Communications gone viral: the role of emotion
No one wants to post a video or an article that will only be seen once. People want their content to go viral. Indeed, it’s this kind of scale that we at ecoAmerica strive for, and it’s this kind of scale that we encourage in our climate colleagues around the country. The tricky part is figuring out how to make this happen. How do you create content that will catch fire?
A new study by Jonah Berger at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, described in this recent Google Think Insights blog post, may lend a clue. Berger and his colleagues compiled a database of 7,000 New York Times articles published over a 3-month period. Using a series of statistical techniques, they then analyzed what made certain articles make it to the newspaper’s “most e-mailed” list.
The key ingredient, it turns out, is the emotional tone of the article. Articles that included more positive words were more likely to make the list. But it wasn’t just positivity that mattered. How psychologically arousing the article was — how much it activated people or mobilized them to action — also played a role. Berger found that articles that elicit high-arousal emotions like awe, anxiety, and anger were more likely to make the list than articles that elicit low-arousal emotions like peacefulness and sadness. This effect held after controlling for a host of other factors, including the article’s word count, its placement on the website, and its practical utility.
The take-away? Climate communicators should think carefully about the type of emotion their content generates. Content with a positive tone is probably a good bet for inciting virality. Negativity, on the other hand, can lead to fatalism and resignation. If you do choose to foray into the negative realm, be judicious and consider exactly what kind of negative emotion your content will generate. Content that generates low-arousal negative emotions, like sadness, might slow users down and make them less likely to share. But content that generates high-arousal negative emotions like anger and anxiety, could activate users and help launch your content onto the path to virality.
By Jonah Berger, Assistant Professor of Marketing, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
Everyone from Fortune 500 companies to the corner coffee shop has realized that word-of-mouth helps things become popular – in fact, it’s up to 30 times more effective than traditional advertising. It impacts the products consumers buy, the behaviors they engage in, the candidates they vote for, and the ideas they discuss.
The question, though, is how do you get it. What makes people talk about some things rather than others? What makes online content viral? The answer lies in understanding the psychology of social transmission.
In the past five years, my colleagues and I at Wharton have examined hundreds of brands, thousands of news articles, and millions of purchases. All to understand why people talk about and share certain things more than others. By applying this knowledge to their own products and ideas, marketers no longer need to rely on getting lucky online; they can craft contagious content that is more likely to diffuse.
Read the blog post here.
Read the full article here.