Strong Emotions, Dancing Babies, and the Science of Video Sharing

What makes a video go viral? Does our existing knowledge of advertising and buyer behaviour hold any relevance in the social web? Does it take kittens or babies on roller skates to get people’s attention these days?

Dr. Karen Nelson-Field’s new book, Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing, answers these questions and backs it all up with over 2 years of original research, 5 different data sets, and around 1,000 videos in her study.

The bottom line? Emotional responses in the audience drive the sharing of videos online. The stronger the emotional response, the more likely it is to get shared. 

According to Nelson-Field, a Senior Research Associate with the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at the University of South Australia, videos that draw a positive emotional response in the audience are 30% more likely to be shared than those which elicit strong negative emotions, such as shock or anger.

A strong emotional reaction not only gives a campaign additional reach, it also promotes retention. Audience are more likely to remember a video that elicits a positive emotional response.

So which positive emotions are the safest bets to aim for? While most of the advertising world seems to be focusing on humour (watch this year’s Super Bowl commercials for proof of that), Nelson-Field recommends exhilaration as the best emotional reaction to aim for within the video’s creative.

Exhilaration has a higher recall rate than hilarity (65% of all exhilarating videos tested were recalled, as opposed to 51% of humorous videos), and fewer marketers are using the exhilaration as a creative device. The energy drink Red Bull is a great example of the appeal of exhilarating videos, and they’ve built their brand around this powerful emotion.

One finding in the book that is particularly interesting is the lack of a connection between sharing and the level of branding being used within the video.

Nelson-Field explains that the average social video has less than 1/3 of the branding of an average TV commercial, and typically only reveals the brand after at least 30-seconds.

However, her studies suggest there is no relationship between how much sharing across the social web a video achieves and the level of branding used within. Also, the study suggests that overt branding has no impact on a video’s ability to illicit an emotional response. This is counter to the industry’s conventional wisdom, which suggests removing branding or keeping it to an absolute minimum will facilitate sharing.

If Nelson-Field’s findings are correct, there lies a great opportunity for marketers to leverage the social web for branding by increasing the brand’s presence within the video, rather than shy away from it. People share branded videos for the same reason they share non-commercial videos: it’s all about emotion.