Viral Messages Connect Emotionally

by Aaron Rockett on December 13, 2013

In the online medium connecting with a viewer quickly and evoking an emotional response are shown to be indicators leading to the viral spread of video. Dobele et al. (2007) found in their research a distinct relationship between emotion and forwarding behavior for a viral message. Forwarding of a message on the Internet is a form of peer-to-peer recommendation, which increases the credibility of a message or video (Dobele et al., 2007). The more that a message is forwarded to another person increases the chance that it can be viewed by an exponential number of people, creating a “viral” scenario for the message. When a viral message connects emotionally enough with a person there is a higher likelihood they will pass it along to friends, family and colleagues (Dobele et al., 2007). According to Dobele et al. (2007), there must be something uniquely powerful about the message, “something that encourages would-be advocates to pass it on.” Understanding the reasons behind a recipient’s intention to forward informs creative choices to optimize a video for online viewing.

Surprise is the dominant emotion in successful viral campaigns; it “must be achieved” (Dobele et al., 2007). In nine viral campaigns studied by Dobele et al. (2007), the emotion of “surprise was always expressed” with the addition of at least one of the other five emotions (joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust).
Thales Teixeira (2012) also reported in the Harvard Business Journal: “After analyzing thousands of reactions to many ads, second by second, and tracking exactly when people stop watching, we found that keeping viewers involved depends in large part on two emotions: joy and surprise.” Teixeira (2012) found that to maximize viewership, it’s important to generate at least one of these responses early on. Advertisers and filmmakers in general have always constructed narratives that escalate toward a dramatic climax or a surprise ending (Teixeira, 2012). Though these commercials may have worked on TV decades ago, today’s online viewers need to be “hooked in the opening seconds” (Teixeira, 2012).

Munnich, Ranney, and Song (2007) found in their research that surprise helps make things more memorable. Surprise leads to a “reexamination of one’s assumptions, and could ultimately lead to a greater coherence across one’s network of beliefs” (Munnich et al., 2007). This becomes increasingly important when it comes to viral video and breaking through the noise and clutter of the Web. Piaget (1977) argued that highly surprising information leads to accommodative change, whereas “information that is minimally surprising leads to assimilation into extant schemas” (Munnich et al., 2007). Put simply, you remember and consider what surprises you. Munnich et al. (2007) found that surprising outcomes directed students’ attention to beliefs that needed revision, leading to deeper understandings.

Surprise provokes us to restructure our world-views so that we are not surprised again (Munnich et al., 2007). Surprise is not jarring enough that we avoid it, but it is just jarring enough for us to redirect our attention and reorganize our conceptual understandings (Munnich et al., 2007). If a viral video causes a person to re-evaluate their world-view, they are more likely to share the video with others.

However, Dobele et al. (2007) and Teixeira (2012) reiterated that the viral campaigns they studied were successful because surprise was accompanied with another emotion. Viral messages that are based around joy elicit happiness and delight; the emotion of sadness results in feelings of distress or being downhearted; anger was found to be good for social causes or to put pressure on social groups; fear is an emotion that can encourage action, especially when it results in outrage; and lastly disgust has a very low intensity and is felt by a person when they believe something is “harming their soul” (Dobele et al., 2007).

Teixeira (2012) writes that creating a video with an “emotional roller coaster” is critical to keeping viewers from clicking off the video:
Viewers are most likely to continue watching a video ad if they experience emotional ups and downs. This fits with psychological-research findings about human adaptability. When we come into a warm home on a cold winter day, or when we receive a pay raise, we experience pleasure, but the feeling is transitory; the novelty soon wears off. So advertisers need to briefly terminate viewers’ feelings of joy or surprise and then quickly restore them, creating an emotional roller coaster—much the way a movie generates suspense by alternating tension and relief.

Successful viral messages are dependent on capturing the imagination and emotions of the recipient, which surprise is an important factor, but emotion alone doesn’t guarantee viral success (Dobele et al., 2007). To better understand the constructs of emotion and how they affect a person’s actions, this research looks at Slovic’s (2007) discussion of experiential and analytic processing and the role of emotion on a person’s actions and judgment. Slovic’s (2007) One versus Many theoretical framework is instructive for creating video messages that connect with viewers leading them to forwarding behavior.

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