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RESEARCH INSIGHT | What Drives Sharing of Digital Content?

Though YouTube video ads that that evokes positive emotions such as excitement, inspiration, and warmth are generally more effective than information-focused content, only 7% evoke strong positive emotions. The authors test five hypotheses in two field studies to determine what drives YouTube video ad sharing, including the role of branding, video length, and factors that evoke emotions in viewers. Research shows that in most cases, viral ads rely on emotion over information, and emotion is evoked by factors, such as plot and authenticity (think babies and animals vs. celebrities). Lengths between 1 and 1.5 minutes and inconspicuous brand placement also helped drive shares. These results have implications for managers looking to execute video ad campaigns on various platforms.

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What You Need to Know

Managers should develop highly shareable emotion- and information-driven video ads for different platforms based on the drivers of virality.

  • YouTube allows managers to create effective ad campaigns and boost exposure at low cost compared to traditional advertising.
  • Ads that evoke positive emotions or use dramatic elements were likely to induced sharing regardless of content, whereas information-based ads produced high shares only when product or purchase risk is high (such as a new car).
  • Managers can evoke emotions with captivating plots or surprise endings to encourage sharing, and should launch them on appropriate social media platforms.


The authors test five theoretically derived hypotheses about what drives video ad sharing across multiple social media platforms. Two independent field studies test these hypotheses using 11 emotions and over 60 ad characteristics. The results are consistent with theory and robust across studies. Information-focused content has a significantly negative effect on sharing, except in risky contexts. Positive emotions of amusement, excitement, inspiration, and warmth positively affect sharing. Various drama elements such as surprise, plot, and characters, including babies, animals, and celebrities arouse emotions. Prominent (early vs. late, long vs. short duration, persistent vs. pulsing) placement of brand names hurts sharing. Emotional ads are shared more on general platforms (Facebook, Google+, Twitter) than on LinkedIn, and the reverse holds for informational ads. Sharing is also greatest when ad length is moderate (1.2 to 1.7 minutes). Contrary to these findings, ads use information more than emotions, celebrities more than babies or animals, prominent brand placement, little surprise, and very short or very long ads. A third study shows that the identified drivers predict sharing accurately in an entirely independent sample.

Tellis, Gerard J., Deborah J. MacInnis, Seshadri Tirunillai, and Yanwei Zhang. “What Drives Virality (Sharing) of Online Digital Content? The Critical Role of Information, Emotion, and Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing 83, no. 4 (July 2019): 1–20.