What 100 Images Can Teach You About The Emotional Drivers of Viral Content

What makes content go viral?

It’s a tough question to answer, particularly when you think about recent viral hits – who could’ve guessed that the internet would lose it over an enthusiastic Star Wars mom with a wookie mask?

One of the biggest challenges for marketing teams is to generate their own Chewbacca Mom, or something that will generate massive shares in a purely organic way. However, many people would argue that mimicking this level of virality simply isn’t possible, especially for brands.

The good news? More research continues to prove that brands don’t need to buy a winning lottery ticket. If you want to go viral, you simply need to create something that will trigger a highly emotional response.

To figure out what this looks like in action, let’s start by visiting Reddit – a great resource for viral content. My team at Fractl recently pulled the top 100 images from Reddit’s r/pics community and asked 400 people one question: How does this image make you feel?

The results of the top 10 emotional responses are shown below:

Top emotional responses for emotional drivers

The top viral emotions tended to be incredibly positive, which shouldn’t be too surprising (think about how giggly Chewbacca Mom was in her video). However, negative emotions like hate, anger, and annoyance shouldn’t be ruled out – they just have to strike the right combinations of arousal and dominance if you want to earn shares.

The roles of arousal and dominance in viral content

Viral content typically evokes high-arousal emotions, such as joy or anger. But a majority of psychologists also categorize emotions by the level of dominance, or whether or not a feeling provides a sense of control.

More specifically:

  • 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.

New research analyzed the roles arousal and dominance play in generating viral content and concluded that high levels of dominance – like feelings of inspiration and admiration – tended to encourage more social shares.

We returned to our 100 images to see if there were any patterns in the levels of both arousal and dominance that could help boost chances of a viral hit. Using the Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance (PAD) model, we discovered that there are three ideal combinations of arousal and dominance that accompany highly viral emotions, which are listed below:

Common emotional combinatio for emotional drivers

In other words, viral content tends to be surprising and emotionally complex. However, the levels of arousal and dominance required to elicit these responses are not the same across the board.

Positive content is primed for social sharing, especially when dominance is high

High arousal configurations were connected closely with positive emotions, and two out of three ideal configurations featured high levels of arousal. This means that successful content within these parameters typically delivers something that ignites high-arousal feelings like excitement and happiness within audiences.

A great example of the high-arousal, high-dominance combination is Evian’s “Live Young” campaign. All of its content reminds the audience to embrace their inner child, which is driven home particularly well with the help of CGI babies. In “Baby & Me,” a man is surprised to see his reflection is actually a baby. The baby begins to mimic his expressions, and the man suddenly begins to dance while the baby follows suit.

High-arousal emotions like joy are quite obvious, but as we discovered earlier, what really drives shares is the high level of dominance. There’s a certain feeling of admiration for those who are still in tune with their younger selves, which helps push the video past 128 million views on YouTube.

Keep in mind, though, that low levels of dominance can still trigger a positive emotional response when paired with high arousal content – it just needs to include an element of surprise.

Consider the high-arousal, low-dominance configuration used in HelloFlo’s “The Camp Gyno” video. The feminine hygiene market is tough, particularly because most brands seem to prefer a more conservative approach. However, monthly tampon subscription service HelloFlo did a 180 with this campaign and followed a preteen who suddenly becomes the camp’s pint-sized gyno after earning her “red badge of courage.” She is dethroned, though, with the arrival of brand’s feminine care packages.

The video works in two ways. On one hand, it triggers a positive emotional response by tackling typically conservative content through a light-hearted lens. On the other, it also includes that essential element of surprise when the young girl figures out how she’s been replaced. For HelloFlo, this fresh approach paid off: To date, the video has earned more than 11 million YouTube views.

Negative content can still earn shares, but it needs to shock

Our final configuration incorporated low levels of both arousal and dominance, and although there was greater variation in emotional responses to these images, surprise was a key element in a majority of the content. In terms of social shares, this means that negative content should have some sort of shock value if it wants to be successful.

For instance, in “Reflections From Inside,” nonprofit highway safety group We Save Lives surprises patrons through a mirror in the men’s bathroom of a bar in Los Angeles. Staring back at these patrons is Kris Caudilla, who is currently serving 15 years in prison for vehicular manslaughter after drinking and driving. Careful editing allows patrons to interact with Caudilla as he offers a sobering reminder about what his actions meant for a police officer and his family.

It’s a very emotionally-charged clip that tells a compelling story in part to a powerful combo of low-arousal and low-dominance emotions like fear and sadness. However, what helped this campaign earn more than 6 million views was the shock felt by both the unsuspecting patrons and any audiences listening to Caudilla’s story.

Another example is “Kids Read Mean Tweets.” As an anti-bullying campaign for The Canadian Safe School Network, the video uses a familiar format – the recurring “mean tweets” segment popularized by Jimmy Kimmel Live! – and replaces celebrities with kids who read hurtful tweets taken from the internet.

The tone is perfectly executed, moving audiences from a light-hearted opening to a more somber closing that emphasizes the pain caused by cyber bullying. And the twist on a familiar idea helped the campaign earn more than 5 million views on YouTube.

Remember that massive shares are the product of highly emotional experiences

No one can guarantee 10 million views, but the good news is that our research indicates that the content people choose to share isn’t random; it’s actually the result of a powerful emotional combination – with or without a wookie mask. By understanding what these ideal configurations are, you can increase the likelihood that your content will not just be read but shared.