Every brand is vying for more traffic, more followers, and more conversions from as many people as they can reach online – and one of the surest ways your marketing team can do this is through a viral hit. Unfortunately, most people would argue that virality is simply a matter of luck, but what if I told you they were wrong?

New research indicates that a viral spark is actually ignited in your content’s ability to strike the right emotional chords – particularly the ideal levels of arousal and dominance.

Researchers Jacopo Staiano of Sorbonne University and Marco Guerini of Trento Rise took a closer look at the roles that arousal and dominance play in virality. They discovered that content goes viral when it evokes an emotional response that falls within certain configurations of arousal and dominance – two dimensions used by psychologists to categorize emotions. More specifically, these dimensions describe the following:

  • Arousal ranges from excitement to relaxation. Anger is a high-arousal emotion; sadness is low-arousal.
  • Dominance ranges from submission to feeling in control. Fear is low-dominance; an emotion someone has more choice over, such as admiration, is high-dominance.

The team at Fractl wanted to attempt to unlock any patterns in what these ideal configurations look like in viral content. Using the Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance (PAD) model, we analyzed the emotional responses to some of the top images from Reddit’s r/pics community and discovered that there are three ideal emotional combinations for viral content as visualized below:

viral images

Here I’ll walk you through what these findings mean for your marketing efforts and provide examples of what successful campaigns look like for each combination.

Tap into Positive Feelings

We began our research by showing respondents the Reddit images and asking them one simple question: How does this picture make you feel? As you can see in the top 10 list below, the results indicate that the top viral emotions tend to be incredibly positive.

emotional responses to viral images

Admiration, happiness and love, for instance, were the most common positive emotions to appear when both arousal and dominance were high. These responses also occasionally included an element of surprise. Viral content tends to align with high arousal emotions like happiness and admiration.

Ellen DeGeneres’ now infamous Oscar selfie is a great example of the high-arousal, high-dominance configuration in action. Although it was supposedly “spontaneous,” Samsung’s Chief Marketing Officer told Adweek that it planned to have Ellen take a selfie with Meryl Streep using one of the brand’s smartphones. The photo – along with all of the star-studded faces in it – evokes a true sense of happiness, and tapping into one of the top viral emotions propelled the image to become the most retweeted selfie of all time.

ellen degeneres selfie

For Negative Emotions, Include an Element of Surprise.

When arousal was high and dominance was low, respondents always reported feelings of surprise. More specifically, these configurations were surprise mixed with positive emotions or surprise paired with a combination of both positive and negative emotions.

Fear and distress were the most common negative feelings in this configuration, and BlinkBox tapped into these emotions along with surprise by planting a 40-foot-long dragon skull on a British beach. The massive (and successful) stunt was used to plug Game of Thrones’ third season.

blinkbox dragon skull

Another negative viral configuration included low levels of both arousal and dominance. Our results revealed that although there was a greater variation in emotional responses for this combination, surprise was the primary or secondary response for nearly every image. And unlike the high arousal combinations where positive emotions were always present, the low-arousal, low-dominance configuration proved that as long as an image was surprising, resulting responses could be either purely positive or negative.

Consider Dove’s “Choose Beautiful” video. The clip features women in five cities being offered the option to enter a building through either of two doors: one labeled “beautiful,” the other “average.” The campaign received some mixed reviews when it was released, but whether or not you agree with the ad’s message doesn’t take away from its success: To date, the campaign has more than seven million views on YouTube.

The Big Takeaway: Virality Isn’t a Shot in the Dark.

The good news is that studies continue to prove that content’s viral potential isn’t a matter of luck, and our data presents a blueprint to consider when outlining your next campaign. Remember that if you hit the right emotional combinations, there’s a good chance your content will connect with more than your targeted audience – a key ingredient in stoking that viral spark.