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Viral Content: The Secrets and the Science

Viral content is extraordinarily powerful. Often, an article or image that cost virtually nothing to make can gain the attention of millions of people, simply by being shared by them, but what makes content, “go viral”? What is it about cat videos and memes that convinces people to share them with everyone they know?

From unpopular teens, to the most powerful marketing firms in the world, almost everyone wants to know how to get more attention. With it’s staggering ROI, viral content is truly a target for marketers around the world, but there must be a reason why some content performs better than others. Fortunately, there have been numerous scientific studies on the subject.

The Science of Viral Content
In 2012, Jonah Berger and Katy Milkman published an article in the Journal of Marketing Research titled, “What Makes Online Content Go Viral?”. In the article, Berger and Milkman examined the emotional connection between users and viral content. They found that virality was driven by emotional arousal. When content evoked a high level of arousal, positively or negatively, it tended to go viral more than content that did not evoke strong emotional reactions. That being said, content tended to go viral more when it evoked positive emotions such as awe, joy, and lust. Content that evoked negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear tended to go viral less often. These results remained consistent, even when they controlled how surprising, interesting, or practically useful the content was. External factors of attention such as how prominently the content is featured were also taken into consideration.

Berger and Milkman’s article highlights the importance of emotion in virality, but while Jonah Berger and Katy Milkman may have found that positive content is more viral, a study by Fractl suggests that positive emotions aren’t the key to optimal virality. Fractl’s study found that positive emotions, particularly joy, interest, anticipation, and trust, may be useful for gaining immediate shares, but high immediate traffic isn’t the only important aspect of viral content. In fact, many pieces of viral content go relatively unnoticed for a long period after being posted. These pieces experience a longtail effect that boosts their popularity over time. This highlights the importance of materiel that has lasting value to audiences.

Another interesting result that Fractl found was that emotional diversity was more effective than purely positive or negative tones. In other words: a combination of both positive and negative emotions is even more effective than one or the other. Surprise, which can be a positive or a negative emotion was found to be the second most important for viral content. The effectiveness of surprise did seem to vary by age. For instance, millennials ages 18-24 felt less joy, trust, and surprise-based emotions than other groups. Sex also made a difference, as men tended to feel more joy than women when viewing viral images, but male emotional ranges were significantly smaller.

Pushing The Right Buttons
Clearly invoking an emotional response from users is a key element to creating viral content, but that isn’t always an easy thing to do. Some emotions, such as anger, are easy to invoke. Simply disagreeing with an established opinion, particularly a popular one, can drive many users to express their rage through comments and links via their own publications. Although this isn’t the best way to drive up shares, it certainly works, but there are other ways to invoke emotions.

In his book, Buzz Marketing, Mark Hughes discusses the use of six buttons that viral marketers can push to make their content go viral. Those are: Taboo, Unusual, Outrageous, Hilarious, Remarkable, and Secret. Each of those buttons is useful for gaining interest and invoking key emotions in viewers. Taboo content, for instance, is typically labeled by the surrounding community as unacceptable, improper, profane, or prohibited. It’s particularly effective for triggering negative and surprise emotions. Sometimes viewers will embrace taboo content with positive emotions for it’s disregard of rules and convention. These six buttons can have the effect of creating interest and triggering key emotional responses from viewers, increasing the probability of the content going viral.

Emotional triggers can have a tremendous impact on viral content, but practical usefulness can also increase virality. By creating material that has an obvious practical application for viewers, marketers can increase the chance of people paying attention to their message and sharing the content with others.

Body Language
As any marketer knows, the content isn’t the only key factor. How it’s presented is just as important. Compelling content simply won’t go viral unless it is positioned in the right place, at the right time, and in the right way. Location on webpages, attachments, and readability are all important factors. Studies show that users only actually read about 20% of a typical webpage, and of that 20%, very little is actually absorbed. This means that viral content must be friendly to skimmers. Viral content must be presented in a way that highlights verbal and visual hooks which will catch the viewers interest and convince them to stop and pay attention.

Once the user’s attention is gained, the content should provide a call to action, which directs the user to spread it across the internet. One way of doing this is through social media sharing buttons. A recent study by BrightEdge indicated that content with sharing buttons is seven times more likely to be shared than content without those buttons.

Kings of Viral Content
Nothing ensures that a piece of content will go viral. Neetzan Zimmerman, regarded as one of the kings of viral content, knows this only too well. During his work for Gawker, Zimmerman wrote 10-15 posts per day, but most of them didn’t achieve much notice. Even so, many of his articles were successful, and he managed to generate more traffic than all of the other writers at Gawker combined, with Zimmerman posts generating 30 million hits per month. Before leaving Gawker, he wrote nine of their ten biggest stories of 2013, and boasted nearly 11 million views for one post.

Viral content is extremely powerful. A piece of content can easily reach millions of viewers at virtually no cost, through simple user-user shares, but the is a reason that some content performs better than others. Scientific studies indicate that emotion is a key motivator, and age and gender are key factors as well. Practical use an presentation can greatly increase virality, but they do not guarantee that content will go viral. Even Neetzan Zimmerman, one of the kings of viral content admits that many of his posts didn’t go viral, and that it’s important to have patience as immediate traffic isn’t the only way a piece of content can go viral.
Viral Content