How to increase your content’s viral potential

Viral content is sort of the holy grail of internet marketing; everyone wants it, but almost no-one knows how to get it.

Whatever it is that makes content inherently shareable – and, at the extreme end of the spectrum, go viral – seems like more of a mystical art than a science; a fortunate coinciding of different elements like timeliness, relevance and tapping into something in the wider consciousness that resonates with people.

But many researchers and marketers have set out to define, scientifically, what exactly it is that makes us share content?

What are the emotions and thought processes that are involved in the process of deciding to share something? And is there something inherently unique about viral content that makes it go viral, over another piece of content?

Fractl conducted a study aimed at discovering exactly that. They surveyed 400 people on their emotional responses to a set of viral images, using the PAD emotional state model to score their responses and determine how viral content resonates with us emotionally, as well which combinations of emotions are most likely to make content go viral.

A surprising result

The survey assessed respondents on their emotional responses to 100 of the top images from Reddit’s /r/pics subreddit: 50 with captions, and 50 without. They were able to choose from a range of emotions belonging to the PAD emotional state model, a psychological model developed to describe and measure emotional states, to describe how they felt about the image presented in the survey.

The survey’s respondents were English speakers from all over the world, and so the research team chose images which could be understood regardless of cultural background, avoiding references to pop culture or current events. Each of the images had thousands of upvotes and hundreds or thousands of comments, plus at least one million views on Imgur.

emotions survey

The list contained emotions ranging from love and admiration to relief, pity, remorse and hate. Although humour, a key component of viral imagery, is not represented by the PAD model, other emotions like happiness and satisfaction come close to expressing the same sentiment.

Andrea Lehr, brand relationship strategist at Fractl, said that the agency already knew that humorous content can create an “extremely positive emotional experience”, but that “we were interested in looking at more nuanced instances of viral content where it’s not as clear why something became hugely popular.”

Fractl found that the top three emotional responses to the viral images in their survey were happiness, surprise and admiration.

A bar chart of top emotional responses to viral images, ranging from most to least expressed in the survey. Happiness is at the top with almost 7,000 responses, followed by surprise and then admiration. Next is satisfaction with a little under 5,000, then hope, love, happiness for (empathy), concentration, pride and finally gratitude with about 2,000 responses.

Negative emotions were reported far less than positive emotions, with the bottom three responses being hate, reproach and resentment.

A bar chart of the bottom emotional responses to viral images in the survey, ranging from least to most common. Hate is at the top with about 300 responses, followed by reproach and then resentment. Next is gloating with about 450 responses, then shame, anger, remorse, depression, annoyance and finally disappointment with about 800 responses.

These results for the most part match up with the findings cited by Kohlben Vodden, founder of StoryScience, in a talk at a CMA Digital Breakfast on the science behind shareable content.

Vodden noted, referencing a study by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, that content with an overall positive sentiment will always be more shareable – hence the popularity of feel-good viral content websites like Upworthy and Thought Catalog.

However, Berger and Milkman also found that high-intensity negative emotions like anger also made content highly shareable.

This finding was not reflected in the study by Fractl, who found that anger was the sixth least likely emotion to be felt in response to the viral images they used, out of a possible 26 different emotional responses.

Complex emotions

Fractl’s study also found that viral images are frequently emotionally complex, eliciting multiple emotional responses at the same time. Positive emotions along with surprise were found to result in massive shares – you only have to look at the recent ‘Chewbacca mom’ viral hit to see this in action.

As well as the initial emotional reaction, the survey asked participants to assess how pleasant each image made them feel, on a scale of 1 to 10. They were then asked to rate their levels of ‘arousal’ and ‘dominance’ in response to each image.

‘Arousal’ essentially measures the level of excitement and energy produced by emotions: anxiety, anger and excitement are high-arousal emotions, while sadness, relaxation and depression are low-arousal emotions.

‘Dominance’ measures the level of control that a person feels through their emotions. An emotion like anger is high-dominance, while fear is a submissive or low-dominance emotion, as it tends to result in feeling out of control.

Again, surprise was a recurring theme among the researchers’ findings, which makes sense when you think about the natural of viral content: it often catches us out, is shocking or unexpected, which is what drives the urge to pass it along to everyone we know so that they can share in the amazement.

A photograph of cars driving along a road in stormy weather. In the distance is a pure white vertical beam of light streaking down from the clouds. The caption above reads, "Strange beam of light formed from a lightning strike."

The study found that images which made people feel high levels of dominance and arousal were all accompanied by positive emotions, or positive emotions plus surprise. For images which caused high arousal and low dominance, the emotional responses tended to combine surprise with negative and/or positive emotions.

For instance, this image of a diver taking a selfie with a great white shark behind produced high arousal and low dominance, with emotions ranging from fear and surprise to admiration.

A diver takes a selfie underwater with a great white shark clearly visible behind, appearing to be swimming towards him.

Low-arousal and low-dominance images resulted in a mixed bag of emotional responses, but surprise was almost always present. Boredom was also a frequent response to these images, indicating that not every surprising image is necessarily interesting!

How to increase your content’s viral potential

So how can you put these findings into practice and increase the shareability of your content marketing? Fractl offered some key takeaways for marketers:

1. Combine positive emotions with surprise for huge sharing potential.

“Want people to share your content? Feel-good content is primed for social sharing,” said Fractl in their report on the results of the study. The research found that admiration and happiness had a strong correlation with high dominance, which helps drive people to share things.

Combining these with an element of surprise can help to magnify the positive emotions and spur users to pass along the content. With that said, the surprise needs to be genuine: clickbait headlines such as “You’ll never believe…” which lead to unsurprising or boring content are quick to annoy users.

A headline from Wired magazine online reading, 'You'll be outraged at how easy it was to get you to click on this headline'.

2. Pair ‘low-arousal’ emotions with admiration or surprise.

If your content is a bit of a downer, incorporate an element of surprise or admiration to increase its viral potential.

Fractl had previously assumed that ‘high-arousal’ emotions like excitement or anger were needed for content to go viral. From the study, however, they discovered that negative, low-arousal images which evoked images like sadness and depression could still go viral when paired with surprise or admiration.

A good example of this technique is ‘The Song’, Apple’s famed Christmas advert from 2014:

‘The Song’ pairs a sad and wistful story with elements of surprise, admiration and hope, for an uplifting after-effect that makes the advert eminently shareable.

3. Play up high-arousal emotions in unsurprising, negative content.

Generally speaking, an element of surprise is also needed to make high-arousal negative content more shareable: most of the images in Fractl’s study which received negative reactions were also rated as surprising.

Only two images provoked purely negative responses, and both of those made respondents feel very high-arousal negative emotions: anger, fear or distress. Therefore, it is possible to have negative content which is still shareable if it energises people in some way; but overall, positive and surprising content is still the clear winner if you want your content shared widely.

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