Emotional engagement is the key to content marketing success. People discover and share information, videos, pictures and other types of media constantly. Assuming that all content starts out equally however, viral content seems to take on a life of its own, rapidly spreading among the masses in much the same way as a real virus does among people.

With content marketing, the message is the virus, the carriers are your audience and a strong emotional connection to the message is the catalyst.

Eliciting an emotional response is an essential element of all successful viral content marketing campaigns. It’s human nature that people want to share the experiences that stir their emotions by communicating them to others. When people develop strong, deep feelings like surprise, anger, fear, disgust, sadness and joy around an experience or message, social sharing becomes impulsive.

According to research conducted by Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman of the Wharton Business School in 2010, in their report, “Social Transmission, Emotion, and the Virality of Online Content”, there is a strong relationship between emotion and virality regardless of whether it is positive or negative.

The study presented a number of key takeaways including the following:

  • Negative content tends to be less viral than positive content
  • Awe-inspiring content and content that surprises or is humorous is more likely to be shared
  • Content that causes sadness can become viral but is generally less likely to
  • Content that evokes anger is likely to be shared more. In fact, the study demonstrated that the strongest forecaster of virality is how much anger does the message evoke.

Interestingly, while conventional wisdom is that people will share negative news more than positive, the results of the study indicated that overall, positive news is actually more viral.

The question then becomes, how can content marketers put this information to use?

The short answer is to create content that surprises people and evokes a high emotional response. You must have a unique and powerful message that drives people to want to share, almost without thought. An emotional response to the message is what triggers the reaction to share.

The 6 Primary Emotions

According to research in a University of Indiana study, our six primary emotions are primarily what determines viral behavior and reactions. Here are a few recommendations for creating content taking the six (surprise, fear, sadness, joy, disgust and anger) primary emotions into consideration.

Surprise – Surprise is the single common element of viral content. However; because surprise alone cannot guaranteee success, it needs to be combined with other emotions.

What surprises people? Anything that is unexpected.

  • Challenge common assumptions and prove them wrong.
  • Share new ideas or ways of doing things.
  • State a startling fact
  • Ask a provocative question
  • Make a bold statement or assertion

Again, anything unexpected carries with it the element of surprise.

Fear – Fear is a great motivator and it causes people to take action. When using fear within your content, exercise caution, you’re likely to receive a mixed response. To increase your odds of creating a successful piece of content also include possible solutions that solve the fear-causing problem you’ve presented.

Joy – Positive, uplifting, inspirational content will almost always become more viral than negative. If your content can make people laugh, or smile back at the computer screen, chances are they will also share the content.

Sadness – Sadness is usually a response to unfortunate events and generally has a low chance of going viral. There are exception to this including high profile deaths, entertainment gossip, natural disasters and other news-type events.

Anger – Evoking anger is powerful in creating viral content, and by that I don’t mean “hostile” anger. I’m speaking of an emotional response that occurs when someone strongly disagrees with your position or message. Adept copywriters know this and often use it in their headlines to grab the readers attention.

Here are a couple examples of headlines that could elicit disagreement or anger:

  • Why Your Klout Score Is Critical To Your Success In Marketing
  • Irrelevance – Why Your Business Website Doesn’t Matter In The Age of Social Media
  • Content Worth Reading Is Worth Paying For

Each of these headlines act as statements that elicit an emotional response from those who disagree with them. When people become angry, they want their voice and opinion to be heard.

The result? Content is shared along with the readers comments and opinion.

How can you trigger anger in content? Challenge common beliefs, assumptions or opinions. Take the unpopular side of a debate. Don’t however frame too much of your content in anger or you’ll face diminishing returns and a reputation as ‘the angry blogger”. Always balance your approach.

Disgust – Content that evokes disgust may become viral among small groups, but generally does not appeal to the masses and is best to be avoided.

Content that elicits two or more types of emotional responses will greatly increases the odds of virality. For example, do you remember the story of Karen Klein? She was the bullied bus driver that appeared in a YouTube earlier this year. Her story and the YouTube video was able to evoke all six emotions in many who viewed it. Link

Viewers of the video experienced some, or all of the following:

  • Surprise that it happened, that it was caught on film and that no one did anything to stop it
  • Fear that it could have happened to anyone in a similar situation
  • Joy that the online community came together to support her raising over $700,000
  • Sadness that she experienced the ordeal
  • Anger and disgust over what took place

The bottom line is this, people are far more likely to share content with others when they are emotionally engaged. Identify the key issues that interest your audience and create content that will elicit a strong emotional response. Push the envelope – in doing so you’re probably on the right track. Viral content is not content that is just “okay”, its strong, unique and powerful and delivers a message worth sharing.