Why do some things posted on social media go viral? What do they have in common?
That was the question raised by Maria Konnikova in the Jan. 21 issue of the New Yorker.
In the article Konnikova references research by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania, who analyzed about 7,000 articles that had appeared in the New York Times in 2008 to see what distinguished items that made the most-e- mailed list.
Through their research, they found that two features predictably determined an article’s success: how positive its message was and how much emotion it provoked.
Just how arousing each emotion was also made a difference. Stories that might make readers angry or anxious—about a political scandal or a risk for cancer—were as likely to be shared as one about cute pandas.
Berger and Milkman went on to test their findings in a more controlled setting. They presented students with content and observed their propensity to pass it along.
Again, they found the same patterns. Amusing and positive stories were shared more frequently than less amusing ones, and stories that elicited anger were shared more than moderate ones.
How a story is framed also affected its virality.
A story about someone who was injured that focused on the preventable cause of the injury was shared less frequently than one that emphasized how the injured person was overcoming that injury—even though it was the same story.
The findings have been replicated by other studies that found that videos that make people angry or inspire them are more likely to be shared.
Berger has captured his findings in his new book Since his initial foray into the nature of sharing, Berger has gone on to research and test a variety of viral-promoting factors, which he details in his new book Contagious: Why Things Catch On.
According to Berger, while emotion and arousal still top the list, there are other factors.
One is what he calls social currency—something that makes people feel that they’re not only smart, but in the know.
I would call it the mirroring effect; people are interested in knowing what others will think of them if they share something.
Before they share something, they may wonder: “How will this make me look if I share it? Will I look smart? That I care?”
The presence of a memory-inducing trigger is also important, Berger says; we share what we know or are thinking about.
In media relations, this is known simply as currency—something that others are already talking about is more likely to be shared because people know about it.
Finally, the quality of the story itself is a predictor of going viral, he says.
“People love stories. The more you see your story as part of a broader narrative, the better,” Berger says.
In other words, a compelling, well-written story will be seen as worth sharing.
Well-written stories that are positive and arouse emotions—those are the ones that go viral, according to the researchers.
The challenge for non-profits is that, somewhere along the way, many came to believe that stories needed to be drained of emotion and personality.
Somehow we came to believe that if we simply presented the facts of the case or detailed the scope of the injustice, people would respond.
Unfortunately, lists of numbers of people who are hungry or in need rarely move us, or make us share that information.
For that, we need our hearts to be touched.
For more on this topic, check my post Why Your Brain Wants to Help One Person, But not Millions.
Also see Boiling Over to Get Media Coverage for a local example of how one group managed to get media attention by hooking their cause to a story in the news.