Why does content ‘go viral’?

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

You are reading: Why does content ‘go viral’?

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.

2 thoughts on “Why does content ‘go viral’?

  1. Most people are always online, either through mobile or desktop, they
    love to browse in as much as they love to share just about everything
    under the sun. This is where we harness the power of social media,
    humans love to socialize and with the help of a few shares, likes and
    comments, your post may go viral. Not everyone can make a viral post,
    but with some tricks and efforts, your post may end up being viewed and
    shared by thousands of people. Based from the advise of a well known web
    design and internet marketing firm in Arizona, Primeview, the first
    technique to create a viral post is to appeal to the emotions of the
    viewers. Being able to evoke responses from users arouse their emotion,
    remember the post of a dad who recreates her daughter’s selfies? It went
    viral because people think it is hilarious which attracted thousands of
    fans on IG. Aside from emotion, another effective trick is to inspire
    viewers. An inspiring photo of a father sleeping under his son’s crib at
    York Hospital went viral, since the photo depicts a hard working man
    who is dedicated to his family. It generated hundred of shares and
    thousands of likes. Before you start posting, identify first your
    audience and be aware of their issues, include a brief but relevant
    content and go for a simpler yet meaningful message. If there is trend,
    ride on it, take advantage of the use of hashtag to know current events
    and topics.

  2. Most people are always online, either through mobile or desktop, they
    love to browse in as much as they love to share just about everything
    under the sun. This is where we harness the power of social media,
    humans love to socialize and with the help of a few shares, likes and
    comments, your post may go viral. Not everyone can make a viral post,
    but with some tricks and efforts, your post may end up being viewed and
    shared by thousands of people. Based from the advise of a well known web
    design and internet marketing firm in Arizona, Primeview, the first
    technique to create a viral post is to appeal to the emotions of the
    viewers. Being able to evoke responses from users arouse their emotion,
    remember the post of a dad who recreates her daughter’s selfies? It went
    viral because people think it is hilarious which attracted thousands of
    fans on IG. Aside from emotion, another effective trick is to inspire
    viewers. An inspiring photo of a father sleeping under his son’s crib at
    York Hospital went viral, since the photo depicts a hard working man
    who is dedicated to his family. It generated hundred of shares and
    thousands of likes. Before you start posting, identify first your
    audience and be aware of their issues, include a brief but relevant
    content and go for a simpler yet meaningful message. If there is trend,
    ride on it, take advantage of the use of hashtag to know current events
    and topics.

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