The Key to Successful Viral Content: Emotional Engagement

As we all know Social media has become such a dominant factor in our everyday lives that it’s actively tearing apart the fabric of society. So it comes as no surprise that researchers have overlooked the pressing issues of division and hatred and tried to determine what factors cause online content to go viral.

What is surprising is how much work has gone into the subject. And almost all of the studies agree: content is most likely to go viral when it triggers an emotional reaction.

Emotion Engagement and Virality: Early Research

The first important study of online viral content was done at the Wharton Business School nearly ten years ago. That was so long ago – in Internet years – that the study focused on email sharing rather than social media likes. The researchers, Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, found that whether content generated positive or negative emotions, the important factor for virality was how deeply those emotions were felt.

They discovered two categories of content which were likely to be shared more than others:

  • Positive content: Funny, surprising or awe-inspiring.
  • Negative content: Material that evoked anger or anxiety.

Berger and Milkman also found that it was nearly impossible to identify which emotion was a better indicator of whether content would go viral. According to their study, positive material was shared via email more often than negative, yet content which evoked strong anger was the most-shared of all.

However, the study did isolate the emotions which were less likely to induce sharing. High on the list were sadness and disgust, both negative emotions. That would seem to explain why positive images and videos go viral more often than negative ones – overall, there are more positive emotions which trigger the urge to share.

Emotional Engagement and Virality in the Social Media Age

The emergence and dominance of social media platforms in the mid-2010s made it even more important for marketers to understand the connection between emotional engagement and viral content, because that’s where the money is… Six years after the Berger-Milkman study, the content marketing agency Fractl shed new light on the relationship; researchers measured subjects’ emotions when they were shown the most-commonly shared images from the Reddit subreddit /r/pics.

The Fractl study confirmed some of the earlier findings. Photos which had generated the highest number of shares were most likely to evoke positive emotions like happiness, admiration and satisfaction among test subjects, as was content that contained the element of surprise. However, the Fractl research found that the shared images were less likely to evoke anger. That somewhat contradicted the findings of the Wharton study, even though the results did confirm that emotions like disappointment and depression are not associated with frequently-shared content.

The other vaguely interesting result of Fractl’s study was that the most-viral content brought out a number of different emotions at the same time. The researchers describe those as “complex” emotions, and they give us a much deeper look at why pictures, video and articles are likely to go viral.

Dominance and Arousal

One of the tools used by psychologists to judge emotional states is known as the PAD model. The acronym stands for “pleasure, arousal and dominance.” In simple terms, arousal measures how intense or exciting an emotion is, dominance measures how strongly an emotion controls the actions of the person experiencing it, and pleasure (also known as valence) measures whether the emotion is positive or negative. As examples, rage measures higher on the dominance scale than anger, and joy ranks higher in arousal than happiness.

Emotions which evoke feelings low in dominance, like fear, and those which stimulate feelings low in arousal, like depression and sadness, don’t encourage content sharing. On the other hand, emotions like anger or joy are high in both dominance and arousal, and are the most likely to stimulate someone to share content. The findings go even further; high-arousal emotions often drive people to comment on viral content, while high-dominance emotions are the number-one trigger for social sharing.

What The Research Means For Creating Viral Content

Fractl came up with three important conclusions about emotional engagement and virality.

  1. The most successful prescription for creating content which will go viral is combining what they call “feel-good,” positive emotions like happiness or admiration, with an element of surprise or anticipation. Those emotions create strong feelings of dominance, while surprise increases the likelihood that material will be shared.
  2. Images, photos or articles which are negative, yet score relatively high on the dominance scale by evoking emotions like rage, must also be surprising in some way in order to be widely shared. And surprise is an even more important ingredient for negative content which provokes high-arousal emotions, like fear or distress. However, high-arousal material, whether it’s positive (excitement) or negative (anger), is the most likely to provoke comments.
  3. Low-arousal emotions like sadness are unlikely to trigger the impulse to share, unless they are evoked by content which also provokes feel-good emotions like admiration. A good example is a video which starts out with sad imagery, but has a happy, hopeful or inspiring ending. And adding the elements of surprise or anticipation, as you might have guessed, boosts engagement with content which would otherwise be low-arousal.

Emotional Engagement and Demographics

Marketers intuitively believe that it’s harder to engage younger audiences than older ones. The most-common explanation is that millennials who have “grown up” viewing material online are somewhat desensitised to it, particularly when it comes to images. The Fractl study confirms that belief, and explains which emotions are more likely (and less likely) to stimulate sharing among younger surfers.

Millennials responded less often to material which triggered “anticipation” and “interest” emotions in older viewers. Those in the younger half of the group (ages 18-24) were triggered less often by positive imagery in general. That’s a clear sign of desensitisation to online material; Fractl’s research suggests that young market segments are most likely to notice and share intriguing new content, particularly if it includes an element of surprise.

The other big question for marketers is whether men and women have different responses to content, making them more eager to share. The Fractl findings show that the differences are small, but they do exist. Men are emotionally less responsive overall but their biggest triggers are feelings of “joy.” Women, on the other hand, have (unsurprisingly) more complex emotional reactions, with “trust” being the most important component.

Emotional Engagement: The Key To Virality

Other research has confirmed the key conclusions of these studies, and the implication is clear: in order to create content which will go viral, it’s crucial that the material evokes the proper emotions in the desired audience – and surprise is the most important weapon in a content creator’s arsenal.

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