What Drives Sharing of Online Digital Content? The Case of YouTube Video Ads on Social Media

Gerard J. Tellis, Deborah J. MacInnis, Seshadri Tirunillai, and Yanwei Zhang, 2019, 19-110-02

What drives consumers to share online digital content? Marketers have a strong interest in consumers’ involvement with and sharing of their ads; however, prior studies have described the characteristics of ads that have achieved viral status in the marketplace, rather than drivers of ad sharing. 

To understand the drivers of ad sharing (measured continuously), Gerard Tellis, Deborah MacInnis, Seshadri Tirunillai, and Yanwei Zhang examine sharing behavior across the four major media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+). Their context is online video ads that advertisers have uploaded to YouTube.

The authors test six theoretically-derived hypotheses about how ad characteristics influence digital sharing. Two independent field studies test these hypotheses using over 11 measures of emotions and over 60 ad characteristics. Two studies using different ads, different time periods, and different raters find consistent support for the hypotheses. These effects are significant and robust.

  1. The use of information appeals generally has a significant negative effect on social sharing.
  2. Three variables moderate the extent to which information focused ads are shared. Specifically, information-focused ads positively affect sharing when the advertised item involves product, purchase or social risk, as is true when the product or service is new, when its price is high, and when content is shared on LinkedIn as opposed to Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
  3. Ads that evoke positive emotions of inspiration, warmth, amusement, and excitement stimulate significantly positive social sharing.
  4. Ads that use drama, surprise, celebrities, and babies/animals significantly affect positive uplifting emotions and induce sharing.
  5. Brand prominence impairs sharing. Early or intermittent display of the brand name drives significantly less sharing than late placement of the brand name.
  6. The relationship between social shares and ad length is characterized by an asymmetric inverted U curve, with ads between 1.2 to 1.7 minutes being most likely to be shared.

A third study shows that the drivers of viral videos predict sharing fairly well in an entirely independent sample. A fourth study shows the importance of viral videos by their abnormal returns on stock prices. In other words, shared video ads can drive up stock prices, perhaps because the buzz they generate makes people want to invest in the company. 

These findings have the potential to influence how marketers develop ads so that they have greater potential to become viral.

Gerard J. Tellis ( is Professor, Director of the Center for Global Innovation and Neely Chair of American Enterprise at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California. Deborah J. MacInnis ( is the Charles L. and Ramona I. Hilliard Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Marketing at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California. Seshadri Tirunillai is Assistant Professor at the Bauer College of Business, University of Houston. Yanwei (Wayne) Zhang ( is Data Scientist, Uber Technologies Inc.

This study benefited from a grant from the Marketing Science Institute and from a grant from Don Murray to the USC Marshall Center for Global Innovation.



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