Working Paper

Social Transmission, Emotion, and the Virality of Online Content

Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, 2010, 10-114

Why are certain pieces of online content more viral than others? Companies often create websites, online ad campaigns, or videos in the hopes that consumers will share them with others. Some of these attempts succeed while others fail. Is success just random, as some have argued, or might certain characteristics predict whether content will be viral?

In this report, Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman take a psychological approach to understanding diffusion. Using a unique dataset of all the New York Times articles published over a three-month period, they examine the link between integral affect (i.e., the emotion evoked) and whether content is highly shared. Specifically, they examine how content valence (i.e., whether an article is more positive or negative) as well as the specific emotions it evokes (anxiety, anger, awe, disgust, sadness) relate to whether content is highly shared. Their data include information about the content of each Times article published online over a three-month period, and whether it made the newspaper’s “most emailed” list.

Their results suggest a strong relationship between emotion and virality: affect-laden content—regardless of whether it is positive or negative—is more likely to make the most emailed list. Further, positive content is more viral than negative content; however, this link is complex. While more awe-inspiring and more surprising content are more likely to make the most emailed list, and sadness-inducing content is less viral, some negative emotions are positively associated with virality. More anxiety- and anger-inducing content are both more likely to make the most emailed list. In fact, the most powerful predictor of virality in their model is how much anger an article evokes. There was no significant relationship between disgust and virality.

These results hold controlling for how surprising, interesting, or practically useful content is (all of which are positively linked to virality), as well as external drivers of attention (e.g., how prominently articles were featured or the fame of the article’s author).

While common wisdom assumes that people tend to pass along negative news more than positive news, these results indicate that, in general, positive news is actually more viral. While being featured prominently or being written by a famous author increases the likelihood that articles are highly shared, these results suggest that content characteristics are of similar importance.

These findings shed light on how to design successful viral marketing campaigns and craft contagious content. Given that affect-laden and awe-inspiring content is more likely to be shared, for example, campaigns that strive to evoke these emotions may be more successful. Similar points apply to managing consumer sentiment online, particularly when it is negative. Not all negative emotions are the same when it comes to sharing and some may be more likely to incite transmission. Brand transgressions that evoke anxiety or anger, for example, may be more likely to be shared than those that evoke sadness; this suggests that companies may want to take a more active role in managing situations that evoke these emotions.

Jonah Berger is Assistant Professor of Marketing and Katherine L. Milkman is Assistant Professor of Operations and Information Management, both at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Listen to NPR “On the Media” interview with Katherine Milkman.

Related links

What Makes Online Content Viral? (2011) [Article]


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