What Makes Content Go Viral?

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In 2011, Google released Dear Sophie, a tear-jerking ad featuring a father documenting his daughter’s life milestones -- her birth, her brother’s birth, dance lessons, her first lost tooth -- with Gmail. “You’re growing up so fast,” he writes in one email. In another: “I can’t wait to share these with you someday. Until then... Love, Dad.” The ad is set to classical music that tugs tightly on your heartstrings. 

Within days Dear Sophie became an internet sensation. People of all ages were sharing it with friends over email and on social media, propelling it to the top spot on Unruly Media’s Viral Video Chart. It also won Time Magazine’s Top 10 TV Ads for 2011. How could it not? Immediately upon watching it you feel compelled to share it with someone you care about.

Since Dear Sophie came out in 2011, there have been numerous examples of viral content success stories. Yet for every success story, there are hundreds of videos and articles that failed to gain any traction. In some cases, they weren’t seeded with enough media dollars or targeted to the right audience. In most cases, however, it was the content itself that simply didn’t produce that irresistible urge for users to share it.

Until recently, it was poorly understood why only a tiny fraction of online content achieves virality. While there’s no silver bullet solution for creating viral content, recent insights into the psychology of sharing have begun to crack the nut on what drives consumers to share content organically. Our team has been fascinated by a few studies in particular that illuminate how and why people share content online, and we’ve distilled insights that run across these studies.

Based on these findings, here are our four rules for producing content that engages users and has a high likelihood of being shared organically.

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1. Activate, don’t deactivate.

  • Online content that evokes high-arousal emotions is more viral while content that evokes more of a deactivating emotion (like sadness) is actually less likely to be viral. (Berger and Milkman 2012)

  • More practically useful, interesting, and surprising content is more viral. (Berger and Milkman 2012)

  • Online users want to appear knowledgeable, look good to others, and feel part of a community. Looking funny and looking intelligent did not score as highly. (Yuki 2015)

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2. Use different ads for different platforms and audiences.

  • Informational ads are shared more on LinkedIn while emotional ads are shared more on general platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). (Tellis et al. 2019)

  • Social videos are highly shareable and are 3X more likely to be shared than other posts, including photos. (Yuki 2015)

  • Storytelling was a driving factor, followed by usefulness – being “In The Know” is the most significant driver for sharing among 18-24 year olds. (Yuki 2015)

  • For Finance and Media content, inspiration and happiness are emotional drivers; for Auto and Television, excitement drives sharing. Storytelling is an especially important driver for Travel & Leisure, Publishing and Business Services. (Yuki 2015)

  • Men look for amusement and excitement while women tend to look for useful content. (Yuki 2015)

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3. Storytelling and positive emotions are more viral than facts and negative emotions (with one exception: risky contexts).

  • Positive content is more likely to be highly shared, even after controlling for how frequently it occurs. (Berger and Milkman 2012)

  • Similar to what Berger and Milkman found, negative content (angry, sad) is not very shareable while happiness and content deemed inspiring were highly shareable. (Yuki 2015)

  • Sharing is linked to various drama elements such as plot, surprise, and characters, including babies, animals, and celebrities arouse emotions. (Tellis et al. 2019)

  • Information-focused content has a significantly negative effect on sharing, except in risky contexts, while positive emotions of amusement, excitement, inspiration, and warmth positively affect sharing. (Tellis et al. 2019)

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4. Produce content people want to see (these are the “basics,” and they are easier said than done, of course).

  • Being featured prominently is as important for content virality as content characteristics (e.g., high-arousal emotions). (Berger and Milkman 2012)

  • Prominent (early vs. late, long vs. short duration, persistent vs. pulsing) placement of brand names negatively affects sharing. (Tellis et al. 2019)

  • The “ad length sweet spot” for sharing is between 1.2 and 1.7 minutes. (Tellis et al. 2019)

  • Contrary to all of their 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. This should be a wakeup call for content marketers. (Tellis et al. 2019)

Dear Sophie checks nearly every one of these boxes: The ad produces high-arousal emotions (joy, happiness) and features an average family (not a celebrity). It tells a relatable, heartwarming story while weaving in brand placements subtly. And it hits the “ad length sweet spot” of 1.5 minutes.

Viral marketing is a powerful vehicle to spread your message quickly and cheaply. We hope that these four research-backed rules assist you in your journey to creating the next buzzworthy ad campaign.


Cited Articles

Berger, J., & Milkman, K. L. (2012). What Makes Online Content Viral? Journal of Marketing Research, 49(2), 192–205. https://doi.org/10.1509/jmr.10.0353 

Tellis, G. J., MacInnis, D. J., Tirunillai, S., & Zhang, Y. (2019). What Drives Virality (Sharing) of Online Digital Content? The Critical Role of Information, Emotion, and Brand Prominence. Journal of Marketing, 83(4), 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022242919841034 

Yuki, T. (2015). What Makes Brands' Social Content Shareable on Facebook?: An Analysis that Demonstrates The Power of Online Trust and Attention. Journal of Advertising Research, 55(4), 458-470.