What makes content go viral? Stoking the fire with high arousal emotions

Posted by Harry Mills on 12 October 2016 | Comments

Why do some messages get shared around? What makes online content go viral?

Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger has spent the last decade answering those questions.

In this ground breaking book Contagious: why things catch on, Berger provides new insights on the power of emotional messages – and how they spread.

Berger studied thousands of New York Times articles to understand why certain pieces of online content get shared.


When we care we share

The short answer is emotion. The reason people share articles is emotion. “When we care about the content, we share.”

Traditionally marketing researchers have classified emotional messages into positive and negative.

Newspapers have long believed negative messages are more viral. Consider the old new adage “if it bleeds, it leads.” Bad news is supposed to generate more attention than good news.

Berger’s research however found the key to whether a message was shared was not whether it was negative or positive.


Physiological arousal

The key to sharing was a factor which psychologists call physiological arousal.

What is physiological arousal? It is the feeling you experience when your team was on the verge of winning a grand final. You may have had a similar feeling when you heard a weird noise when you were walking home in the dark.

Your pulse races, your palms sweat, your heart pounds.

“Arousal is a state of activation and readiness for action. Evolutionary it comes from our ancestors reptilian brains,” Physiological arousal causes fight or flight. Arousal kindles our emotional fire.

Some emotions are high arousal, such as anger and anxiety. Other emotions like sadness and contentment stifle action. Think when people are content, they relax.

Here is a matrix from Berger’s book Contagious, which shows how to judge the impact of emotional messages.


The Impact of Physiological Arousal



Understanding physiological arousal is the key to understanding why people share emails, articles or messages.

If you want to understand what makes messages go viral read Berger’s book Contagious. It is full of brilliant, counterintuitive insights.