Here at Storyclash we equip our users with the powerful ability to track viral content on social media. But having our dashboard at your disposal is only half of what it takes to successfully navigate the vast and sometimes overwhelming landscape of social media’s top-trending posts. The other half is understanding why these posts are getting so much attention in the first place.

As people who interact with each other in a society that’s fundamentally rooted in human engagement, emotion is the societal currency in which we all transact.

What contributes to something going viral on the internet? Research suggests that emotion has a lot to do with it.

“Viral content typically evokes high-arousal emotions, such as joy or fear,” according to a 2016 post by Kerry Jones, Kelsey Libert and Kristin Tynski of Harvard Business Review. “[It] tends to be surprising, emotionally complex, or extremely positive.” So while contagious content is certainly linked to emotion, basic feelings such as happiness or annoyance won’t exactly drive someone to share the content they’re interacting with—the person has to feel something more.

This makes sense when you think about it. Middle-of-the-road emotions don’t really tip the scale in any direction, but high-arousal ones such as the examples mentioned in the quote above are often enough of a catalyst to provoke a sharing mindset. There’s plenty of research to back up this statement, but it actually doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that viral content produces strong emotional reactions—you only need to be human.

Watch a hilarious video that your friends and family won’t be able to stop laughing at, read a heartwarming story that you know your fellow book club members will cry over, stumble across a thirst-quenching list of the top 10 cocktails in your city which you just have to post to your social networks…

The emotions tied into your humanity are as factual as the law of gravity, and it’s all the convincing you need to believe in the power of viral content. As people who interact with each other in a society that’s fundamentally rooted in human engagement, emotion is the societal currency in which we all transact. It goes without saying then, that viral content is one of the most emotionally expensive things on the market.

But there’s more. Things get interesting in the algebra.

Marco Guerini and Jacopo Staiano wrote about the psychological aspects of the relationship between emotions and virality in their 2015 article, Deep Feelings. The study is a comprehensive examination of how certain emotions measure up on the Valence – Arousal – Dominance model (VAD for short) as direct reactions to viral web content, and their findings show that internet virality is far from random.

“Specific patterns arise when emotions are measured against virality.” 

emotion_graphic[Graphic from Fractl & Harvard Business Review]

To summarize: viral posts which showed a high number of comments were found to have high-arousal / low-dominance test results on the VAD model, while posts which showed a high number of social shares were comparatively found to have high-dominance results. Further testing painted a telling canvas of combinational info points which provide a sort of reference set for anyone investigating the particular relationship between viral content and emotion…

“Viral facets seem to be coherently affected by particular VAD configurations (namely, the alternation between Dominance and Arousal), and these configurations indicate a clear connection with distinct phenomena underlying persuasive communication.” Without diving too deep into Staiano and Guerini’s findings, it’s clear to see that specific patterns arise when emotions are measured against virality.

And whenever anything develops a pattern, it can be predicted.

If you’ve just raised your eyebrow upon reading that sentence, then you’re paying attention and it’s about to pay off. After all, what good is research without the advantageously methodological development which inevitably follows? The relationship patterns between virality and the emotions involved have been charted, so now what?

Harness this knowledge.

Can the notion that viral media causes strong emotional feedback be reverseengineered in a way such that content creators can consistently and dependably manipulate emotion as a baseline to produce trending content? The short and easy answer is yes, and it’s already been happening for a while now. Just like anything else, however, it’s a desired result best achieved through extensive research, creative experimentation and repeated testing.

The detail and extent to which virality can seemingly be dialed into is certainly something to consider from here on out, especially if you’re in the business of content creation…

Fortunately for you, progress has already been made on this front: “Content characteristics shape whether it becomes viral… By considering how psychological processes shape social transmission, one can gain deeper insight into collective outcomes, such as what becomes viral.” Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman explore these possibilities in their Journal of Marketing research article, What Makes Online Content Viral?

“Just as certain characteristics of advertisements may make them more effective, certain characteristics of content may make it more likely to be shared… For example, while negative emotions may hurt brand and product attitudes, we have shown that some negative emotions can actually increase social transmission.” The two researchers go on to provide extensive examples of different characteristical combinations and their viral outcomes—measured against common factors with the aforementioned VAD model, such as valence and arousal—rounding out just a small corner of existing literature on this topic.

Perhaps we’ll dive into this more in the future but the detail and extent to which virality can seemingly be dialed into is certainly something to consider from here on out, especially if you’re in the business of content creation in any way, shape or form. Combining research results with Storyclash data tailored specifically to your social media efforts can give you an indispensable advantage over your competition.

“Content creators can consistently and dependably manipulate emotion as a baseline to produce trending content.”

The ingredients are there, so cook something tasty. These research findings serve as your recipe book, so learn from them and dream up some delicious content! Once you’ve mastered which kinds of content ingredients mix well with others to create the emotion flavors you’re striving for, you can experiment with all-new combinations that just may land you something viral…

Yes, emotion DOES equal virality. But just having the answer isn’t enough. Learn the math and you’ll be surprised how far it will take you, especially with a calculator like Storyclash Insights at your disposal!

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