What makes images and videos go viral?

June 2, 2014

What causes certain images and videos to go viral while the majority wallow in cyberspace never to be discovered by more than a handful of viewers? You may remember how Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches campaign received over 30 million view in a mere 10 days, or how Kony 2012 received close to 100 million views. What IS the secret to such viral success?

For an image or video to go viral, it must have some element that motivates people to share the content with others. People are motivated when they have an emotional investment, so the best way to get them to share content or care about an issue is by pulling the right emotional cord. Not all emotions are equal however. The Harvard Business Review recently published new research into which kind of emotions specifically are triggered by images that have gone viral.

The researchers used Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion to categorize the emotional responses of the participants to 30 of the top 100 images of the year from imgur.com, an image-sharing site. They found that emotions that fit into the categories of surprise and anticipation were the most common reaction of the participants to the given images. They also found that such images more often evoked positive emotions than negative ones.

Such findings are important to keep in mind when selecting images for a blog, advertisement or campaign, where your goal is to call people to action and to share your message with other people. Shoot for images that evoke the following active emotions:

  • Curiosity
  • Amazement
  • Interest
  • Astonishment
  • Uncertainty

Other factors that play into what makes content go viral were having a compelling title, keeping branding to a minimum, and putting the audience on an “emotional rollercoaster.” A combination of all these elements will make for a powerful piece of material that viewers will be compelled to share.

–Serena Bernthal-Jones, 2013 Winter Intern

Read more about viral content
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Upworthy: What it takes to make good content go viral
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