What makes a story go viral

What makes a story go viral

Remember the bus monitor who was bullied by middle schoolers? What about the campaign against LRA leader Joseph Kony? Or how about that video “Charlie bit my finger”? Chance are you do. Because even though these three stories touch upon completely different subject matter, they all share one important commonality. They went viral.

One of the most important changes the internet has brought to the world is the interconnectedness of users and the sense of community. Within seconds, a story, an image, or a video can be shared with millions. Whether or not you consider this to be a great thing (think grumpy cat) or a terrible thing (hello Anthony Weiner), one thing’s for certain, it’s a sure thing. And if you want to harness the power of the internet when it comes to your content, then you have to create something worth sharing. Something persuasive and memorable. Something emotionally stirring. Something that, according to some very savvy researchers, can be achieved by following a few simple rules.

A few years ago, Wharton behavioral scholars Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman analyzed nearly seven thousand articles that had been featured on the New York Times website to try to determine what differentiated the pieces that made the “most emailed” list. After controlling for factors like author popularity and print placement, Berger and Milkman found that two factors predictably determined an article’s success: how positive its message was and how much it excited its reader. They found that content evoking high-arousal emotions went viral more often than articles evoking low-arousal emotions. Yet articles that evoked some emotion still did better than those that evoked none.

A large reason emotional content is more apt to be shared is that emotions themselves are contagious. Research has shown that people can actually “catch” the emotions of someone around them, through direct exposure to that person’s expressions and tones or gestures. But now researchers believe that the process of emotional contagion can even occur indirectly, that is, by a piece of shared content.

Eager to take an even closer look at this behavior, Berger and Milkman went on to test their findings in a more controlled setting, presenting students with content and examining their desire (if any) to pass it along. They found the same patterns emerged. Stories that had been chosen specifically because they evoked positive feelings were shared more often than the less amusing ones. Anger-evoking stories were shared more than more neutral takes on the same events. And when Berger and Milkman manipulated the framing of a story to be either negative (a person is hurt) or positive (a hurt person is trying to survive), they found that the positive framing made the piece more popular.

Like they say, it’s all about perspective – something that has not been lost on websites like Upworthy or Buzzfeed. Known for using headlines designed to make you laugh out loud or burst into tears (like “If This Video Makes You Uncomfortable, Then You Make Me Uncomfortable” or “Mitt Romney Accidentally Confronts A Gay Veteran, Awesomeness Ensues”), Upworthy has climbed to the top of internet popularity in a matter of just two years. But a catchy title isn’t everything. You may be inclined to view the video or skim the article, but might not choose to click “share”.

Aside from emotion and arousal, there are a few other factors that help motivate an individual to share a piece of content. According to Berger, you need to create social currency, so people not only feel more intelligent, but also like they are part of an elite subculture of socially-relevant trend-setters. “Memes like LOLcats, I think, are a perfect example of social currency, an insider culture or handshake,” Berger told The New Yorker. “Your ability to pass it on and riff on it shows that you understand. It’s the ultimate, subtle insider signal: I know without yelling that I know. When your mom sees an LOLcat, she has no idea what it is.”

The dynamic of a memory-inducing trigger is also important. We share what we are thinking about, and we think about the things that have left an impression on us. This helps explain the appeal of list-type stories, as well as stories that you remember simply because they are so extreme.

The final factor of success is perhaps the most obvious – content quality. And no, I do not mean a piece that uses perfect grammar or impressive vocabulary words. I mean its pertinence to the audience. If your subject matter is niche, try to place your story within the context of something greater. Take a look at the overarching emotions and use that to relate the story to the general audience. This evokes compassion, and compassion engages the individual on an intimate level. It’s the reason why people love stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, or the underdog overcoming challenges to emerge victorious. “People love stories. The more you see your story as part of a broader narrative, the better,” Berger says.

If emotional arousal segues into digital contagion, we should all be aiming for catchier content. Seems straightforward enough, but like many things, it is easier said than done. Because as much as Berger and other researchers like him have done their best to break down creative content to a science, it is and will always be an art. After all, it’s one thing to understand the emotions that compel a person to share, but it’s quite another to evoke these emotions. So my advice? Baby steps. This is a process. It’s like Berger says: “No one is going to hit a home run every time, but if you understand the science of hitting your batting average goes up.”