What Makes Online Content Viral? Research Shows It's Anger, Shock and Awe.

Michelle Markelz
Academic
Current average rating    
5.00
Key Takeaways

What? Viral content is contingent on the emotion is elicits in readers.

So what? The most viral content tends to incite anger and awe. Practical content is also commonly shared.

Now what? Creators should take note to frame their content in ways that elicit an emotional response and present readily useable information for maximum reach.

​Aug. 5, 2017

Want viral content? Make people angry.


That's according to research by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman of the Wharton School. They won the 2017 William F. O'Dell Award, which honors the article that has made the most significant, long-term contribution to marketing theory, methodology, and/or practice, for their paper "What Makes Online Content Viral?"

When Milkman was in graduate school, she read the New York Times and wondered how the articles on the "most e-mailed" list made it there. Berger had been asking the same question when he was at Stanford, looking at the Wall Street Journal. The two were connected by a colleague and decided to use a measurable experiment to understand which articles emerged as the most shared and why.

They built their own web crawler and studied content on the New York Times website for three months, amounting to approximately 7,000 articles.

Expectedly, they found that articles promoted on the homepage had a 20% greater chance than average of being shared. They framed this placement as advertisement because of the prominence given to the content. Surprisingly, they found that the quality of the content of an article was just as impactful to its virality as its promotion.

They hypothesized that readers who share content online are motivated by a few factors:

  • They want to increase their status among others by appearing in the know, useful and positive based on the content they share (e.g., they may share how-to articles, funny images and interesting facts).

  • They want to strengthen social bonds by sharing content.

  • They want to equalize the emotional impact of content they consume (e.g., something shocking or scary is easier to normalize in the brain by talking about it).

The research supported this. Content that triggered certain emotions was especially likely to go viral. Specifically, content that made people angry was the most likely to go viral, with a 34% greater chance than average. Content that was awe-inspiring was second, at 30% greater than average. Content that inspired feelings of sadness, as the researchers predicted, was less likely to go viral, actually 13% below average.

Articles with practical information were also 30% more likely to go viral.

 

 This Video Will Make You Angry

 


Author Bio:

 
Michelle Markelz
Michelle is managing editor of the AMA's publications. She can be reached at mmarkelz@ama.org.
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