Think about the last thing you shared on the internet. Maybe it was an insightful video on the political turmoil in a faraway country, or maybe it was a funny picture of a cat wearing a bow tie.
Either way, you saw it, had an emotional reaction to it, and decided to share it with others. But in the process of sharing the latest video, picture, or article to your social media feeds, did you ever stop to think about why you shared it? What was your emotional response to the content? And what was it about that response that made you want to share it with other people?
Understanding the science behind this simple chain of events forms the basis for viral marketing. Content is created, users share it, and it spreads. Although it might sound simple when put like that, it’s anything but.
By examining the science behind the emotional chain of events that leads users down the path of social media sharing, we can better understand how to create content that generates the right emotional reaction and increases the likelihood that our content will be shared.
The Psychology of Social Sharing
If you want to create content that goes viral, step one is understanding the psychology behind what makes a user see a video, image, or link and decide to share it with their followers. It’s impossible to read the minds of users who share links on the internet, but studies in the science of decision-making can provide a lot of clues as to what emotional triggers need to be stimulated.
One such study was performed at Paris-Sorbonne University. The study was conducted with the aim of finding out which emotional responses were more likely to elicit social sharing. Researchers examined the “virality” of content shared on the internet by analyzing the relationship between the emotions that content provoked in users and what effect those emotions had on their decision to share it.
To do this, researchers accumulated a massive number of articles, images, videos, and other content and analyzed the metrics, share-value, and comments to deduce the emotional state of the users when they chose to share that content.
Emotional Triggers: What Makes Users Share Content?
To understand which emotional reactions can cause a user to share content, it helps to understand emotional states within the context of the PAD emotional state model. PAD stands for pleasure, arousal, and dominance. The PAD model is used by marketers to analyze the psychology behind why people buy certain things, but it can also be used to understand why people share content. Let’s go over a bit about what each term in the PAD Model means:
In psychology, valence is a measure of the strength of an emotional response, which can be either positive or negative. For example, fear and anger are both considered high-valence negative emotions, while joy and blissfulness are considered high-valence positive emotions. Ambivalence or indifference would be categorized as low-valence emotions. Theorists studying the valence-based emotional impact of events attest that strong feelings – whether negative or positive – can have a similar impact on decision-making.
In decision-making, arousal is a measure of how energized an individual feels. Like valence, arousal can be either positive or negative. For example, the excitement surrounding an upcoming movie would constitute positive arousal, whereas anxiety over a news story about growing crime rates would constitute negative arousal. Research has suggested that arousal (whether positive or negative) can be a predictable driver of decision-making.
The dominance-submissiveness scale is a measurement of how “in control” a person feels about their emotional state, irrespective of whether that emotional state is positive or negative. For example, while both fear and anger are unpleasant emotions, anger is a dominant emotion, while fear is a submissive emotion. This is important to the decision-making process because strong feelings of dominance tend to correlate with more certainty when it comes to decision-making. In the context of social media, this means a user is more likely to share something if they feel sharing gives them a sense of control over the situation.
The key to understanding why internet users share content is in the relationship between feelings of pleasure, arousal, and dominance. In understanding how these emotional reactions play off of each other to hit the right emotional triggers, we can start to understand what mindset makes a user hit the share button. The virality of web content has less to do with whether it puts someone in a positive or negative emotional state and more to do with hitting the right emotional trigger in those states.
To start, it helps to know that both pleasure and arousal are very closely tied to memory in the human brain. Humans tend to remember high-arousal events where the brain has honed in on the arousing stimuli. Studies have shown that events involving a high degree of arousal are not only recalled with more accuracy but that those accurate recollections last longer. If we know what kind of content will generate the right reaction, we can understand how to make that content stick in a user’s memory.
Viral Content and the Importance of Control
While the relationship between valence and arousal play an important role in examining what content is more likely to be shared, it’s also important to understand the level of “dominance” in the user’s emotional response. In this context, dominance describes how “in control” of a situation a person feels. This is a key factor in determining the shareability of the post because posts that give users a higher feeling of control tend to be shared more often.
Content that elicits high feelings of anger tends to do better when paired with a feeling of being in control. This means that if a news story infuriates readers, they’re more likely to share that story if sharing it feels like an active step in rectifying a problem. The combined factors of a high-valence, high-arousal emotional reaction and a feeling of dominance in that reaction can make even the most infuriating news story instantly shareable.
The Element of Surprise
When it comes to viral content, there’s also a high correlation between the element of surprise and whether or not a user chooses to share content. In studies, users have noted surprise as one of the most common emotional responses to content they’ve shared.
This response is understandable given the brain’s reaction to being surprised. Researchers at Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine have discovered that the brain experiences a heightened degree of pleasure when experiencing unpredictable pleasurable events in comparison to predictable ones.
In the study, scientists used magnetic resonance imaging to monitor changes in brains of participants in response to pleasurable stimuli. What they found was that the brain responded much more positively to unexpected stimuli than expected stimuli.
But what does this mean for viral content? It means that users that encounter an element of surprise in the content they come across will have a higher degree of emotional response to the content. Don’t take my word for it, you can see this in a ton of viral videos. Take, for example, the Worlds Apart campaign from beer manufacturer Heineken:
In the video, three pairs of complete strangers are tasked with working together to build a wooden bar from scratch. What the strangers are not told is that they’re paired with someone who holds completely opposing views on a contemporary hot-button issue. The stranger’s political beliefs are kept hidden until after building the bar, at which point they’re given the option to leave or talk about the issue over a beer.
The video has been watched more than 14.5 million times on YouTube, racking up 3 million of those views within the first week it was posted. Knowing what we know about how people’s emotional response influences their decision to share, it’s easy to see why it went viral. The video gave people a high-valence feeling of hope, but it also surprises viewers with this feeling.
Watching the participants reveal their hidden beliefs was a little cringe-inducing, but the ad surprises the viewer with the feeling of relief when all the pairs choose to have a beer and talk about their differences. The ad’s message is that two people with harsh disagreements can work toward a better understanding of each other. Social sharing is the exact response we can come to expect from content that surprises users with warm, fuzzy feelings like this.
However, surprise endings can be just as effective when inspiring the opposite, but equally valent feelings of fear and anxiety. Take for example the ad “Evan,” created by Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit organization dedicated to combatting gun violence.
This short, two-minute video tells the story of a student (named Evan) who finds himself starting an unexpected relationship with another student. But there’s a surprise twist ending to the video. At the end, another student enters the school gymnasium, cocks a rifle, and starts firing at other students. It’s then revealed that the twist ending was being foreshadowed the whole time, and the viewer is left with a message about knowing the signs of potential gun violence.
The ad works for similar reasons as the Heineken ad, but it pulls very different emotional triggers. The ending catches viewers off guard, and the stark contrast between Evan’s heartwarming budding romance and the tragic, surprise ending inspires the high-valence emotions of fear and anxiety. And it works beyond that, too, because it gives users a sense of control when they share the post and spread awareness of gun violence.
The element of surprise can work in a number of different ways, but it’s a common thread in a lot of viral content. From the unpredictability of a groom surprising his bride with a new pug to the tomfoolery of a pop-song earnestly asking questions about animal noises to message board comedians finding free stock photos and superimposing non-sequential text over them.
How to Create a Viral Ad Campaign
So now that we understand what content will go viral, how can we effectively utilize this knowledge from a marketing perspective? Let’s take a look at a few brands that have successfully run viral marketing campaigns and go over some strategies that can be used for creating viral content.
1. Create Controversy
Controversial ads can be a bit risky from a branding perspective. You can use controversy to create awareness of your brand, but there’s a fine line between creating controversy to drum up exposure for your brand and creating controversy that alienates the audience for your brand.
Controversy works for viral content because it tends to stoke high-valence, high-arousal emotions like anger, which can be useful as long as your brand doesn’t come out on the receiving end of the anger. Kendall Jenner’s infamous Pepsi ad is a great example of how controversy can go wrong.
But what does it look like for a controversial message to go right? For a good example of how controversy can help build your brand, let’s take a look at a Super Bowl commercial made by American building-supplies retailer 84 Lumber.
The ad chronicles the journey of a mother and daughter migrating from Mexico to the United States. It ends with the family successfully reaching the United States, capping off the six-minute video with the message: “The will to succeed is always welcome here.”
Even before the ad aired, it was mired in controversy. After being originally rejected by Super Bowl broadcaster Fox for being too politically-sensitive, the six-minute ad was cut to ninety seconds and tagged with a message about viewing the full story online.
The ad works because it plays on the high-valence emotions of anger and anxiety. Viewers felt fearful for the mother and daughter trying to escape and wanted to know how the story would end. Even for viewers who were angered by 84 Lumber taking a clear stance on a hotly debated issue, it likely helped to increase the viral reach of the marketing campaign just by talking about the controversy.
In my opinion, the rejection of the long-form ad actually worked in favor of 84 Lumber. Not only did it create more publicity for the ad, it made the watered-down 90-second version that aired more enticing. Due to the controversy, the ad ended up including a clear call to action asking viewers to hop online to see the full version that was too controversial for network television.
Not only did the controversial nature of the ad play on the right emotions, the aired version of the ad utilized the principle of giving users a sense of control over the situation by giving a clear call to action that instructed Super Bowl viewers to go online to find the full video and the story’s end. Remember that a clear call to action like this can make users more certain they’re doing the right thing when they choose to share the video online.
2. Give Your Followers a Clear Call to Action
A call to action is an instruction that a brand passes on to their following to help spread awareness of a campaign. Marketers can play on an audience’s sense of control and increase the likelihood that a post will be shared by making it clear what the call to action is and how a piece of content should be shared.
We can see this concept at play a bit with the 84 Lumber ad, but without the high-valence emotions at play. Instructing a user to visit your website is usually less effective. It’s not enough to simply tell your following to go to a website or share a post. You need to make your audience want to share the post.
This is where a clear call to action can effectively work in-tandem with positive high-valence emotions like love. A great example of this is the #MumsDayOff campaign launched by online gift retailer Red Letter Days last Mother’s Day.
In the campaign, followers were entered to win a mother-daughter spa getaway by tweeting pictures of them and their moms with an explanation of why their mom deserved a holiday. Of course, followers were only entered in the drawing if they used the hashtag #MumsDayOff and tagged Red Letter Days’ Twitter account in the post.
The campaign was hugely successful, which is no surprise considering the nature of the campaign and the emotional triggers it plays off of. From an emotional perspective, the ad made use of the strong emotional bond followers had with their moms. Love is a high-valence emotion, and it’s easy to see how that can help a post like this spread. It also had a clear call to action – to tweet a picture and use the hashtag – that helped spread the viral awareness of the campaign and boost the exposure of the Red Letter brand.
3. Make People Feel Good
As we go through examples of great viral campaigns, you may start to notice a pattern emerging. Content with high viral potential needs to combine the right emotional triggers with a clear call to action. Often, that emotional trigger is making your followers feel good about sharing the content and spreading your message. You can see another great example of this by taking a look at the #KnowYourLemons campaign.
The #KnowYourLemons campaign was created by designer Corrine Beaumont with the aim of using lemons as a visual aid in explaining how to check for early signs of breast cancer. The post went viral in May 2017 where it was shared more than 45,000 times on Facebook. The materials contained in the post have since been integrated into a soon-to-be-released breast examination app.
It’s easy to see why a post like this would have such viral potential. You can definitely factor in some high-valence fear about the risk of getting breast cancer, but at the same time, there’s clear instruction to people viewing the content to share it in order to spread awareness. When people feel good about sharing a post with their friends and family through social media, they’re more likely to take this action and give the post a boost in terms of virality.
4. Surprise and Excite People
We’ve talked about how the element of surprise can be viral gold if it’s tied together with a clear call to action. The reason is that surprise (whether it’s for negative reasons or positive reasons) is an intense emotional reaction that’s considered to be both high-valence and high-arousal.
One brand that’s managed to do this very successfully is ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com. The company is exactly what it sounds like, an online store that will send inconvenient envelopes of glitter to anyone in the world. The site offers a number of other prank gifts as well.
The site first went viral in 2015 via a popular Reddit post about the store. The founder of the company created the site with the very intention of creating a viral post that would be spread through social media channels. The project seems to have been a huge success, with the company being sold for $85,000 after just two weeks of the site’s existence.
I suspect the founder of the company understood the value of the excitement that can be created by a novelty product such as this and a clear call to action. People get excited at the idea of pranking someone in this way. I would say that, in general, a novelty like this is likely to wear off at some point, but that doesn’t change the initial viral wins that can be gained from hitting the right emotional triggers.
Based on what we’ve learned about how people react psychologically to web content, we can create a couple of basic strategies for increasing the virality of our social media posts. Using what we know about the part that emotional triggers play in generating more virality for content, we can construct a framework to help determine the probability that something will be shared. Your messaging can be customized in a plethora of ways, depending on the nature of your content, but make sure to stoke the right emotions.
When thinking of content that will go viral, it helps to consider the intended emotional impact of your content. Does your content elicit positive or negative feelings? How much anxiety or arousal does it create in users? Although there’s no way to guarantee a post will go viral, if it plays on the right emotions, you can increase the likelihood that the content will be shared.
About the Author: Evan Ferguson is a writer and digital artist based in Toronto, Canada, who goes by the moniker Harvey Stewart. He’s written about content marketing, futurism, and technology. He graduated from York University in 2012 with a degree in Journalism.