In a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, titled What Makes Online Content Viral?, Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman analysed about 7000 New York Times articles to examine which articles made it to “the most e-mailed” list. The conclusion of the research was the emotional intensity evoked by the articles was a major factor in determining their virality. Thus a change in the article characteristic by one standard deviation causes the following changes in the probability of making it to the most e-mailed list:
The articles have higher virality (more shared) if they stir up emotions. Some emotions have higher impact than others, but the one outstanding aspect is that anger and awe have a higher influence than the practical value or the interest of the article. The research shows that the low-arousal emotions (like sadness) dampen our enthusiasm for sharing. This is also interesting. My reading into this is that sadness has lower social value and it is not looked upon favourably by our peers. I dare say this is in line with behaviour linked to depression when people tend to suffer in silence.
Do we have the same appetite for sharing in other social situations, such as Facebook or Twitter?
Ben Elowitz wrote an interesting post on his blog, where he shared (!) a few thoughts about emotions that drive sharing. He analysed the Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2011 and discovered that the emotional drivers have a different pattern of influence on. Number one factor is emotionality at 23%, followed by negativity (18%), interest (15%), surprise (13%) and positivity (13%). The practical value is way down to 3%!
Sure, the emotional patterns differ from one sharing environment to another, but clearly sharing is an emotional act. As Berger and Milkman noted in What Makes Online Content Viral?, “Virality is partially driven by physiological arousal”. I guess spiritual/intellectual emotions would count as low-arousal – there is not one word about that in that study.
Harvard Business Review published research on the same topic. In The New Science of Viral Ads, Tales Teixeira describes five ways of increasing the chances of people sharing video ads:
- Utilise brand pulsing: don’t put your logo straight in the middle, but show it only from time to time. This increases the chance of sharing by 20%
- Open with joy: right at the opening do something that causes positive, joyful reaction. This prevents boredom.
- Create a roller coaster: keep coming up with surprises and joyful experiences: this prevents the drop in interest
- Surprise but not shock: if the shock is negative, embarrassing or venturing into taboo territories, people may feel inhibited about sharing
- Use all of the above: joyful opening, show the brand here and there, keep people hooked, don’t shock.
The methods of measuring the emotion, the type of sharing medium and the type of content are different, but the role of the emotion in the decision to share something is undeniable
This may explain why sharing in formal circumstances doesn’t work. When you get the emotion out of the content, sharing is not that attractive, lacking the virality we see in informal social situations. By contrary, as the Berger and Milkman’s research shows, the low-arousal emotions have an inhibiting factor.
We share more when we feel that emotional impulse in the content. However, emotion is involved not only before but also in the act of sharing. What do people feel when they share? Unfortunately the research is mostly focused on the correlation between the emotion triggered by the content and the decision to share ignoring the emotion of sharing.
Emotions such as feeling appreciated, feeling good about being funny, intellectual, practical or artistic, getting rewarding feedback, feeling social as opposed to isolated, feeling contributing to an important cause, being the best in some ranking system, all of these contribute to making people want to share the content. These emotions have to do with our character, and our character and experience have to do with our choice of environment for communication.
Our sharing behaviour must be influenced also by the kind of environment we use and the type of human network we are part of. For example, people are never going to share funny videos on LinkedIn. Why because there is an expectation you need to look “professional” there. You can’t take the risk of broadcasting on LinkedIn a prank video of the Pope dancing with Madonna at Mardi Gras festival even if you think is really funny. You will be frowned upon by all the HR departments.
This is why I think we should be looking on not only what makes the content viral, which is a marketing problem, but also about what makes people share, which is a social communication problem. Formal network environments miss the opportunity to engage and get people become more creative, curious and motivated because they lack of emotion, inhibiting the social communication.
As an example, SharePoint is a very good product, but it is too formal, too boring to capture the imagination of people making the information sharing less effective. The SharePoint 2010 My Profile feature is a typical corporate “search to find information” strategy. Even the voice describing the features is emotionless. The product design is all about information, fields, tags, skills and projects. There is very little about socio-emotional features, a comprehensive anti how to make information viral strategy. I dare challenge you to listen to that video describing My Profile feature until the end of it. If, as research shows, people are far more likely to share in a state of arousal, this sleep inducing video, has close to zero chance of being share. Oh, except for me. I just did it! I guess we can put this in the category “interest” or “practical value” basket. Anyway, it needs to add a socio-emotional dimension to it to really become an effective information sharing tool; let’s say a combination of Facebook/Google Plus and SharePoint would do much better.
Social games are derided by some as being too superficial, something for de-stress therapy in the weekend. But modern games are really getting better at engaging our internal emotions which defines us who we are. Gamifying the sharing experience works because it adds emotional value to the act of sharing. If the sharing environment adds features that tap into these emotions such as giving rewards, showing your approval/disapproval for shared content, follow and be followed, all these increase the chances content will be shared. This could mean that specialised social networks will spread and gradually replace the formal sharing environments and put more colour into our virtual office lives.
A product is an inanimate entity. This is what you think when you reverberate this word in your mind. A radio, a DVD player, a car, a software application or a bottle of juice are some of the typical products that we use on a daily basis. We just use them, right? We take that usage has the same underlying physical aspect. We drive the car, we drink the juice, and we listen to the DVD player, etc. by making a series of mechanical movements. It is so simple. Why is then the design of these products so complex?
The reality is that when we use products, no matter how simple they are, we register emotions that are either directly or indirectly caused by the act of use. We may experience pleasure, or frustration or the feeling we are important and get good feedback from others. These emotions define us and they are shaped by our personal history and by what these products represent to us as influenced by social norms. Each emotional experience is deposited in layers of memories and from which we draw inspiration when we decide what to buy.
The product design is complex because understanding how these memories are generated and influence our buying behaviour is very difficult. A hundred years ago this didn’t matter. A man produced a pair of shoes and another man bought them, or bartered to get them, because this is what was available. It was a simple matter of matching money with the product. When you got the money, you rushed to buy the product. You didn’t have much choice then. It was cold, the feet were hurting or the shoes you were wearing were ragged, in a deplorable state, so you had to buy those shoes, if you had the money. It didn’t matter if you didn’t like the producer. This was a matter of physical practicality.
Today is a bit different. You choose before you buy, and this is where all those memories kick in whispering in your inner ear what to do. By the time you execute the purchase, your mind already processed lots of whispers and it was set up to make a decision before you even knew it. This is a cultural process. It is both a translation of your cultural heritage into action, but also it micro-contributes into the big cultural cloud we are part of.
Understanding the cultural process behind the purchase is important for product design in a broad sense. Whoever captures those cultural nuances in the process of product design has a sharp competitive edge. This is where the social networks are so powerful. Of all networks, Facebook has its own competitive edge because it has figured out quite a bit how this cultural process works.