The study of content popularity dates back to Aristotle in 350 B.C. who was curious about what makes for a persuasive, memorable speech that would ensure his message was passed from person to person. His conclusion was ethos, pathos and logos -- meaning content should have an ethical, emotional and logical appeal. Modern studies indicate this initial thinking is still relevant today.
As reported in the Harvard Business Review, a recent study from Staiano of Paris-Sorbonne University and Guerini of Trento Rise -- an Italian innovation hub -- indicates the role valence, arousal and dominance play in the propensity of content to go viral.
Valence is how positive or negative an emotion is. Happiness garners a positive valence, while fear elicits a negative valence. Arousal can run the gamut from excitement to relaxation. Anger produces high levels of the arousal emotion, while sadness is on the low end. Dominance has to do with how in control the reader feels. Fear can produce low feelings of dominance due to the lack of control one feels when afraid. Feelings of joy or admiration tend to cause readers to feel more in control.
The bottom-line finding from this study is that content which causes feelings of high dominance or control is far more likely to be shared with others. Think of feel-good stories of inspiration. In contrast, stories which evoke strong arousal emotions -- such as anger and happiness -- when paired with a low-dominance emotion -- such as fear -- are most likely to generate the largest number of comments on your story.
Another similar study -- conducted by Berger and Milkman, professors at the Wharton School -- provides an additional twist on this premise, as reported in The New Yorker. This study of over 7000 New York Times articles uncovered two factors which predictably determined whether a story would go viral -- how much the content excited the reader and how positive it was. These factors are similar to the arousal and valence emotions from the previously cited study. It's interesting that negative stories that evoked emotion faired better than positive stories with no emotion, demonstrating how critical it is to emotionally connect with readers.
Berger outlines additional factors impacting the viral nature of content -- beyond excitement and positivity. The degree of social currency felt by readers can also influence their reaction, as they desire to feel smart and "in the know" for having read and shared your content. Additionally, the practical value content offers to readers -- such as top-10 lists or how-to guides -- and the storytelling quality of your content also influence engagement. We love a good story, especially when we can easily see ourselves as part of the larger narrative.
While we can't predict whether our content will become the next viral sensation, we can certainly build it with high engagement in mind.
Lori Turner-Wilson can be reached at www.redrovercompany.com.