are shown below:

via frac.tl
via frac.tl
  • Lighthearted content doesn’t need to be emotionally complex to perform well – when arousal and dominance are high, emotional responses were positive, or a combination of positive and surprise.
  • Content that makes people feel a lack of control needs to be emotionally complex in order to engage.
  • When arousal and dominance are low, content always includes an element of surprise.

Key takeaways

Marketers hoping to grow their social engagement could incorporate these specific combinations of emotion into their content in order to evoke the right levels of dominance and arousal to spur action.

Happiness + Surprise = Social shares

Content that couples happiness with elements of surprise makes people feel unexpectedly good and tends to inspire more shares.

High arousal emotions encourage comments

Even unsurprising content can be a catalyst for discussion and comments if it plays on emotions correctly. Reading through audience reaction to any politically charged article will bring this finding to life.

Include a silver lining

An admirable or unforeseen turn of events can help low arousal content gain decent social momentum.

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