Scientists Study Why Internet Stories Go Viral

Hint – It’s All About Emotions

Funny-Grumpy-Cat-MemeNeetzan Zimmerman has a very specific job description: post content that’s going to go viral. The Wall Street Journal profiled Zimmerman a few weeks ago, and that’s because he does his job very well. His posts generate around 30 million pageviews a month. That’s six times more than what the second-leading staffer generates. And, what’s so interesting about Zimmerman is that his success isn’t the result of a scientific computer formula. Instead, as the Journal noted, he just “understands the emotions that might compel a human being to click on something online.

Not big on pageview stats? Well, behavioral science backs up his approach as well. Recent research shows that emotions most certainly affect what goes viral online. Articles, graphics, images, or videos that evoke positive emotions have a much greater potential to go viral than something that evokes a negative feeling (definitely nice to know that we like positive and uplifting messages). But, both content that evokes positive or negative emotions have better click through rates than neutral content. Triggering high-arousal emotions like anger or humor is “click gold,” whereas low arousal emotions like sadness or contentment won’t garner as many clicks.

A recent study was published in Computers in Human Behavior last fall. The study presented the findings of a research team led by Rosanna E. Guadagno from the National Science Foundation. The study showed 256 test participants one video from a collection spanning the emotional spectrum. Some participants saw a cute or funny clip that had already gone viral on YouTube. Some were shown videos that were meant to evoke anger or disgust. Finally, the remaining participants were shown a “neutral” video about basket weaving.

After watching the video, the participants were asked whether or not they’d share the video with someone else. Participants that saw the funny or cute video were much more likely to say they’d forward the video than other participants that saw different videos. The people that saw the video that evoked anger or digust were much much more likely to say they’d forward the video than those that saw the neutral video. A follow-up test with 163 different participants found the same pattern. Positive emotions beat negative ones, and any emotion beats none at all.

Why is emotional content so suceptible to spreading? Because emotions themselves are contagious. Researchers have known for a while that people can take on the emotions of someone around them to feel them for themselves, through direct exposure to that person’s expressions and body language. Now, they also believe that “emotional contagion” can occur indirectly via online content, such as a video or an article.

The physiological response produced by some emotions may also explain why certain content goes viral while other content does not. A couple of years ago, Wharton behavioral scholars Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman analyzed 7,000 New York Times web articles to see which ones were emailed the most. After controlling factors like where the article appeared on the page and author popularity, the researchers concluded that emotional content went viral more often than neutral pieces.

Berger and Milkman also recognized that content that evoked high arousal emotions like awe, anger, and anxiety went viral more often than articles that evoked low arousal emotions. The odds an article would end up on the most emailed list increased 34% when the article elicited one standard deviation more than anger.

So, what does this all mean for marketers? Well, obviously, that emotional content is more likely to go viral. And, more importantly, content that evokes high-arousal positive emotions is most likely to go viral.

Those neutral questions about your audience’s favorite way to spend a three day weekend aren’t likely to do much for you. But, content that makes people laugh or feel all warm and fuzzy inside – now, that’ll do the trick. It’s no wonder cats rule the Internet.

To learn more about these studies, check out this article on Fast Co.Design:

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