A paper by University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professors Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman indicates that web content is more likely to go viral if it creates a positive response in readers.
People share media for a number of reasons, including altruism, a need to appear helpful or knowledgeable, and social transmission. Social transmission essentially encompasses everything that people do to relate with one another, build relationships and ease tension. In a survey cited in the study, nearly 60 percent of individuals said that they share content online on a frequent basis, and because viral marketing is less expensive and more effective than traditional advertising, the paper’s findings could greatly impact marketing efforts in a number of industries.
The professors carried out group of studies to gather information on virality. The paper, entitled “What Makes Online Content Viral?,” used link data from nearly 7,000 New York Times web articles published between August 30 and November 30 of 2008. Berger and Milkman relied on an automatic coding system and input from human participants to classify each story as positive or negative. The researchers also identified the basic emotions associated with each article, including feelings of awe, anger, anxiety, sadness or surprise. Berger and Milkman also adjusted for external factors that might influence results, including author fame, gender and age.
The researchers found that positive content was more likely to go viral. Positive articles generated significant interest from readers if the content inspired an active emotion such as awe or surprise. For example, articles that inspired awe were 30 percent more likely to make the New York Times’ most emailed list. Functional articles such as how-tos and content with direct life applications also performed extremely well.
However, the researchers found that negative articles could also go viral, provided that they prompted a strong emotional response in readers. In fact, articles that inspired anger had a high chance of remaining at the top of the New York Time’s most emailed list and performed much better than other negative articles. The researchers explained this by classifying emotional responses as they relate to activity. An angry article invites action from a reader, while a sad article has a more depressive effect. Likewise, awe-inspiring articles keep the audience engaged and have a better chance of spreading as a result.
“While marketers often produce content that paints their product in a positive light, our results suggest that content will be more likely to be shared if it evokes high-arousal emotions,” the paper reads. “Advertisements that make consumers content or relaxed, for example, will not be as viral as those that amuse them.”
Overall, surprising, interesting and useful information was most likely to spread. People like to share valuable information with their friends and families as a form of social transmission, and while the research shows that the factors that drive viral content are extremely varied and complex, positivity seems to be a key factor in driving interest.
The paper has some distinct marketing applications. Website owners should develop content that engages the reader actively and uses positive words to invite responses. Positive articles that do not inspire emotion or provide a practical application are less likely to spread. By understanding the ways that readers receive, interpret and share content, marketers can better predict which pieces will spread quickly online.