How do you make content go viral? Play on emotions

As a blogger, marketer or content creator, it is of course fantastic when your content goes viral. But why do things go viral? Is that due to the information, the value, the type of content? The answer to that is: no, it’s none of those things. Ryan Holiday describes in his book Growth Hacker Marketing why content is going viral. In this blog I explain the results of his research and how you can apply this within your organization.

The importance of sharing

We humans love to share information and opinions with others. This is how we form relationships with the people around us. The internet is continuously responding to this by, for example, adding a share button to everything we read. But what makes us sometimes press that button and sometimes not? And what makes so many people press that button at the same time, with the result that the content goes viral?

Why are articles shared?

Ryan Holiday answers the above questions on the basis of his research results. He analyzed hundreds of articles that have recently gone viral to find a connection.

The book Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Holiday (2014) is a popular book in the world of growth hacking. The reason I chose his results is because his research into viral content is the precursor to further research. There are new insights about viral content, but often in the form of opinion pieces and not studies. That is why I like to take this somewhat older book as a starting point.

First, Holiday looked at the topics of the articles. It turned out that articles about education, health and science were shared more often than articles about sports and politics. But why? Is that really the subject? One thing we know for sure: people share things because they are interesting or useful. The research showed that more interesting articles 25%, and useful articles 30% (such as education, health and science), are more likely to be shared.

Why is that so? It turns out that these kinds of articles often describe innovations and discoveries that evoke a specific emotion in readers. That emotion becomesawe‘, the Dutch translation is ‘awe’.

The role of emotions

Could it be that other emotions have the same effect? There are reasons to believe that experiencing an emotion, any emotion, might encourage people to share certain content. This also happens in everyday life. When you have received good or bad news, you often want to share it with someone. This helps us to strengthen our social bond, because we experience the same feeling at that moment.

The emotion awe (awe)

Awe (awe) is the feeling of admiration and amazement that occurs when one is inspired by knowledge, beauty, respect, or power. This expands one’s frame of reference and encourages self-transcendence (transcending one’s individual self). This feeling can be evoked by everything around us, for example through art, landscapes, music, knowledge, and so on. This feeling encourages article sharing and plays a big role in why certain content goes viral.

The emotion of sadness

To find out whether sharing content also applies to other emotions, Holiday’s study looked at the emotion of sadness. A score was assigned to each article based on how much distress it evoked. If an emotion strengthened sharing, then sadness (like awe) should also increase sharing. But it didn’t. In fact, sadness has the opposite effect; sad articles were 16% less likely to be shared. The emotion of sadness therefore made people less inclined to share.

Then you may wonder: what’s the difference? Why do some emotions encourage sharing and others don’t? The most obvious difference is positivity. One emotion is positive and the other negative. Can positive emotions increase sharing, but decrease negative emotions?

The emotions of anger and fear

To make sure that negative emotions reduce sharing, the emotions of anger and fear were also examined. It found that articles that evoked anger and fear were more likely to be shared. So the opposite was true. That discovery shows that predicting whether something will go viral is a little more complicated than the positive or negative factor. But what?


Okay, so emotions can be labeled as positive or negative, but there is a second dimension. Namely: activation and arousal. Arousal is a state of activation and readiness for action. The heart beats faster and blood pressure rises.

Some emotions, such as anger and fear, generate a lot of excitement. When we’re angry, we scream. If we are afraid, for example that there will be a break-in, we keep checking the locks.

Positive emotions can also cause excitement. The same goes for awe. This emotion drives us into action that makes us eager to tell others what we have seen. And that’s why we hit that share button.

Other emotions, however, have the opposite effect: they prevent us from taking any action. That is exactly what happens with the emotion of sadness. When satisfied, the exact same thing happens. When people are satisfied, they relax. They are happy, but don’t really feel the need to take action.

The results

So, to recap the results, the emotions of anger and fear lead people to share because, like awe, they are emotions that create a lot of excitement. They activate people and incite them to action. Excitement is also a reason funny things are shared.

In contrast, people are less likely to share things that make them happy or sad because these emotions reduce arousal.

How can you apply this to your marketing activities yourself?

Marketing activities are often aimed at disseminating information (especially in the B2B world). But often information alone is not enough, it can even be a bit boring. That’s where emotion comes in. Instead of hammering away at features or facts, we should focus on emotions. You must be thinking: but not all products or services can respond to emotions, right? In principle, any product or service can focus on emotions, even those without an obvious emotional hook.

Want to make content go viral? Use the right positive or negative emotions

Select emotions that cause a lot of excitement and prompt people to take action (in this case: sharing your content). Adding more excitement to an article, ad or other type of content can have a big impact on people’s willingness to share it.

You can go two ways: the negative side or the positive side. On the positive side, you excite people, make them laugh or inspire them. On the negative side, you make people angry, not sad. Marketers often tend to avoid negative emotions for fear that they could damage the brand. Obviously, you’re not supposed to make your own organization negative – but when used correctly, negative emotions can actually boost word of mouth. Designing messages that make people anxious or angry (high arousal) rather than sad (low arousal) will encourage transmission. Negative emotions, when used correctly, can be a powerful driver of discussion.

Emotions drive people to action. They make us laugh, scream and cry, and they make us talk, share and buy. So instead of quoting statistics or providing information, we should focus on emotions.

Source: Frankwatching by

*The article has been translated based on the content of Frankwatching by If there is any problem regarding the content, copyright, please leave a report below the article. We will try to process as quickly as possible to protect the rights of the author. Thank you very much!

*We just want readers to access information more quickly and easily with other multilingual content, instead of information only available in a certain language.

*We always respect the copyright of the content of the author and always include the original link of the source article.If the author disagrees, just leave the report below the article, the article will be edited or deleted at the request of the author. Thanks very much! Best regards!