Virality Isn’t Limited To Big Brands – Your Content Just Needs To Strike The Right Emotional Chords

New research: Top 10 emotions that make us share content

A viral hit is the holy grail for marketers these days: Not only does it generate a ton of awareness, but it also repositions a brand as an industry leader thanks to endorsements in the form of shares and retweets.

Consider GoldieBlox’s highly successful “Princess Machine,” which helped the retailer make their mark in the toy industry. This playful video follows a trio of girls as they test their latest engineering endeavor, and although the campaign ran into a bit of snag regarding music licensing, there’s no denying it was successful: Not only did it generate more eight million views in a week, but it helped the company earn a 30-second Super Bowl ad.

So what is it about this campaign and other viral hits that make people click ‘share?’

New research points to key emotional drivers, so to get a better understanding of what these influential triggers look like, my team at Fractl used the Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance (PAD) model to analyze the emotional responses to some of the top images from Reddit’s r/pics community. Our results revealed that there are three ideal emotional combinations for viral content.

Here I’ll walk you through our findings and provide examples of what successful campaigns look like for different combinations.

Viral content tends to be incredibly positive, specifically because of high arousal emotions like happiness and admiration.

As you can see by the top 10 list below, our results indicated that the top viral emotions tend to be incredibly positive:
Top 10 emotions that make us share content

This shouldn’t be too surprising when you think about it (Chewbacca Mom, for instance, was all smiles in her video), and it reflects previous findings about arousal’s role in viral content. But our data also suggests that it takes more than the right levels of arousal to drive viral content: In order to maximize shares, your content also needs to strike the precise levels of dominance.

However, you’re probably wondering what exactly we mean by arousal and dominance. In short: They are two dimensions psychologists use to categorize an emotional experience. More specifically, these dimensions describe the following emotions:

  1. Arousal ranges from excitement to relaxation. Anger is a high-arousal emotion; sadness is low-arousal.
  2. Dominance ranges from submission to feeling in control. Fear is low-dominance; an emotion that makes someone feel empowered, such as admiration, is high-dominance.

We took a closer look at how these levels varied between viral images, and we were able to pinpoint the ideal levels of each, with the most frequent combinations highlighted below:The Emotional Combinations That Make Stories Go Viral

Again, high arousal is a frequent driver of viral content – specifically content that triggers at least one positive emotional response – and admiration and happiness were the most common positive emotions to appear in these combinations.

Android’s “Friends Furever” campaign is a great example of this in action. The video is a series of unlikely animal pairings hanging out together, which helps promote the brand’s idea of individualism in a market saturated by Apple while also tapping into an incredibly positive, warm, fuzzy feeling. The result? More than 24 million views on YouTube.

Don’t dismiss dominance: Social sharing is connected to high levels of empowering emotions.

Researchers Jacopo Staiano of Sorbonne University and Marco Guerini of Trento Rise also took a look at the roles arousal and dominance play in how content goes viral. After reviewing the emotional scores of 65,000 articles, they discovered that high levels of dominance – like feelings of inspiration, admiration, and empowerment – are connected to higher social shares.

Thinking back to our configurations of arousal and dominance, dominance was only high when arousal was also high, and the accompanying emotions were either all positive or a combination of positive emotions plus surprise. So if you want to create something highly shareable within these parameters, your content should be inspiring with an interesting twist.

Consider Reebok’s “25,915 Days” campaign. The title refers to the average number of days in a human life, and the minute-long video follows one woman’s relationship with running in reverse – beginning with her participation in a Reebok-sponsored Spartan Race to the day she was born. The ad also includes more humorous events, like a night she streaked in college. Her inspiring journey and the twist of telling her tale backwards caught audiences’ attention and helped the clip earn more than 700,000 views on YouTube.

Negative content can still go viral, but it needs to include an element of surprise.

When arousal and dominance were both low, our results revealed that although there was a greater variation in emotional responses, surprise was the primary or secondary response for nearly every image. And unlike the high arousal combinations where positive emotions were always present, the low-arousal, low-dominance configuration proved that as long as an image was surprising the other emotions could be either purely positive or negative.

Let’s take a look at Just Not Sports’ “#MoreThanMean” video. The clip features two female sports reporters who are read out loud abusive messages they received online a la Jimmy Kimmel’s popular “mean tweets” segment. The tone is perfectly executed, making the transition from a light hearted opening to a more somber finale in which the men begin to apologize for what they’ve read. This surprising twist on a familiar idea helped the campaign earn more than three million YouTube views.

The biggest takeaway? Virality isn’t limited to big brands – your content just needs to strike the right emotional chords.

The good news is that studies continue to prove that marketing's holy grail is attainable: Virality isn’t the result of a big budget or luck; it’s actually the product of a powerful emotional experience. Understanding how you can hit the ideal levels of arousal and dominance when producing your own content can yield surprisingly big results – a major key to viral success.

This is a guest contribution from Andrea Lehr.
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