Study: Positive content most likely to go viral

May 31, 2012
The Wonderful World Of PR
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What inspires you to share content you read online? Maybe you find it useful. Maybe it’s interesting or surprising. But more than likely, it makes you feel something.

Specifically, it makes you feel something that perks you up or gets your blood boiling. That was the finding of University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professors Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman in their study, “What Makes Online Content Viral?

“Positive content is more viral than negative content, but the relationship between emotion and social transmission is more complex than valence alone,” they wrote. “Virality is partially driven by physiological arousal. Content that evokes high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions is more viral.”

The duo came to that conclusion upon studying how often people shared almost 7,000 New York Times articles by email. They used an automated process to determine how positive each article was—a computer scanned each article for “positive” or “negative” words and made an analysis. Human readers determined whether the articles inspired awe, anger, sadness, or other feelings.

Though the study has been around for a while, it’s still got communicators and marketers talking.

The research

People will share items that amaze them, and, despite positivity’s being a better predictor of virality, they’ll also share stuff that makes them mad or anxious. What they won’t share is stuff that deflates them.

“Content that evokes low-arousal, or deactivating, emotions (e.g., sadness) is less viral,” Berger and Milkman wrote. “These results hold even when the authors control for how surprising, interesting, or practically useful content is (all of which are positively linked to virality), as well as external drivers of attention (e.g., how prominently content was featured).”

That goes for relaxing content, too, they say. Not all good feelings inspire people to send a link to a pal.

“While some marketers might shy away from advertisements that evoke negative emotions, our results suggest that negative emotion can actually increase transmission if it is characterized by activation,” the authors wrote.

For example, they point to BMW’s “The Hire,” a set of short videos full of action and car chases. Just like action movies, they’re meant to make people scoot up to the edge of their seat with anxiety and grab their armrests. Making people feel that way worked. Hundreds of thousands of people watched the videos and shared them.

Lingering questions

In a blog post written soon after the study’s initial release, Angela Connor, vice president and director of social media at strategic communications firm Capstrat, wrote that the findings “resonate with the human spirit.” But she also notes that it’s pretty hard to pin down exactly what concrete advice one can take from it.

Likewise, Joe Tullio, a user experience researcher at Google, wrote on his blog that the study isn’t necessarily applicable to all content. New York Times online readers who share articles are a “potentially skewed demographic,” he wrote.

On the ThoughtKast blog, blogger Emil Buga posits that sharing isn’t just about feeling an emotion about what one reads; it’s about feeling an emotion while clicking the “share” button.

“Emotions such as feeling appreciated, feeling good about being funny, intellectual, practical or artistic, getting rewarding feedback, feeling social as opposed to isolated, feeling contributing to an important cause, being the best in some ranking system, all of these contribute to making people want to share the content,” he wrote. “These emotions have to do with our character, and our character and experience have to do with our choice of environment for communication.”

Speaking of environments, Buga wrote that social networks that have a formal, businesslike atmosphere where emotion is played down, such as SharePoint platforms or LinkedIn, aren’t conducive to sharing. They inhibit social communication, he suggested.

Digital marketing and social media consultant Jeff Bullas wondered what positive emotions other than awe might inspire sharing.


Still, Bullas stated it’s clear that content creators need to think about emotion when they’re writing articles. Pieces that are completely utilitarian, such as lists consisting of ways to make your blog better, are missing that element.

“Online content providers need to pay greater attention to the emotions their content creates as this will lead to maximizing revenue for placing advertisements or pricing access to content,” he wrote.

And it works both ways, Berger and Milkman pointed out. A tweet from a customer who’s sad about your company isn’t as likely to inspire action as one that asks people to join in his or her anger.

“Certain types of negativity may be more important to address because they are more likely to be shared,” they wrote.

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Sesema PR

Sesema PR is a leading PR Consultancy in Nigeria headquartered in Lagos, with a subsidiary in Accra, Ghana. Sesema's dedication to the improvement in PR practice in Nigeria has led to the MD receiving an award for her contributions to PR. She is also the treasurer of the PRCAN. Sesema is affiliated to Edelman, the world's leading, independent PR firm.

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