Is Positivity What We Want to Share These Days?

viral contentFrom Edison’s early “viral” cat videos,  to Félix Fénéon’s analog prose on throw away news scraps, also known as the “Twitter” feed of early 20th-century, social media has been around, but as it turns out, it originated even earlier than this, in ancient Greece.

In 350 B.C., Aristotle was already wondering what made content spread—in his case, a speech. Like today, his messages were meant to be persuasive and memorable. His goal was to share ideas that would pass from person to person. His answer, which is applicable to today’s marketing efforts, he argued, was in three principles of the message: ethos, pathos, and logos. Content should have

  • an ethical appeal
  • an emotional appeal
  • or a logical appeal.

An orator strong on all three was likely to leave behind a persuaded audience.

Replace orator, with online content creator or inbound marketer, and Aristotle’s insights seem entirely modern. Ethics, emotion, logic—it’s credible and worthy, it appeals to me, it makes sense. If you look at the last few links your company shared on its Facebook page or Twitter stream, or the last article you e-mailed or recommended to a friend, chances are good that they’ll fit into these three categories.

The Science Behind Viral Content

To go beyond Aristotle, a pair of behavioral scientists reviewed over seven thousand articles that had appeared in the Times Magazine in 2008, between August 30th and November 30th, to try to determine what distinguished pieces that were shared most often. After controlling for online and print placement, timing, author popularity, author gender, length, and complexity, the scientists found that two features determined an article’s success: how positive its message was and how much it excited its reader. Articles that evoked some emotion did better than those that evoked none.

Positivity and arousal go a long way toward explaining the success of web sites and blog feeds. One example is Upworthy, which started in 2012 and is known for using headlines designed to make you laugh, cry, or feel righteous anger. Even the site’s tearjerker content has a positive message: “Watch a Teenager Bring His Class to Tears Just by Saying a Few Words,” reads one. Despite launching less than two years ago, the site has steadily climbed the ranks of Internet popularity, ranking third in a December rating of Facebook shares, right behind BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post. Its posts are like the infamous cat videos on YouTube—funny, positive, and arousing—but taken to a new level.

Other Factors that Matter

Even though emotion and arousal can get anyone ready to share a piece of online content, a few additional factors seem to make a big difference.

  • Social currency—something that makes people feel that they’re not only smart but in the know. A perfect example of social currency is insider culture or a handshake online. This could be special meme’s or hashtags.
  • Lists – Lists get shared because of the promise of practical value. Lists allow people to feel like there’s a nice packet of useful information that they can share with others.

“We want to feel smart and for others to perceive us as smart and helpful, so we craft our online image accordingly.”

  • Stories – The quality of the story itself is important because, people love stories. The more you see your story as part of a broader narrative, the better. The way you curate and find stories as important, compelling, and worth sharing determines an item of content’s success.

The irony, of course, is that the more data we mine, and the closer we come to determining a precise calculus of sharing, the less likely it will be for what we know to remain true.

(If you enjoyed this post, consider reading Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger – we’ll be doing a full review on our blog soon!)

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