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Going viral – why are we compelled to share some social media content?

A social media fix on the morning commute is now part of the daily routine. We swipe, click and scroll – filtering and weeding content. Then bam! Something catches the eye – an image or headline. We dive in. The content causes a reaction, a feeling. Then something happens – you have an urge to tell someone, but the strangers invading your personal space might not be thrilled if you interrupt them. So you hit the ‘share’ button and release it to your social network. 

For communications, marketing and engagement experts, creating that urge to share among consumers of content is the Holy Grail. They want their messages to reach every corner of the world within twenty-four hours. So why is it that some content compels people to share? What are the secrets to making sure content goes viral? 

A study this year explained that ‘going viral’ is not a matter of luck, but rather about creating a powerful emotional experience for the consumer of content. The key to this is the Valence-Arousal-Dominance (VAD) model. Valence is the emotional reaction people have – whether that is happiness (a positive valence) or fear (a negative valence). Arousal can range from sadness (low arousal) to excitement (high arousal). As for dominance, fear is low-dominance yet an emotion that someone can control such as admiration is high-dominance. 

Researchers looked at patterns among viral stories on social media and news channels. Content on news sites that generated a large number of comments were found to evoke high-arousal emotions such as happiness and anger, coupled with low-dominance emotions such as fear. You only have to look at the weeks following the recent US election and the Brexit referendum this summer to illustrate this insight. In certain circles, the combination of anger and fear compelled people with social media accounts to share news articles that reinforced their viewpoint and so heightened their emotions. Those who were normally too busy to share content were doing it at such frequency that their friends were begging for the links to political thought pieces to stop and were imploring their network for films of fluffy kittens on skateboards instead. It was an unprecedented political takeover of social media and it took weeks for feeds to stop shouting furiously and revert back to the usual irrelevant and inane posts.

The Harvard research also indicated that socially shared content tended to go viral if it gave people feelings of high dominance such as inspiration or admiration. It also indicated that the motivation to share could be linked to the desire for self-presentation – the content makes readers feel good or makes the sharer look good to their network. This could explain the success of the ‘ASL ice bucket challenge’ that went viral and swept the across the world on a social media wave in 2014. The Harvard article uses the example of the Always #LikeAGirl campaign that went viral in 2015. Incredibly, the film has been viewed more than 90 million times and shared by over one million viewers. The #LikeAGirl hashtag first took over social media and then started to emerge in the real world on chalkboards outside cafes and on bags and t-shirts. People took it and literally ran (#LikeAGirl) with it.

So, can communicators learn from the VAD theory and create content that is destined to go viral?  Yes - if they are prepared to create a powerful emotional experience for the consumer of a brand.  Bringing emotions to the surface might work for some brands, but it is not going to suit everyone. As the saying goes, fortune favours the brave.