What Makes Online Content Go Viral?

Why do some ads or videos spread through the Web like wildfire while other online content fizzles out? That is the top-of-mind question for investors in social media. There are plenty of intuitively logical theories of why content goes viral. The problem for marketing stakeholders, however, is that none of them accurately predict outcomes. Two researchers at the University Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business take on the virality challenge and, by questioning popular wisdom, uncover strategic opportunities for marketers to shift the odds in their favor.

Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman’s “Social Transmission, Emotion, and the Virality of Online Content” analyzes an expanded range of causal factors and finds far more possibilities for going viral than previously supposed. Popular explanations of contagious content tend to reduce the online information exchange to reciprocity, says Berger. “I send you interesting or useful things in the hope that you’ll send me interesting or useful things in the future.” But this fails to recognize that “the decisions we make are not always rational,” Berger notes. “People not only share useful information; emotion also plays an important role.”

The perplexing question of how emotions shape virality has long been a subject of debate between advertisers and newspaper editors (“Eliminate the negative” versus “If it bleeds it leads.”) To test these opposing viewpoints, the researchers asked a cross-national group of survey participants to review various materials that evoked negative or positive emotions and report the effect of the content’s emotionality on their inclinations to share it. The decidedly mixed picture that emerged posed an intriguing contradiction: While accentuating the positive still wins friends and influences customers, negativity was often equally “contagious.”

Milkman and Berger’s research hypothesis helps to resolve the ambiguities surrounding emotion-laden content by linking content’s virality to its impact on physiological arousal. In other words, it’s not always what you feel, but how deeply you feel it that pushes your finger to the SEND button. This theory also helps explain why different negative emotions can have opposite effects. “Although the intensity varies, people generally get a lift from positive messages, regardless of the specific emotion involved,” Berger suggests. “But while content that incites intense anger or high anxiety gets people fired up, sad or depressing news tends to inhibit arousal.”

To gather data for their study, the authors used Web crawlers to conduct daily scans of the world’s most frequently visited newspaper website: the New York Times online edition. “The site’s vast readership and breadth of subject matter (international politics, fashion, sports, entertainment, etc.) offered optimal conditions for our experiment,” says Berger.

The Power Of Awe

The most resounding YES vote on the authors’ theory came from the response to awe-inspiring stories. “The virality of amazing stories like ‘Rare Treatment Reported to Cure AIDS Patient’ is pretty amazing in itself,” says Berger. “It also testifies to the power of physiological arousal to move your audience to share your message.” By stimulating an intense urge to proselytize and an equally compelling desire to reinforce social ties,
an awe-inspiring message drives readers to share that message with others.

Articles that hit audience hot buttons were also among the most contagious. As predicted, angry content was very effective in driving online virality. “Our analysis suggests that a one-standard deviation increase in the content’s anger rating raises its chances of making the most-emailed list as much as extending its stay as a featured story on the Times website for an additional 2.9 hours,” Berger says. “That’s nearly four times as long as the average article spends in that position. “In the right circumstances, angry content presents important relationship and branding opportunities,” he notes, “but its explosive effects pose equally significant risks.” Messages that misfire and messengers who ignore or mishandle a grumbling undertone in their online audience can unleash a plague of potentially costly consequences, including a tarnished brand image and customer attrition.

The contrary effects of two different “bad” feelings also supported the link between virality and arousal states. The agitation from highly alarming and deeply disturbing articles landed anxiety in the highly contagious category. The depressant effect of sadness, on the other hand, proved to be a downer for a story’s popularity rating. “This result suggests heart-wrenching stories and images could backfire, while ‘scare tactics,’ in some contexts such as public health campaigns, could help spread a life-saving message,” says Berger. “One of our study’s most essential takeaways is that popular wisdom, advertising taboos, and other unexamined beliefs require frequent and thorough reality checks,” he concludes. By following a counter-intuitive pathway, their investigation overturns marketing’s traditional restriction on negative content and offers insight into the powerful effects of awe on online virality. For marketers and other investors in social media, those findings illuminate new pathways to drive brand evangelism and customer loyalty and engagement.

Source: MSI Insights Newsletter, Summer 2011

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