One highly interesting finding in Facebook’s controversial Emotional Contagion study pertains to the degree to which exposure to emotional content influences engagement with the social network itself. “People who were exposed to fewer emotional posts (of either valence) in their News Feed were less expressive overall in the following days,” wrote researchers Adam D. I. Kramera, Jamie E. Guillory, and Jeffrey T. Hancock. Emotional content, in other words, drives social network engagement in a way that neutral emotional valence content does not. One could say that emotional content is built into the DNA of social media itself.
Why Emotion Drives Engagement
Facebook’s findings are consistent with other research. People are aroused to act when they get emotional, whether they’ve arrived in this state on their own or because they’ve been exposed to “computer-mediated emotional contagion.” And creating positive perceptions to motivate positive audience behavior has been a core task of advertising and PR for hundreds of years. At Cannes each spring, emotionally charged advertising wins the awards. Emotion works because it cuts through the clutter. People want to feel something – a tingle somewhere in their hearts – and places like Facebook are where they get this little thrill.
Of course, emotion – especially on the Internet – is widely abused (how many “you’ll cry tears of joy when you see this link” info-ads must one view in a single lifetime?). The more hyperbolic Internet content gets, the more it’s likely that people will tune out all of the thousands of emotional screams for attention. But emotional content can drive lead-form completion actions on Web pages, e-commerce shopping cart checkouts, and other positive behavior that can cause you to stand out from your competitors, whose content marketing mantra may be “dare to be boring.”
If you’re interested in upping the valence of your content, here are some recommendations. They’re based on research done in 2011 by two researchers at Wharton, Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, who studied exactly why certain content goes viral. For three months, they studied the most widely shared content on The New York Times site, analyzed and classified the content, and published their results. All of their findings appear to be consistent with the findings in Facebook’s report.
Like it or not, positivity rules in social media, and content that is designed to elicit a happy emotion in the content consumer is far more likely to get passed along. Facebook’s study suggests that social media networks may have an inbuilt incentive to encourage exactly this kind of behavior, because emotional affect is so closely tied to system usage. The old adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” applies very well here.
The Value of Awe and Surprise.
Content with unusual statistics (think Freakonomics) is more likely to go viral than content that simply summarizes. Critics of this trend might say that the Web has been reduced to a worldwide version of Ripley’s “Believe it or Not,” but there’s no question that people have endless capacity to be awed, and when they are in a state of awe they are more likely to click on the “forward/share” button. Furthermore, it’s clear that people share interesting links to demonstrate the fact that they’re interesting people. Sharing awesome, surprising content may support one’s “expert” status in any online community. The takeaway for content marketers is to consider better leveraging research you’re doing in your own field to generate content with the capability to generate surprise and awe.
Fear, Anger, and Anxiety.
While social media has a general bias toward positivity, content that causes the consumer to feel fear, anger, or anxiety is more likely to be passed along because of the high arousal state of the recipient. Anger wants to be shared and so does anxiety and fear. Whether marketers are well-advised to create anxiety-generating content is debatable (but the life insurance, legal, and financial industries have been doing this for years). As I’ve written before, marketers may consider the deliberate initiating of an online controversy to capitalize on this kind of emotional power.
The Power of Utilitarian Content.
Although it has little or no emotional valence, content with practical utility is inherently sharable. On YouTube, with 100 how-to websites, or via mass email share buttons, tutorial-oriented content has clear value. Marketers should take steps to maximally use all the long-form, how-to, Q&A content that they’ve assembled for marketing and research purposes as sources for this kind of content. Content forms especially good for the dissemination of this kind of content are sites such as Slideshare and media forms such as e-books. While such content is unlikely to become emotionally contagious, its own inherent value is likely to attract significant traffic and interest over time.
Good Old-Fashioned Link Bait.
Evergreen content that strikes an emotional trigger will not only be shared socially with greater frequency now, but even over time. That constant sharing will inevitably generate genuine links. Take for example some of the articles listed in high positions for the search query “dating mistakes.” I had my wife title her article “Top 10 Dating Mistakes” because there is a fascination with lists within social media and titles with lists are heavily shared. I’ve even titled ClickZ columns with that in mind.
So, what’s the bottom line? Emotion-driven marketing is something you should get excited about.
Image via Shutterstock.