applying-neuroscience-research-og-image

How to Create Viral Content with Studies in Neuroscience and Past Data

According to virality expert Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at Stanford University, the key to viral content is emotional arousal, particularly that evokes high-arousal emotions, like joy or fear. However, a new research by Jacopo Staiano of Sorbonne University and Marco Guerini of Trento Rise find that valence and dominance also play important roles in viral content. Thus, instead of only “arousal,” the latest framework for virality is Valence-Arousal-Dominace (VAD) model.

Staiano and Guerini’s study finds that individual emotions are important to evoke feelings, but may not cause virality. Instead, these emotions must be a good combination of emotions that fall within the VAD model. The characteristics are:

  1. Valence: Positivity (like happiness) or negativity (like fear) of an emotion.
  2. Arousal: Excitement (like anger) to relaxation (like sadness).
  3. Dominance: Submission (like fear) to in control (like admiration).

pad-emotional-modelThe study further reveals that articles with a large number of comments are likely to evoke high-arousal emotions (anger or happiness) and paired with low-dominance emotions (fear) or high-dominance emotions (admiration). The pairing between two or more out of the three characteristics is the key element of virality that many content creators often overlooked. It’s not enough to make a piece of content evoke anger or happiness, it must also evoke the feeling of either less or more in control and whether it evokes fear or admiration.

This is the principle:

Valence (positivity to negativity) =

Arousal (excitement to relaxation) + Dominance (submission to feeling in control)

In this article, we’ll analyze ten of the most viral posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn using the VAD framework based on the psychology of viral content based on science and backed by data in more depth. Finally, we will provide how-to steps in applying these research findings to improve your new and reusable contents.

Therefore, the three sections of this article are: 1) the psychology and neuroscience behind viral content, 2) analysis using VAD model, and 3) applying findings to improve contents.

ONE: The Psychology and Neuroscience of Viral Content

psychology-and-neuroscience-of-viral-content

Human beings are emotional creatures. Despite how much you believe that you make decisions based on reason, your feelings will eventually direct you to act.

If you think “thinking with your heart” is a weakness, it isn’t. In fact, it actually makes us good decision makers.

Why? According to notable psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, we humans think with “cognitive biases,” means that we systematically make choices that defy clear logic. Being “irrational” isn’t a weakness. Instead, it’s a positive trait, as our brain isn’t limited to weighing up facts.

Our brain creates patterns based on our past experiences, which result in complex new patterns based on constructions, reconstructions, and deconstructions of old ones. These new patterns are unique and specific to each individual due to personal characteristics, past experiences, and temperament. When such information is retrieved for immediate use, it will be in the form of “gut feeling” or “instinct.” This explains why our “feeling” is oftentimes correct and makes us better decision makers.

This human trait, however, makes us prone to things that strike our fancy. Marketers are aware of this, which explains why they always attempt to catch our attention with various marketing strategies and make it their goal to “hit our weak points.” Once we’re interested in something, we’d pursue it, which means conversion for them.

In content marketing, understanding storytelling that converts to virality is the ultimate goal. The more people are exposed to a certain viral idea, the more traffic they’d receive, which would eventually result in conversion to increase their bottom line. Thus, this knowledge is invaluable for businesses.

The recent neuroscience research finds that the human brain is wired for stories seems to answer every marketer’s dream. Finally, we know exactly how to make a campaign clicks, which can be conveniently measured with real-time metrics, like shares, RTs, views, impressions, and others.

Human beings need stories primarily because we are social creatures and we depend on others for survival and happiness. Paul J. Zak, the founder of Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University in his book Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies wrote that “hacking” people to produce the “trust hormone” oxytocin is through the use of narratives that bring out kindness, compassion, and empathy in others.

It’s obvious that good storytelling is key to our survival and evolution. As cave people, we relied on campfire stories to learn about our ancestors, philosophy, spirituality, and life skills. With stories, we were motivated to act and behave in certain ways, including cooperating with others, which were crucial for survival. The same thing still occurs to this very day with the Internet as the “campfire.”

Stories change the brain, there is no doubt about it. The more stories we consume, the more changes we’d see in our brain.

When we’re changed by a story, we’d change our behaviors, which later change our habits. One case in point is how children who are raised dining at McDonald’s are likely to crave McD burgers throughout their lifetime. That’s how powerful telling the right stories are.

Stories allow us to build new neurons that eventually change the brain structure. There is a study on how fiction books or novels change the connectivity in the brain.

According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns at Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy, “Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person.”

Strategic marketers would ride the latest neuroscience findings on storytelling to create viral stories. It’s already noticeable with storytelling in content marketing already entering the mainstream. We often don’t realize that a piece of Youtube video is actually promoting a product, as we have been so consumed by the story.

Now, let’s discuss where content marketing and storytelling that evokes emotions and valence collide.

Marketing Professor at Stanford Jonah Berger posits the “6 STEPPS,” which is the key to marketing success with “words of mouth.” Virality is the new face of “words of mouth” that’s the natural consequence of the Internet.

STEPPS is an acronym for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotions, Public, Practical Value, and Stories. These six elements must be available in a piece of content for it to be “ready to get viral.” However, the best indication of virality isn’t these six elements, but the third element, which is “emotion.”

Social Currency: Make sure to make your content easily shareable on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, and other social media platforms. Including sharing buttons in strategic positions and sizes on every piece of content would greatly help.

Triggers: Every piece of content must have a signature of your brand to instantly trigger memory about your specifics. The Dodo has that dodo bird on the bottom of their Youtube video, Buzzfeed has that red lightning logo, Christian Louboutin shoes has their red soles, and Lacoste has that crocodile logo.

Emotion: Jonah Berger posited that high-arousal emotions, like joy or fear, would be key to making content viral, as most people would share anything that they think others must know about, either the things that are highly positive or highly negative. Nine emotions that work well are excitement, awe, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, contentment, happiness, and disgust. However, the recent research by Jacopo Staiano of Sorbonne University and Marco Guerini of Trento Rise find that valence and dominance also play important roles in creating viral content. Thus, the revised framework for virality would be Valence-Arousal-Dominace (VAD) model.

Public: Make your content public, share it to your connections as soon as it’s published. Make your brand everywhere, including on various social media and other online platforms. Strong personal brands like Gary Vaynerchuk, Guy Kawasaki, for instance, The Kardashians, and others can be piggybacked by business brands that would result handsomely.

Practical Value: To be successful, a brand or a piece of content must have practical values. For content marketing purposes, Aristotle’s philosophy wouldn’t work, unless you break it down into practical chunks, complete with real examples. For instance, a content on the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard might not go viral. However, if it’s titled like this “11 Life Lessons from Søren Kierkegaard that Would Make You Live a Happy and More Fulfilling Life” has a better chance to get viral.

Stories: At last, stories make a major role in delivering emotional content and making it worth viewing, reading, sharing, retweeting, and linking. Content marketers are aware of the power of storytelling, how our brain is wired for it, and the impact it would create to brands if it’s done properly.

Takeaways from this section:

  1. The human brain is wired for storytelling, which is a part of human evolution.
  2. Oxytocin seals trust in the brain. Thus any piece of content that triggers the flow of this hormone has a higher chance to be successful.
  3. High-arousal emotions must be mixed with dominance to create valence to result in virality.
  4. There are six elements for a piece of content to be “ready to get viral,” but those elements aren’t indicators of virality.

TWO: Analysis of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn Viral Contents with VAD model

analysis-of-fb-vad-model

We use the data collected by BuzzSumo in 2016 for the most shared posts on Facebook, Time’s 10 most popular tweets of all time for Twitter, and LinkedIn’s own data on ten of the most viewed Pulse articles in 2016 in this analysis. They are categorized by the types of story and the types of emotions they evoke.

Facebook

BuzzSumo identified 15 of the most shared posts in 2016.

  1. New Alzheimer’s Treatment Fully Restores Memory Function” (6 million shares)
  2. How Sensitive is Your OCD Radar?” (3.4m shares)
  3. Science Says the First Born Child is the Most Intelligent” (2.8m shares)
  4. An Open Letter to my Friends who Support Donald Trump” (2.2m shares)
  5. Bald Men are Sexier, More Masculine, Scientific Study Says” (2.1m shares)
  6. Biased Strangers Take DNA Test” (2.1m shares)
  7. Intelligent People Tend to be More Messy” (2m shares)
  8. Women Need More Sleep Because Their Brains Work Harder” (1.9m shares)
  9. Here is the Powerful Letter the Stanford Victim Read Aloud to Her Attacker” (1.8m shares)
  10. 4 Year-Old at Grocery Store Calls Lonely Widower Old” (1.5m shares)
  11. Scientists May Have Found a Root That Kills 98% of Cancer Cells” (1.4m shares)
  12. Old Music is Outselling New Music for the First Time in History” (1.3m shares)
  13. This Inflatable Irish Pub Turns Your Backyard into a Bar” (1.3m shares)
  14. This Butter Pecan Cheesecake Will Make Your Thanksgiving More Exciting” (1.3m shares)
  15. Penguin Swims 5,000 Miles Every Year for Reunion with Man Who Saved His Life” (889k shares)

The types of articles that went viral were mostly written as “science says” stories, data-driven content, strong opinion and political pieces, and heart warmers. They were delivered as “opinions” and “hope and inspiration” narratives backed with data. And also “giving what they want” aspirational stories.

sceince-says-viral-articles“Science says” stories: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11

Data driven content: 12

Strong opinion and political pieces: 4, 9

Heart warmers: 10, 13, 14, 15

Opinions backed with data:

“Science Says the First Born Child is the Most Intelligent” (2.8m shares)

“Bald Men are Sexier, More Masculine, Scientific Study Says” (2.1m shares)

“Intelligent People Tend to be More Messy” (2m shares)

“Women Need More Sleep Because Their Brains Work Harder” (1.9m shares)

“Old Music is Outselling New Music for the First Time in History” (1.3m shares)

Hope and inspiration backed with data:

“New Alzheimer’s Treatment Fully Restores Memory Function” (5 million shares)

“Here is the Powerful Letter the Stanford Victim Read Aloud to Her Attacker” (1.8m shares)

“4 Year-Old at Grocery Store Calls Lonely Widower Old” (1.5m shares)

“Scientists May Have Found a Root That Kills 98% of Cancer Cells” (1.4m shares)

“Penguin Swims 5,000 Miles Every Year for Reunion with Man Who Saved His Life” (889k shares)

Giving people what they expect:

“This Inflatable Irish Pub Turns Your Backyard into a Bar” (1.3m shares)

“This Butter Pecan Cheesecake Will Make Your Thanksgiving More Exciting” (1.3m shares)

Now, let’s analyze the most shared content titled “New Alzheimer’s Treatment Fully Restores Memory Function,” which was shared five million times. Using the same framework, you can analyze any piece of content to gauge its possible virality.

VAD analysis:

arousal (excitement to relaxation) x dominant (submission to feeling in control) = valence (positivity to negativity)

Does this article cause excitement? Yes.

Does it make you feel in control? Yes.

Does it make you feel positive? Yes.

The higher the degree of “yes,” the more likely it will go viral, which it did. A cure for Alzheimer’s disease gives a lot of hope for humankind. Thus, the level of excitement and feeling of control reach the highest level. It’s understandable why it went viral.

Twitter

Below are the top 10 tweets of all time according to Time.

  1. Ellen DeGeneres

  1. Carter Wilkerson

  1. Louis Tomlinson

  1. Denny JA

Combined, his tweets received 2.5 million RTs during presidential candidate Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

  1. Camila Cabello

  1. Barack Obama

  1. President Obama

  1. Adam Saleh

  1. Harry Styles

  1. Andrew Malcolm

Now let’s analyze the most-RTed Twitter tweet by Ellen DeGeneres.

Ellen DeGeneres

@TheEllenShow

If only Bradley’s arm was longer. Best photo ever. #oscars

Received 3,439,800 RTs

VAD analysis:

arousal (excitement to relaxation) x dominant (submission to feeling in control) = valence (positivity to negativity)

Does this article cause excitement? Yes.

Does it make you feel in control? Yes.

Does it make you feel positive? Yes.

The higher the degree of “yes,” the more likely it will go viral, and it did. Why? Apparently, this selfie gives a lot of joy looking at so many stars looking relaxed and happy. Regardless of having merely 140 characters in a tweet, the VAD framework also applies for Twitter.

LinkedIn

Based on data collected by LinkedIn, the Pulse articles are top ten of the most viewed in 2016. The articles are mostly opinion articles and written by high executives, founders, and professionals.

  1. An Open Letter to Customers: Our Weapons Policy by Chip Bergh, President and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co.
  1. When It Comes to Age Bias, Tech Companies Don’t Even Bother to Lie by Dan Lyons, tech journalist and fellow at Hubspot
  1. Bernie Sanders says we’re ‘destroying the moral fabric’ of America. He’s wrong. by Jeff Immelt, Chairman of GE
  1. My White Boss Talked About Race in America and This is What Happened by Mandela Schumacher-Hodge, Kapor Capital Founding Portfolio Services Director
  1. Why Goldman Sachs is encouraging employees to talk about race at work – and why as a black woman I think this is so important by Edith Cooper, Global Head of Human Capital Management at Goldman Sachs
  1. My response to Adam Grant’s New York Times Op/ED: Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice by Brene Brown, Research Professor at University of Houston
  1. I walked away from a career where people kissed my ass — and I couldn’t be happier about it by Gwyneth Paltrwo, actress and founder/COO of com
  1. I Know You Love Me — Now Let Me Die by Louis M. Profeta MD, Emergency Physician at St. Vincent EM Physicians Inc.
  1. Peter Thiel Violates Core Principles of Silicon Valley by Michael Lazerow, Entrepreneur and Investor
  1. A Letter to Young Women, in the Age of Trump by Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and Co-founder of Ellevest

Let’s analyze the most influential LinkedIn article that was viewed 650,000 times: An Open Letter to Customers: Our Weapons Policy by Chip Bergh, President and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co.

levisheader

VAD analysis:

arousal (excitement to relaxation) x dominant (submission to feeling in control) = valence (positivity to negativity)

Does this article cause excitement? To a certain degree.

Does it make you feel in control? To a certain degree and the message reinforces control over one’s space.

Does it make you feel positive? Yes, no, and anywhere in between.

This article was published in response to a gun inadvertently went off in a Levi’s store and injured a customer, who was the gun owner. The CEO assures customers that it’s safe to shop of a pair of jeans at his stores, thus no weapon should be brought. He respects the various local gun control laws, thus he merely “suggests” instead of “mandates.” Overall, it’s a controversial opinionated article, which sparks further discussions on gun control laws, gun safety laws, and corporate discretions regarding weapon policy. Gun ownership and control has been an on-going debate in the USA, so this article comes just in time to ride the wav

Takeaways from this section:

 

  1. Viral stories on Facebook were these types: “science says,” data driven, strong opinion and political, and heart warmers.
  2. Viral data-backed stories on Facebook could be categorized into opinions, “hope and inspiration,” and “giving people what they expect.”
  3. The most retweeted posts on Twitter were those that were relatable to most people, gave a lot of joy and hope to readers, strong opinions, and RTs for donation.
  4. The most viewed LinkedIn pulse articles were strong opinions on controversial issues, gender issues, race issues, and core principles.

THREE: Applying Neuroscience Research and Past Data to Improve New and Reusable Contents

applying-neuroscience-research

Creating viral content requires the elements of “getting the content ready for the chance of getting viral” and the intrinsic components of high-arousal emotions, dominance, and valence (VAD framework). The six “getting ready” elements include STEPPS (Social Currency, Triggers, Emotions, Public, Practical Value, and Stories). Storytelling itself has been embedded in the human brain as a tool for survival in the evolution.

The job of a content marketer is preparing the STEPPS framework in a piece of content containing high VAD (valence = arousal + dominance) level.

Below are seven steps that you can use to prepare a piece of fresh or reusable content with increased chance of virality.

  1. Most people prefer looking good (positive) rather than bad (negative), thus you’d need to prepare the content for positivity valence. The piece of content, thus, need to have this intrinsic value. This explains why Facebook quizzes usually make people “look good.” A positive piece of content that’s shared increases the sharer’s positive image, thus have this in mind when creating content.
  1. Whatever your product image is, relate it to point one above. In other words, the image and the valence must be positive and both must create a strong emotion. Nike, Coca-Cola, Disney and Apple, for instance, are emotional brands. They trigger the feelings of accomplishment, joy, happiness, and being awesome. One of Nike’s viral contents is about the 80-year old Sister Madonna Buder, who is a triathlon athlete. This Youtube video reminds people to try and “just do it,” as this senior nun does.
  1. Recognize the feelings evoked from the content. Ask several people about it and take note of what they feel. Does it really evoke happiness? Or, perhaps awe?
  1. Plan how you’d make your content public. The easiest way would be creating a blog section or a landing page on your company website. Next, how would you spread the blog post or landing page?
  1. Make sure the content has actual practical value. Theories and research findings in academic journals would mean a lot to professors and graduate students, for instance, but might not mean much to Jack or Jill on the streets. Your job is making sure important information can be immediately used to better someone’s life, career, or business better.
  1. Make sure the content pieces are presented as stories, which can be data-driven, opinionated, heart warming, giving hopes, or anything with high level of valence. To craft a good story, of course, it would require mastery in storytelling.
  1. Whenever possible, create stories that reflect personal experiences. For the lack of better words: Make it sounds personal. Remember that human beings are storytelling creatures whose brain work better when information is presented as stories. And the more personal the better.

In their journal article “Suppressing Secrecy Through

Metacognitive Ease Cognitive Fluency Encourages Self Disclosure,” two research psychologists Adam L. Alter (NYU) and Daniel M. Oppenheimer (Princeton) found that people tend to share a lot online as a way to heal themselves and those who read those confessions also feel helped as they might feel the cathartic qualities.

Takeaways from this section:

 

  1. Human beings are, first and foremost, humans, regardless of the advancement of technologies, including Internet.
  2. People relate with others through stories, which also serve as a catharsis.
  3. Use STEPPS and VAD frameworks for developing viral content.

humans-are-humans-1

In conclusion, anyone equipped with the right frameworks and storytelling skills can develop viral content. Combining virality elements with a strong emotional brand would result in an explosive viral content. With the right practice, the skills in creating viral contents is invaluable to content marketers and all writers.

CMO at Almighty.Press - Marketing and social media strategist for Almighty.Press, with over 15 years experience in online marketing and social media. I have been described as a "Swiss Army Knife" by those who work with me and "Addicted to Fishing" by those who know me best.

One thought on “How to Create Viral Content with Studies in Neuroscience and Past Data

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