The Role of Emotion in Viral Content

rainy day girl

If there’s one quality that’s criminally overlooked when it comes to content marketing, it’s emotion. We’ve all more-or-less accepted social media and online advertising as one of the many facts of life, which only makes it easier for marketers to phone-it-in when it comes to the quality of their marketing techniques.

Audiences want to be entertained, but even more importantly they want to feel something. What, for example, are the most successful television commercials? That’s an easy one: they’re the ones that make us laugh, or the ones that tell a heartfelt story.

I’m in the business of corporate storytelling so whenever a commercial comes on I enjoy dissecting it. What emotional response did they hope to elicit? What persuasion tactic did they use? What could they have done better? More often than not, companies choose an informative commercial rather than one that plays off of the audience’s emotions, like a story would.

Why Use Viral Content?

The phrase “viral content” is a rather less-than-pleasant term that refers to content that is shareable. It’s that eminent shareability that has elevated virality to the Holy Grail status that it currently enjoys. Quite simply, viral content is a sort of perpetual motion machine of free publicity.

Think about it: a video clip made on a modest budget, if it’s done well, could be seen by tens of millions of people around the world. Viral content is proof that companies don’t need massive advertising war chests like Amazon, Google, and Apple to be successful in a hugely overcrowded capitalistic world.

The ability to break through the dull roar of the noise generated by the sheer number of ads in the world is another reason why viral content is so actively pursued. In any given year, there are trillions of ads displayed online. How anybody has managed to make a name for his or herself in such a landscape is remarkable, but viral content is without question a highly successful method for making the attempt.

How Does Online Content Go Viral?

big idea

It’s sometimes tempting to assume that viral videos simply spring into being or are, by some as yet not wholly understood law of the universe, simply self-fulfilling prophesies. The truth is at once more fascinating and a great deal more mundane. When you get right down to it, viral content is something of a science unto itself. Literally: scientists have been studying why online content goes viral for some time now, and have come up with a list of purportedly inviolable rules for why it does so.

A number of studies were performed, one of which involved showing audiences two videos: the first group was shown a fairly unremarkable video about basket weaving. One hopes there wasn’t a particularly spirited basket enthusiast in this “control group,” or the results of the study may have been skewed. The other groups were shown a variety of videos that spanned the range of human emotion: videos that were intended to elicit an emotional response, such as laughing or anger. Can you guess how it turned out?

The findings revealed that there’s a sort of hierarchical arrangement when it comes to the efficacy of different sorts of content. The study drove home the point that content that successfully elicits a positive emotion – humor, happiness, warmth – are more successful than content that elicits a so-called “high-arousal” emotion: that is, anger or frustration. However, both positive and negative emotions were found to be better motivators than “neutral” content that simply aims for the middle and inspires unremarkable feelings of “mere” contentedness.

One might say it’s the same principle that brought about the popular axiom about there being “no such thing as bad publicity.” It would seem that, as long as you’ve made somebody feel something – even if it’s a negative or unpleasant emotion – you’ve done your job; such feelings will not only resonate with them in that moment, but stick with them for some time afterward.

Why Does Viral Content Work?

This type of scientific inquiry has proven that viral videos are powered by nothing more or less than the human condition. Viral videos – videos that one might say spread contagiously and are successful because they appeal to the range of emotional responses in human beings – are successful because emotions themselves are contagious.

It’s true. Think about it: this is the same phenomenon whereby people regularly report being despondent if their significant other is having a bad day. Even in less personal surroundings, emotions seem to be highly contagious; people seem remarkably capable of picking up on the “mood” in their surroundings, if only on an unconscious level. Cues such as body language, gestures and vocal intonation seem to be all we need to empathize with the emotions around us.

The bottom line here is that triggering an emotional response is the key to creating content that will speak to a wide variety of individuals, and will successfully go viral. Below we’re going to take some time to examine a few recent, highly viral pieces of online content, and take a look at how they succeeded as well as they did.

Case Studies

1. Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches

Dove marketing viral

We might as well kick off this list of case studies with the ad that’s been hailed as the most viral ad of all time: Dove’s ingenious “Real Beauty Sketches.” The ad is actually a short film that was made with the assistance of an FBI sketch artist.

The artist drew two portraits of several women: the first was done using the women’s own descriptions of themselves, based on their personal perceptions of how they look and their perceived level of attractiveness. The second portrait was drawn according to the physical descriptions provided by strangers.

The result was remarkable. The portraits made using the strangers’ descriptions were: (1) More
objectively attractive than the other portrait and (2) More accurate when compared to the women’s actual physical appearance.

The message is a simple one: women are their own worst critics, and judge themselves more harshly than they should. Dove went for the emotional approach, and they ended up knocking it out of the park: viewers, including myself, came away with a totally new perspective and perhaps even a healthier self-image.

2. Miley Freaking Cyrus

viral campaigns

While I find her extremely distasteful, like it or not, no list of effective viral content is complete without mentioning the esteemed Miley Cyrus. Her infamous performance at the VMAs, as well as her music video for the smash hit “Wrecking Ball” have both inspired a nearly endless sea of imitators, many of which have become viral sensations in their own right.

So what’s the lesson here? It probably has something to do with the power of the herd mentality. Nearly overnight, everybody was talking about it, even I wanted to know why.

Parodies of the now infamous video starring the likes of Betty White and Hulk Hogan have been popping up with almost alarming regularity, driving home the fact that genuinely funny parodies of already famous videos have a tendency to resonate with the public. There is, after all, a sort of singular pleasure in being “in on the joke.”

3. Apple Commercials


If there’s a company that needs no introduction, it’s Apple; the Cupertino-based tech giant is consistently ranked among the most admired companies in the world; they topped the list in 2013 and are, for the time being, maintaining that coveted position in 2014.

While Apple’s products have a tendency to sell themselves, Apple nevertheless frequently engages in memorable, and on occasion, even heartfelt, ad campaigns. Remember the “Get a Mac” commercials starring Justin Long and John Hodgman? Even today, those playful ads seem like they’re embedded in our collective unconscious.

Even more recently, Apple has leaned less on humor and more on pulling America’s heartstrings. Apple’s most viral ad since Justin Long first uttered the line “Hi, I’m a Mac” is called “Misunderstood.” It ran during the holiday season last year and had people of all ages re-evaluating the role of technology in family gatherings.

One perhaps unintended result of the ad was a not inconsiderable amount of debate surrounding the message of the ad. Some have decried it as one more unfortunate step toward a totally technology-dependent society, while others hail it as a great reminder that technology can help us to preserve important family events and memories.

So How Do You Create Viral Content?

While we’ve hopefully broken through a lot of the mysticism surrounding how exactly online content manages to go viral, leveraging that knowledge is anything but straightforward. It’s definitely a creative process, which is the reason why regurgitating statistics and product specifications is so terribly ineffective in content marketing, though there is a time and place for that kind of information. Brands need to create an emotional connection with their users and prospective customers.

This is the reason why, for example, Samsung’s recently unveiled Galaxy S4 smartphone, no matter how much better it may look than Apple’s most comparable handhelds, is going to struggle to outsell its bitterest rival. Samsung hopes that the specs alone will sell the phone. Apple knows better.

So what can marketers do to create viral content? A great deal of it comes down to unlearnable traits like intuition, but the rest of the process is almost alarmingly straightforward.

1. Seek to Elicit a Specific Emotional Response

Having a clear strategy in mind is extremely important and will ultimately pay off in big ways. Have you ever watched a movie and been unsure of what you were meant to be feeling? Maybe the screenwriter just threw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what would stick, and as a result the movie attempts to do everything, and ends up doing everything poorly. If feature films are capable of having an identity crisis, you can bet online content can have the same problems.

If you want to make your audience laugh, don’t use a Tori Amos song in the background. If you want to make your audience quake with anger, or even a comparatively milder emotion like surprise or uncertainty, think long and hard before hiring some bubbly celebrity as your spokesperson.

There is a psychological approach to evoking emotion and if you want to do it well you should research the art of storytelling, the power of comparisons and the role of mirror neurons.

2. Think of an Awesome Title

This one is obviously more applicable to articles, blog posts or infographics than it is to, say, a music video, but it’s definitely essential. A good title will do two things: it will give the reader a good idea of what to expect from the article (i.e. serve as a sort of very brief overview), and it will also leave a degree of mystery that will entice the reader to click through and read it.

Film director J.J. Abrams, who most recently helped to reboot the “Star Trek” franchise and is currently working to do the same with “Star Wars” (don’t let us down, J.J.!), is world famous for his “mystery box” approach. He tells his audience just enough to pique their interest – sometimes to the point of frustration – in order to entice them to fill theater seats when his latest film is finally released. That’s what a good title will do.

3. Associate Your Brand With a Particular Emotion

It’s the rare company that can inspire brand loyalty without eliciting a strong emotional response in the people that use their products. This is the reason why, for all its ubiquity, you really don’t see Windows enthusiasts the way you see Mac enthusiasts.

Apple has been exceptionally successful in attaching its brand to emotions like excitement, pride and mystery. The world waits with bated breath in the weeks approaching the launch of a new Apple product, and enthusiastically throws down their money even if it means paying a premium over comparable products. Meanwhile, most Microsoft users see Windows as little more than inevitable, rather than something worth getting animated about.

Analyze your competitors and what emotions they try to evoke. Think about your target audience, better yet do a focus group, and find out what emotions link your product or service to their lives.

Parting Thoughts

Viral marketing has brought us into an era where advertising has more freedom than ever before to be nuanced, subtle and even ambiguous. We no longer need to be shouted at about the latest deals; instead, we can be guided by the hand through the spectrum of human emotions and deposited on the other side having had an experience, rather than having simply tolerated yet another video, article, post, advertisement or whatever else it might happen to be.

Emotional investment is the ghost in the machine of content marketing; understanding that fact, and then acting on that understanding, is the difference between going viral and going nowhere.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Ask (good questions) and you shall receive (more blog comments) | BizActions | Thomson Reuters

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