The Psychology of Viral Content

According to psychologist Jonah Breger, sharing is triggered by psychological arousal. In other words, any stimulation, be it emotional or physical, can spur the reaction of sharing. However, going viral isn’t as simple as creating a mind-blowing story and throwing it on your social media wall. There are many aspects to sharing that determine which stories get millions of views and which fall into the abyss of insignificance.


This article intends to explore the research behind the phenomenon of sharing and how you can use those findings to create and distribute your content.

Why do people share?

People share for different reasons. While it’s impossible to consider all the reasons, you can use the research conducted by The New York Times Customer Insight Group to plan more impactful messages and communication. The study found that people share content for five significant reasons:

Value and Entertainment

New research or study creates new knowledge. If the new knowledge is aligned with the interests of the person’s social circle, it will be considered valuable. You have to keep in mind that people perceive content differently. Some share to show what they find valuable – in that case, sharing is also an act of self-expression. Others want to help their friends in their personal development journey – in that case; personal interests are overridden by what others might find valuable.


Entertainment is another reason why people share. Whether it’s an enjoyable video or a beautiful image, sometimes people share content simply because they find it amusing. Entertainment content is light and doesn’t require intense focus, but it catches attention fast. You can turn any piece of content into an attention-grabbing image that gets shared solely due to its high visual appeal using professional help or online design tools.

Support a cause

Having a cause behind your content campaign is a sure way to inspire sharing. The desire to support social issues is often the most powerful motivational force behind sharing, simply because social issues affect millions. A social movement can drive awareness, buzz, and engagement.


The additional benefit is that a business’s social responsibility efforts often result in forming a community, making content distribution easier. You also get the chance to expand your reach by involving people who don’t care about the cause but are worried about their self-image.

Relationships

People are social creatures. The need to maintain and enhance relationships is another reason why people share. Since everyone is busy these days, social media has become an easy and quick way to reach people we care about.


When your content has the power to strengthen the relationship between two or more people, it’s more likely to be shared. This kind of content either captures mutual interests, evokes shared memories, or helps individuals plan future activities.

Self-expression

Perhaps, one of the most basic motivations behind sharing is the need to express oneself. This motivation can be further broken down into the need to create an image that we think others might find attractive or the need to express our true selves.
Bear in mind that people who express their “true self” through social media might prefer different types of content than those who are projecting their “ideal self.”

Self-fulfillment

Many people share on social media because it feels good. Sharing and then seeing how people react to content brings a burst of positive emotions. In that regard, people have an agenda that goes beyond sharing: they’re trying to understand what content will resonate most with their audience and then share it. It’s the act of collecting likes that they’re after, not the act of sharing.


What makes content go viral?

Creating viral content isn’t just a matter of luck. Knowing audience preferences and their reasons for sharing helps, but it’s the message and the story that make content stand out and explode across the web. Your content needs to align with the key emotional drivers that influence people sharing habits.


Here are the emotional characteristics of viral content:


Emotionality

Content that inspires a broader range of emotions tends to be shared more. Moreover, content that spurs positive and negative emotions simultaneously has higher chances of going viral.


Focusing on one emotion rarely brings results, but if your content evokes a range of emotions and you can deepen the effect over time, social media success is guaranteed.


Be mindful of the different types of emotions. For example, while high arousal emotions such as being anxious or amused make people more inclined to share content, low arousal emotions such as sadness or content are less effective.

Positivity

The positive news is shared more often than negative news. This is because people are always looking for ways to escape their grim day-to-day existence, and positive content serves as a pathway to an illusion of exciting life.


On top of it, positivity has a contagious effect and prompts others to share positivity too; thus it creates a viral spiral.

The element of surprise

An unexpected twist in the story can throw the users off their guard, enabling the surprise effect. Surprises often take place when ordinary things are shown at a different angle. A surprise is an intense feeling that can have a negative effect- for example, cause shock, as well as a positive connotation – for example, instill a sense of awe.


Keep in mind that an element of surprise can not guarantee virality of content, but it can have a potent effect when coupled with other emotions.

Negative factors that affect virality:


You might think that focusing on creating emotional content will bring the desired results, but other factors come into play when it comes to great content. Here are some factors that can jeopardize your social media campaign:

Bad timing

Timing is crucial when it comes to distributing content. If your content gets published in unpopular times, all your efforts will go to waste. Make finding the right time to publish your content a priority and research your target audience’s social media habits.

Poor Design

No matter what awesome idea lies at the core of your content piece, bad execution can undermine all the creative efforts. Furthermore, bad design can destroy content’s virality potential.


It’s not only about beautiful visuals though. The design is used to drive users’ attention to the most critical elements of the piece. Design is also closely correlated with color theory, and specific colors are known to evoke positive emotions. You can use design to emphasize the emotions you’re trying to convey.

Poor Distribution

Poor distribution is the bane of content marketing. While most businesses spend an enormous amount of time on devising and creating content, only a few of them prioritize distribution. Without proper distribution, your content can not be seen, and therefore the chances of sharing are minuscule. Some effective content distribution strategies include SEO, Paid Ads, and Influencer Marketing.

Final Word

There is no single right recipe for creating viral content, but there are certain things you can do to inspire as many people as possible to share your work.
Understanding the motivations behind sharing will help you choose the type of content according to your audience’s needs. Making content emotional and positive will bring numerous shares. Choosing the right timing, enhancing visual presentation, and investing in a strategic distribution will take your content from popular to viral.


At the end of the day, creating viral content is much simpler than what you think. Emotions and value are the two driving forces behind sharing. No matter who your target audience is, everyone is triggered by these two vital factors. Think like a psychologist, not a businessperson.


When all else fails... Reach out to us! After all, we made a career out of viral content for brands just like yours!