Dissecting Viral Marketing and the 7 High-Stimulation Emotions

I did not devote a lot of my attention to the incredibly viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge craze. To make up for that, and to ensure my managers don’t actually kill me, I’m going to devote some of my time to dissecting exactly what characteristics make something viral.

This is no easy feat.

There are academics who have devoted their entire professional careers to understanding exactly what makes content go viral. Luckily, these men and women have also left a nice record of their findings.

But who are these academics and what did they learn?


Aristotle was one of the great minds of the Greek world. He studied under Plato in Athens and even tutored the young Alexander the Great in Macedon. He was a philosopher and a scientist. The Encyclopedia Britannica actually even names him “the first genuine scientist in history.”

Aristotle tried to understand what made oratory convincing and shareable. In this context, he conducted early studies into the “virality” of rhetoric and oratory through word-of-mouth and written content.

But his attempts to determining exactly how to spread ideas from person to person are still remarkably poignant.

He determined that three principles guided the virality of a speech: ethos, pathos, and logos. In English, he determined content should have an ethical appeal (i.e., authority or expertise on a subject), an emotional appeal, and/or a logical appeal. A rhetorician who developed an argument strong on all three was likely to leave behind a persuaded audience.

Replace rhetorician or orator with content marketer, and Aristotle’s insights seem straight out of modern times.

Berger and Milkman

Fast forward about 2,300 years, and you will find that this question is still pondered by many academics. Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Katherine Milkman, another University of Pennsylvania professor, are two academics who have recently studied the virality of content.

Together the pair analyzed just under seven thousand articles in the New York Times from between August 30th and November 30, 2008. After controlling for a number of variables, including online and print placement, timing, author popularity, length, and complexity, Berger and Milkman found that two features determine success:

  1. Leveraging emotion in the content you create.

  2. Your content’s ability to excite the audience.

Articles that evoked emotion did better than those that evoked none. For instance, an article with the headline “Baby Polar Bear’s Feeder Dies” performed better than “Teams Prepare for the Courtship of LeBron.”

Emotions that stimulated or excited an audience were also more likely to perform better and go viral. If an article made readers extremely angry or highly anxious the audience was just as likely to share it as they would a feel-good story.

But what does this mean for you?

Creating Viral Content


Create Useful Content

First of all, you need to create content that is useful to your audience. If they don’t find the information valuable, then they will never connect or engage with you.

At Randall-Reilly, our content is solely focused around providing real value to marketers and driver recruiters. We have decades of expertise in our industries, and are able to utilize this experience to create unique content our audiences can’t find anywhere else.

The content you create may not be the exact same as what we use. Actually, the content you use will probably different than what we develop. But the principle is still the same: valuable content is vital.

No matter what you do, always create content that is useful and valuable to your audience.

Activate High-Stimulation Emotions

To make your content more likely to go viral, you need activate high-stimulation emotions and sustain this activation. The likelihood of people sharing and talking about your content will drastically increase if you can activate certain basic psychological emotions which stimulate your audience.

But what is a high-stimulation emotion?

If you take a close look at your Facebook newsfeed, you will most likely notice the most shared content are ones that either make you smile, cry, laugh, or frown. But to clarify, here’s a list of the high-stimulation emotions:

  • Awe

  • Anger

  • Anxiety

  • Fear

  • Joy

  • Lust

  • Surprise

Here is where things get more complicated. It is simple to activate these emotions, and you probably do this in some of your content. However, just because it is simple doesn’t mean it is easy. You need to think about exactly which emotion you want to target and hit it perfectly.

Now let’s look deeper into these 7 emotions and what they are.

The 7 High-Stimulation Emotions

1. Awe

Awe is feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. Simply put, it’s something remarkable that audiences have a hard time believing. And if they have a hard time believing it, then they won’t be able to resist commenting on or sharing it.

2. Anger

Anger is one of the most obvious emotions, probably something we are all very well acquainted with. And yes, it does play a big role in making content viral. When you make people angry, they will work hard to vindicate their point of view and attain justice. They will spend time talking about it on social media, write blog posts, and many other actions that may happen either on or offline

3. Fear

Fear is an emotion produced by a threat perceived either in real time or in the future. Fear is one of the most primal emotions experienced by humanity, serving survival by generating appropriate behavioral responses and preserved throughout evolution. Hence why it is one of the biggest motivators in humans.

4. Anxiety

Anxiety is the emotion indicating a feeling of uneasiness, fear, or worry. However, there is a very basic difference between anxiety and fear. Though very similar, anxiety is the expectation of future threat, but is usually generalized and unfocused as an overreaction to a situation seen as menacing.

5. Joy

Joy is a feeling of great pleasure and happiness, an extreme form of happiness. For humanity, and the forefathers of the republic, happiness is of such fundamental importance that it is included as an unalienable right by the United States Declaration of Independence.

6. Lust

Lust doesn’t just imply an intense desire for sex. Actually, you have probably heard the phrase “lust for knowledge” or “lust for power” before. A better definition would be an emotion of intense desire. Ultimately, it is a powerful force producing intense wanting for an object, or circumstance fulfilling the emotion.

7. Surprise

Surprise is a brief startle response experienced by humanity as the result of an unexpected event. It can have any disposition, meaning that it can be positive (like being surprised by an old friend visiting) or negative (finding your dog has ripped apart your couch). In a deeper psychological study, it can even elicit other basic emotional responses such as joy, anger, anxiety, or fear.

The Bottom Line

So at this point, you’re probably wondering what the bottom line is and when I’m going to stop writing (soon, I promise).

Viral content doesn’t happen by accident. If you pay close enough attention, there is a pattern to the type of content that becomes viral. Let’s look at a few examples.

DiGiorno’s flubbed tweet surrounding the hashtag #WhyIStayed is the most recent.

The hashtag #WhyIStayed was associated with a national conversation about domestic violence and abuse in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal and video. DiGiorno tweeted “#WhyIStayed because you had pizza,” and Twitter exploded. The tweet solicited anger, which in turn increased social mentions, shares, and even intense media coverage.

Upworthy and Buzzfeed are two of the most well known sites for creating click-bait content. Their content is so “clickable” because they solicit specific emotions that encourage their audience to click on the link. If you need an example, here are a few of the titles for their articles:

Now, please don’t walk away from this article determined to create content like Buzzfeed or Upworthy. Clickbait can hurt your credibility in the eyes of your audience, and it can be quite annoying. Facebook even took steps to clean up newsfeeds by reducing clickbait headlines.

The bottom line is viral content isn’t created by accident, it’s created with a plan in mind to maximize its shareability.

For many marketers, creating content that goes viral lies somewhere between a less-than-achievable goal and their wildest dreams. However, by following a few simple rules, creating viral content can become an everyday reality.
Dissecting Viral Marketing and the 7 High-Stimulation Emotions

New Call-to-action