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The Science of Viral Content: Which Emotions Make Us Share?

Jul 15, 2014 4 min readResearch

Is creating the next viral hit on your marketing to-do list? If you’re in the marketing or social media industry, the answer is probably “Yes!” (and if you’re not, and the answer is probably still “Yes!”).

Campaigns that succeed are those that carefully consider what makes content go viral, including each element of the content as well as the emotional responses and psychological factors that prompt engagement.

But understanding these factors in and of themselves is only half the story; the other half is understanding your audience and the characteristics that influence their reactions.

In other words: To create a campaign that will be popular with men, women, Millennials and Baby Boomers, it’s going to take more than a few cat pictures and some Autotune.

Studying age and gender for viral markers

The latest research from Fractl dives deep into two demographics—age and gender—to determine how these attributes impact likes, shares, and your next viral success.

We asked more than 800 participants to report their feelings on 23 viral images from Imgur, as well as a control group of non-viral images for comparison.

Here’s an inside look at the images we used, as well as our study participants’ emotional reactions by age and gender:

Did surprise, fear, anger, or joy rank highest for men or women? Are Baby Boomers less more or less likely to share than Millennials? The results just might help you cross that content goal off your list.

The three elements all viral content has in common

Among the images in our survey, we found that the viral images shared a few characteristics across all ages and genders. These are takeaways you can consider for your next campaign no matter which demographics you’re trying to reach:

1. Positive feelings

positive feelings Fractl viral study

There was a significant correlation between the number of content views and the number of positive feelings (such as joy, interest, anticipation, and trust) reported by study participants.

This suggests that generating positive feelings is a key step in garnering initial views.

2. Emotional complexity

emotional complexity Fractl viral study

When we compared viral images versus non-viral images, we found that those in the viral category inspired a wider range of emotional reactions.

This means that positive feelings alone do not a viral image make; rather, an image that stirs a mix of emotional reactions–both positive and negative–is more likely to be shared.

3. The element of surprise

surprise Fractl viral study

Surprise, which was categorized separately from positive and negative feelings in the study, was the second-most reported reaction to viral images.

With such a high correlation between surprise and content sharing, marketers might want to look for opportunities to add an unexpected twist in their next campaign.

Now that we know the common ground that all ages and genders are sharing when they engage with content online, let’s look at some of the differences between them.

Are younger audiences harder to engage?

One of the most striking findings of this study was in the generational differences in emotional responses.

Younger Millennials (ages 18 – 24) reported less positive- and surprise-based emotions than any other age group, and together with older Millennials (ages 25 – 34), the group reported fewer interest and anticipation responses.

Millennials and viral sharing

This realm of emotions is most critical to attracting initial views and plays an important role in triggering sharing, which may make the younger set a more challenging demographic to engage.

One theory on this result is that Millennials have been desensitized to static images such as those we used in this study. If this group is more captivated by new, dynamic content, marketers trying to reach them may want to take note and consider interactives, flipbooks, videos and more emerging media types when planning their content.

Men and women: More similar than different

It looks like Venus and Mars may not play as big a role as one might assume when it comes to viral content; the results of this study showed that men and women responded largely the same when it came to their emotional reactions to viral images.

There were, however, some nuances that could give marketers an edge.

Men: More joy, less emotional range

Men reported more joyful feelings than women did when viewing viral images, but exhibited a slightly smaller range of emotional reactions.

Men viral images study

Keeping in mind that positive emotions are key to initial views, but a variety of emotions must be triggered to increase the likelihood of sharing, marketers might consider how they can incorporate elements to activate feelings in addition to joy in increase sharing among men.

Women: More trust, greater emotional complexity

Women reported statistically more trust emotions than men, as well as slightly more negative emotions and greater emotional complexity.

women viral images study

This might make women somewhat more likely to share, based on their propensity for feeling a wider range of emotions, and trust may be the strongest positive emotion to access in order to gain their initial views.

However, the overall findings showed that men and women reported more similar than different emotional responses when viewing viral images. So there’s no need to create vastly different types of content in order to reach gender demographics.

For an in-depth recap of our study’s findings, click on the brackets or any individual circle to scroll through the flipbook below.

via Emotions Research

Do these findings ring true for your experiences? Which emotions have you noticed make you more likely to pass along a photo or article? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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