Research Unlocks The Recipe To Making Viral Content

The internet created a platform for content to go viral and catch the attention of individuals from all over the globe. While it’s typically easy for people in the spotlight, like celebrities as an example to create viral content at the click of a “post” button, we’ve also seen a number of posts, videos, photos, etc gone viral from just every-day people with no background of being in the spotlight. According to brand new research by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman of the Wharton School, there could very well be a reason – or even a recipe for why their content went viral.

Both Milkman and Berger were connected by a colleague and quickly grew a mutual interest in viral contend. The two then decided to use a measurable experiment to understand which articles emerged as the most shared and why. They first built their own web crawler and studied content on the New York Times website for three months, amounting to approximately 7,000 articles in total. 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.

The duo then hypothesised the reason for this – suggesting that readers who share content online are motivated by a few factors including wanting to increase their social status and popularity among others by appearing in the know, useful and positive based on the content they share, wanting to strengthen social bonds by sharing content others relate to, and wanting to equalise the emotional impact of content they consume, like if something would be shocking or scary, it would be much easier to normalise in the brain due to the discussion behind it.

During the research, the duo found that 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 the average. Content that was awe-inspiring was second most likely, at 30% greater than the average. Content that inspired feelings of sadness was the least likely to go viral and was a shocking 13% below the average. The study also displayed that articles with practical information were also 30% more likely to go viral than the average.

Recently, consumer psychologist Dr Brent Coker from the University of Melbourne had elaborated on the study and identified four key elements present in all viral videos.

Dr Coker’s research included analyses of viral video content and experiments showing viewers a range of clips which revealed four common factors, including “Sharability’” on social media,  how well thee viewers must be able to connect to the content (like activating memories via music and nostalgia), and large emotional range (like what would take the viewer from an emotional low (sadness or unfairness) to an emotional high (joy, love or justice) are more likely to go viral), “Frisson” or primitive feelings of excitement or thrill which are often a physical response to a viral video.

“We understand that people watching a successful, emotive video with these four factors have the same biological response as when someone is faced with a predator and instinctively the body goes into fight or flight mode,” said Dr Coker. “My research found that this release of adrenaline and endorphins, when combined with certain memories, makes a viewer far more likely to share a video and therefore make it go viral.”

He continued, “Shifting people rapidly across certain emotions is a highly successful tactic which also makes people highly likely to share content on their social media channels.”

Both parties in participating research findings hope that the studies will have wide ranging impact for both marketing practice as well as understanding how pop culture and viral videos are experienced and received by the public, and how the public begins to understand the “ingredients” of a viral recipe.

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