A growing body of research is supporting the need for content to strike an emotional chord if it’s to go viral. And from what some are calling content shock, we have more than enough examples to test this claim. In a nutshell, content that evokes “high-arousal emotions” is more likely to go viral than is educational content.
But is your head spinning from the myriad of expert tips on amplifying, electrifying or igniting your content? If so, the following includes an academic perspective of what really qualifies as emotional content.
Let’s first start by calling it what it is: we are shipping our content through online channels. The reason for emotionalizing this content on its way for delivery is to get it ready for a surprise discovery or something that moves us. Once opened, it needs to get your audience excited enough to digest it, share it, remember it, and most of all, create one more sentimental attachment to you or your brand.
Wheel of Emotional Content Attributes
Scores of blogs and articles have covered the subject of emotional content. And while some have justified a set of emotional stimuli from psychological studies, we seem to be left with a mixed bag of psychological stimuli, voice characteristics and media formats as a framework for studying viral content.
Add to that the myriad of expedited practitioner pieces on 6 ways to…, 7 emotions for…, etc., and you can see why content marketers lack a cohesive set of meaningful emotional drivers.
There is, however, a convergence developing between theories of emotional drivers and what is implied from viral video statistics. For example, content marketers and researchers seem to agree that emotions associated with viral content have the following attributes:
- They are either personal, visual or inspiring in nature
- They get our audiences to know, like and trust us
- They often entertain our audiences with humor, games or stories
- They can reflect positive or negative conditions (e.g., joy vs. fear )
Sorting out these characteristics for completeness and category distinction, an evaluation of viral content leads us to eight attributes of emotional content, the names of which are adjusted to spell S-H-I-P-P-I-N-G as a memorable acronym.
In almost all cases, content that goes viral has an element of surprise to trigger attention. By itself, however, surprise does not qualify as an emotion stimuli; but when combined with fear, sadness, anger, disgust or joy, it accounts for nearly every case of emotional content.
This “element of surprise” often happens as an unexpected twist revealed toward the end of a content piece. In perhaps its most effective setting, the element of surprise is cast in a monotonous public setting that challenges crowd routines with a “let loose” spontaneity.
Dozens of flash mob videos garnered millions of views when cast in unsuspected public settings including malls, train stations, airports, public squares and universities. Consider how effective T-Mobile’s was in stirring hundreds of folks at London’s Liverpool Street station. The flashmob-style advert presents a strong case for public spontaneity as an audience engager. And by adding an “element of surprise” to the dancing euphoria, the video garnered nearly 4 million views.
In similar fashion, Banco Sabadell surprised a huge outdoor audience with well orchestrated music. Beginning with a small number of professional musicians, the audience was overwhelmed by an eventual full orchestra accompanied by a music choir.
Besides flash mobs, others have capitalized on surprising crowds with augmented reality. Check out how British digital agency Appshaker stirred up a crowd at a UK mall for National Geographic Channel. The passerby’s were invited to interact with wild animals and other fictional characters on a big screen.
Pepsi Max took this one step further in a public prank also created by augmented reality. Crowds, in this case, were shown aliens and heart stopping scenes through cameras disguised in bus shelters. And much like other crowd disturbing entertainment, the video went viral.
And this growing trend towards rattling crowds doesn’t involve just brands. A coffee shop in New York startled the wits out of unsuspecting customers witnessing a telekinetic tantrum. The video amassed over 55 million views in less than 6 months. TNT released in Belgium their staging of a big red push button in a normally quiet Flemish town square. The audience was shocked at what happened next.
Much like the impact of a flash mob scene, the button pressing consequences led to over 50 million views. This combination of surprise and fear attests to the impact that negative emotions can also have on viral content.
Besides spontaneous public disruptions, another element of surprise involves an unexpected change of routine. In her most recent debut, Beyoncé rolled out her own album promotion. Much to the surprise of the press and her fans, she sidestepped traditional PR channels with her own Instagram album photos and music videos. It not only stirred emotions, it helped her create a more direct bond with her fans as well.
This technique bode well for the ever ebullient Richard Branson. In a daring move to challenge the mundane airline safety instructions we all dread, he surprised his patrons with an entertaining approach to the subject. Passengers were likely startled to see such an unorthodox approach to conveying serious safety issues.
Now imagine the surprise to the viewers of Metro Trains Melbourne. Like Virgin Atlantic, they took a chance with their lighted hearted approach to safety. Their “Dumb Ways to Die” video reached 76 million views and 73 thousand likes. Both Metro and Virgin clearly demonstrate that audiences need stimulation. And one way to accomplish this is through the element of surprise.
Humanizing Your Brand with Human Speak, Personality, Empathy and Togetherness
Humanizing brands is nothing new, but it wasn’t as important back when brands controlled their own perceptions. With social media transferring control to consumers, however, open and honest conversations have taken over market-speak. And content marketers are quickly grasping that, without personality, brands will die on the vine.
A look at Who’s Who in Facebook marketing validates the need for personality. With dozens of authors publishing in the field, three personalities always seem to stand-out (from left-to-right): the entertaining Grandma Mary alter ego of Andrea Vahl; the ever charismatic Mari Smith; and the enterprising, but humble Amy Porterfield. These ladies can really capture an audience. And they do it while still being themselves.
Undoubtedly, brand personality requires more than one person’s voice. First, the values represented by the brand have to resonate with the target audience across every piece of content. If done effectively, a brand’s personality often reaches a sweet spot usually in one of five dimensions: excitement (Disney’s It’s a Small World), sincerity (Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches), ruggedness (Red Bull’s Give You Wings), competence (Chipotle’s Food with Integrity) and sophistication (Grey Goose’s Fly Beyond).
GE shows its personality through its technology. They consistently show how their technology changes the lives of those that depend on it. From stories of a Japanese doctor jet skiing across islands with GE’s medical equipment to Scottish islanders that harness the power of their tide-driven undersea turbines, GE’s personality is cast as a caring and innovative provider of life altering technologies. Notice how this was done, for example, in a story of a first time flyer travelling to an elite soccer camp in a plane powered by GE’s engines.
Secondly, the voice has to be consistent across the enterprise. Here is where the rubber meets the road. Can a brand‘s personality be as consistently described and enforced enterprise-wide as Apple’s “making people’s lives easier” or Virgin Atlantic’s “vibrant, loose and fun image?” And is the voice a reflection of the founder’s personality and vision as in the case of Apple’s Steve Jobs and Virgin’s Richard Branson.
Besides personality, humanizing a brand also requires us to “speak human.” In his book, There Is No B2B Or B2C: It’s Human To Human #H2H, Bryan Kramer builds a compelling case that much of what we read is riddled with messaging that is too complicated and overly though out.
Instead, he argues in his “5 Basic Rules for Speaking Human” that content should “market to the heart, and sell to the head.” This means getting to the point in as few words as possible. It also means putting yourself in your customer’s shoes when crafting communications.
A great example of this empathy towards customers can be seen in TSB Bank’s story of the Reverend Henry Duncan, a man whose radical creation of a trustee savings bank resonated with ordinary hardworking folks. The stark contrast of Duncan and today’s global investment firm resembles that of George Bailey and Henry Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. In so doing TSB humanizes their brand
Another example of empathy is displayed by Ram Trucks. Their story of how God made a farmer on the eighth day is done as a tribute to the hard work ethic and unique attributes of a farmer. The video generated over 17M views and 55K likes.
Finally, emotional connections can be made through content when the audience is invited to play a role or belong to a community. Access to “behind-the-scenes” content, in particular, is a great way to build a sense of togetherness.
And by allowing users to help shape the brand through crowd-sourcing or their own content, audiences can earn bragging rights. Microsoft can attest to this audience role back when Windows 7 was introduced. Their infamous “I’m a PC and Windows 7 was my idea” campaign created an emotional attachment to a brand not well known for humanizing.
Inspiring Audiences to Overcome, Shoot High or Make a Difference
Much like entertaining content, inspirational messaging transcends the best of informative and instructional content. Did you ever notice how many tweets, posts, pins, videos or other news feed updates are intended to lift our spirits or encourage us to pursue a better self? In general, most content of this type relates to:
- Overcoming obstacles
- Feeling spiritually lifted and grateful
- Aspiring for better self endeavors
- Pursuing dreams
- Discovering talents and gifts
- Eureka moments
Among the ways that inspiring themes lead to viral content is through messages of hope and encouragement. This is often done by allowing us to live vicariously through the lives of those experiencing far greater misfortune.
In “My Last Days, Meet Zach Sobiech,” I asked my students why they felt inspired from a video leading to Zach’s final hours. Most claimed it gave them a sense of closure with their own issues. Others implied it made them feel grateful and more willing to take chances in life. This may explain why Pfizer’s “More than Medication” surpassed 4 million views.
Other forms of inspiration include the many “no pain, no gain” moments of truth used primarily in sports content. Brands often capitalize on this technique to tap into our resilience and resolve. Perhaps no one does this better than Richard Simmons, whose promotion of weight loss programs over the past 35 years claims to have helped humanity lose over 12 million pounds.
In Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” campaign, the centerpiece of content features an overweight 12 year old, Nathan, toughing out a grueling and lonely jog. The campaign is not only meant to inspire everyday athletes, it supports their motivational hub for athletes looking to “share their progress and success through social channels.”
Another way that inspiring content taps into our deepest emotions is through reassurance. Dove does this very effectively in their “Real Beauty Sketches.” The tear jerking video went viral (62 million views) as women realized they are their worst critics. Backed by a statistic that only 4% of women worldwide consider themselves beautiful, Dove creates an especially strong emotional bond in their commitment to “create a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.”
Finally, inspiration aimed at pushing our aspirations can work well in audience reach and engagement when backed by personalities we admire. From Eureka moments of newly recognized talents to first attempts at fighting depression, inspirational content can create perhaps the most lasting emotional connection with your audiences.
Entertaining Audiences with Humor, Games and Animated Stories
Another way to spark emotional connections from content is through playfulness. Humor, in particular, accounts for a vast majority of viral YouTube videos. Rooted in three theories, laughter is produced when we see something out of sorts, enjoy others’ misfortunes or release ourselves from inhibitions.
The incongruity theory of humor explains why we laugh at comic wit often expressed as irony or exaggeration. Volvo Trucks featured Claude Van Damme performing a leg a split that separated two parallel moving trucks. The video surpassed 79 million views as observers conducted a mental reality check. In a recent release, Southwest announced their $9,999 round trip to the planet Mars.
Another great example of exaggeration includes the infamous case of Blendtec, where its founder, Tom Dickson, produced a series of videos exaggerating his product’s performance. In total, the videos garnered nearly 200 million views.
The theory of superiority explains for the sudden glory we experience in witnessing others’ inferiority or misfortunes. In its most common form, it includes bungled behaviors, macho moments gone bad and society satires. T-Mobile capitalized on this form of humor in their royal wedding spoof. Using a host of royal look-alikes, they parted a shot at haughty royal etiquette with playful irreverence.
This style of humor is also supported by the relief theory of humor that explains why we laugh when letting loose of our inhibitions. Several videos exceeded 10 million views when accompanied by unruly behaviors or the violation of sacred taboos. IKEA is known for their edgy content that makes us laugh when parents act out.
Other have taken the route of explosive behavior from intimidating icons in their approach to this style of humor. Consider how Snicker’s Mr. T, Nike’s Clay Matthews, and Reebock’s “Terry Tate Office Linebacker” videos reached millions of views as these icons disrupt peaceful settings.
Playful content can also be created through gamification, or the use of game thinking in non-game contexts to solve problems and engage audiences. According to Gartner, more than 70% of the world’s top 2,000 companies are expected to deploy at least one gamified application by the end of this year.
Foursquare, in particular, brought attention to this concept with their rewarded badges. Since then, rewards have extended to everyday activities like ordering food or watching movies.
Much of the gamification is being used for motivation. In a recent blog post, Lee Odden points out that:
“…People are relying on this technology for feedback and motivation. Examples: Alarm clock app that donates money to charity every time you hit the snooze button. Nike Plus app notifies your social networks that you’re going for a run; and when anyone likes your update, the app plays applause. Or Gym shamer, which posts when you don’t go to the gym…”
- Lee Odden, TopRank
So far, the concept shows promise in stimulating audience engagement especially when applied to tasks we normally dread (e.g., managing email overload, fitness, diet and medical checking). A growing trend is to create fun out of safety issues. Besides the Virgin Atlantic and Metro Trains examples cited earlier, Volkswagon created this fun initiative that encourages folks not to speed.
Another growing trend in playfulness is the use of 3D animated stories. Especially when applied to holiday fun, this use of mini movies has worked well for LEGO® and Coca Cola. But John Lewis took it to a new level in their viral Christmas advert “The Bear & The Hare.” Reaching nearly 13 million views, the storied content extends to their website with behind the scenes content and other entertaining features.
And most recently, Caterpillar entered the foray of fun with their “Build For It” branding campaign. The viral video shows the lighter side of the heavy machinery company by using their equipment to play a game of Jenga with 600 lb. blocks.
Finally, brands are now sponsoring content that allows a more immersive experience. In Pepsi’s “Now is What You Make It” interactive film and TV commercial, they allow fans to create their own experience by selecting additional interactive content as the video progresses.
The recent $2B Facebook acquisition of Oculus Rift suggests that an even more immersive experience may be in the making. The 3D head-mounted display could potentially take virtual reality gaming experiences to a new level of content interaction.
Stir Passions with Solidarity, Puppy Love, Pleas & Awe
In 1975, an unknown actor and film producer shocked the world with a $225 million film that later produced five more successful sequels. In the film, a kind hearted debt collector named Rocky Balboa overcomes all odds as a prize fighter. To this date, the infamous “Gonna Fly Now” song is used by many to fuel their passions.
Emotions are often aroused when our favorite teams are competing or when we show allegiance to our country. This sense of pride and solidarity transcends beyond almost every other form of emotional connection when it is felt personally. Both Coca Cola’s “America is Beautiful” commercial and Budweiser’s 911 tribute are great examples of how content can go viral when it taps into sentiments of allegiance.
On a softer side, hearts are often moved from the display of puppy love or family connections. Hallmark has done this for years in their sentimental displays of family affection. Especially when reflecting on nostalgic moments or the impact made by those that passed, these emotional connections can significantly stir emotions.
And when adding a touch of humor to the sentiment, as in the witnessing of child innocence or puppy love, audiences get a dose of laughter and family joy. Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” commercial reached over 50 million views by featuring the strong bond between a dog and horse.
Others have taken the route of stirring emotions through compassionate pleas. Last year, Christina Aguilera made a plea for the hungry and homeless during her mission trip to Rwanda with the World Food Program. In a similar vein, Hope for Paws used their footage of a homeless dog living in the streets as a plea for animal rescue. Both went viral as dramatic displays touched the hearts of thousands.
But passionate feelings are not restricted to heartfelt moments. Content is often staged in performances that feature musicals, performing arts, drama or moments of awe. Our own study of viral videos showed how theater, choreographic beats, mini-drama and musical interludes impact audience engagement through emotional connections.
Similarly, passions could be stirred as we marvel over the spectacular. In our blog “Top 15 Top 15 Viral Video Engagers: #2 Astonishment,” exceptional reach and engagement was noted when audiences were spellbound. Like Apple’s “Think Different,” the marvel is often centered around those we admire.
Heighten Emotions with Imagery
Creating these moment of awe, however, normally requires superb photography and video performances that allow audiences to marvel over greatness, beautiful nature or masterful craftsmanship. Ideally, the imagery taps into a deeper sense of admiration we have for extraordinary talent or our Creator.
Few would debate that smart businesses are incorporating more visuals into their content plans. The rapid rise of visual social media through Pinterest, Facebook/Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat and Vine are testimony to the appeal that imagery has over textual content. An estimated 90% of information transmitted in the brain is visual; but, more importantly, visuals are processed 60,000 X faster in the brain than text. This gives our content far greater opportunities to stand out from content noise.
Imagery, in particular, is unique in its evoking feelings of serenity, provocation or deep sentiments. And when extended to videos, they take on multi-sensory aspects that often have a compounding effect on emotional arousal. Our earlier blog on “Top 15 to Create Engaging Content” demonstrates a number of ways that concept imagery, in particular, arouses these emotions.
Using Narratives to Shape Stories of Quest & Rebirth
Perhaps the greatest attention given to emotionalizing content by brands has been in the crafting of compelling brand stories. Our 3 part series on storytelling demonstrates how brands can create H-E-A-R-T-F-E-L-T elements, emotions and impacts especially when the narrative reflects both the values of the brand and the targeted audience.
The trend towards storytelling has especially been noticed among brands seeking to distinguish themselves in an overwhelming sea of content. Two areas in particular, visual storytelling and mobile storytelling, have been widely discussed as brands see promise in both apps and videos enabling them to portray their sense of purpose to targeted audiences.
Although 7 types of plots are mentioned among storytelling researchers and practitioners, most viral videos featured over the past year include stories on:
- Changing the World (e.g., Upside: Anything is Possible)
- Enterprising Quests (e.g., Johnnie Walker – The Man Who Walked Around the World)
- Heartbreak to Triumph Endeavors (e.g., Duracell: Trust Your Power)
In their heartfelt series of raising olympians, P&G’s “Thank You Mom – Pick Them Back Up”reached over 20 million views as it captured the gut-wrenching trials of young athletes determined to go all the way.
Displaying Generosity in Contributions, Kindness & Causes
One of the greatest methods agreed by most content marketers to stir emotions is through generosity. And this starts with generous contribution of content. Let’s face it. Audiences love to be rewarded. It’s a sign of our attention to them as well as their reward for spending time with our brands.
Consumers are quite accustomed to receiving free content. In a recent piece on FREEmiums, we point out how free content is key to advancing prospects through a social sales funnel. But more importantly, audiences delight in knowing they received a gift.
The same applies to thoughtful gestures as when WestJet surprised their arriving passengers with Christmas presents. The video reached over 35 million views in less than 3 months as the previous unknown airline expressed an extreme act of goodwill.
Most recently, TrueMove H Thailand released this amazing commercial centered around their theme ”Giving Is The Best Communication.” The video brings many tears to eyes as a benevolent citizen is paid back in his time of need.
TVC Thai Life Insurance shared a story of a generous citizen whose efforts to help others paid off with their emotional responses. The video surpassed 17 million views and earned over a 100,000 likes.
Finally, Duracell demonstrated their generosity through community kindness. In their “Moments of Warmth Powered by You,” they surprised patrons of a bus shelter with hand powered heating. The gesture not only resulted in Duracell’s video reaching 1 million views in only 2 weeks, their benevolence was especially appreciated by winter worn Canada residents. And it resonates well with the Duracell brand message of being powered by a human connection: “…In Canada, we have cold winters, but we also have each other…”
So with the alarming levels of content hitting the internet, it is clear that content marketers must find a way to distinguish themselves by emotionally amplifying their content. This will likely shift the bulk of content formats from one of instruction and information to one of entertainment and inspiration.
And to do this effectively, brands and small firms have to show their true colors while surprising us with playful content, awe inspiring imagery, sentimental pleas or passionate performances. Add stories of generosity or triumph; and you may find the key to establishing emotional connections that get your content to go viral.
So what other ways do you think content can strike an emotional chord with targeted audiences?