Make messages positive, emotional
Nearly 6 out of 10 people frequently share online content (PDF). Every time someone shares a link on Facebook, an average of nine people click. Someone tweets a link to a New York Times story every four seconds.
How can you make your article travel the world, while others just languish at home on the couch?
Make your piece positive and emotional, suggest Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, two professors at the University of Pennsylvania.
Together, they reviewed some 7,000 articles that appeared in The New York Times in 2008 to determine what distinguished pieces that made the most-mailed list. After controlling for placement, timing, author popularity and gender, and story length and complexity, they found that two features determined an article’s success:
- How positive its message was. Positive messages are more viral than negative ones.
- How much emotion it incites. The more extreme the emotion, the more likely it is to move people to act. Messages that make people angry, for instance, are more likely to be shared than those that make people sad.
Articles that evoked emotion — “Baby Polar Bear’s Feeder Dies” — moved further and faster than those that did not, such as “Teams Prepare for the Courtship of LeBron James.” And happy emotions (“Wide-Eyed New Arrivals Falling in Love with the City”) outperformed sad ones (“Maimed on 9/11, Trying to Be Whole Again.”)
What makes messages move?
So what makes messages go viral?
Spread the word
What characteristics make online messages go viral?
Increase these characteristics by one standard deviation above the mean, and they’ll increase your chances of going viral by:
- Anger: 34%. Sample headlines: “What Red Ink? Wall Street Paid Hefty Bonuses” and “Loan Titans Paid McCain Adviser Nearly $2 Million”
- Awe: 30%. Sample headlines: “Rare Treatment Is Reported to Cure AIDS Patient” and “The Promise and Power of RNA”
- Practical value: 30%. Sample headlines: “Voter Resources” and “It Comes in Beige or Black, but You Make It Green” (a story about being environmentally friendly when disposing of old computers)
- Interest: 25%. Sample headlines: “Love, Sex and the Changing Landscape of Infidelity” and “Teams Prepare for the Courtship of LeBron James”
- Anxiety: 21%. Sample headlines: “For Stocks, Worst Single-Day Drop in Two Decades” and “Home Prices Seem Far from Bottom”
- Emotionality: 18%. Sample headlines: “Redefining Depression as Mere Sadness” and “When All Else Fails, Blaming the Patient Often Comes Next”
- Surprise: 14%. Sample headlines: “Passion for Food Adjusts to Fit Passion for Running” (a story about a restaurateur who runs marathons) and “Pecking, but No Order, on Streets of East Harlem” (a story about chickens in Harlem)
- Positivity: 13%. Sample high-scoring headlines: “Wide-Eyed New Arrivals Falling in Love with the City” and “Tony Award for Philanthropy.” Sample low-scoring headlines: “Web Rumors Tied to Korean Actress’s Suicide” and “Germany: Baby Polar Bear’s Feeder Dies”
- Sadness: -16%. Sample headlines: “Maimed on 9/11, Trying to Be Whole Again” and “Obama Pays Tribute to His Grandmother After She Dies”
How can you use anger, awe and other powerful emotions to move your readers to share?
Source: Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, “What Makes Online Content Viral?” (PDF) Journal of Marketing Research, April 2012, pp. 192-205