The Science and Psychology of Content Creation

Peter Roesler, President - Web Marketing Pros

By Peter Roesler

President, Web Marketing Pros

content-choicesAccording to one study, about 57 percent of people say they share content online regularly. Despite this fact, it’s often difficult for marketers to have a hard time creating content that goes viral. For this reason, it’s not uncommon for people to think of content marketing as an art. It’s true that some people are naturally better at content creation than others, but there is also a lot of data and science that goes into creating content that readers will enjoy and share. Obviously, there is no formula for creating viral content, if there were, every large marketing firm would know it and use it. However, understanding the science of content creation and how it relates to basic human psychology can help marketers produce better content for their audiences.

Neetzan Zimmerman is an editor at Gawker who has a knack for picking high-quality content that often goes viral. Even among the heavy-hitters of the Gawker staff, Zimmerman gets six times the post views as the other leading staffers. In a recent profile with the Wall Street Journal, Zimmerman said that his success is based on knowing the psychological factors that get someone to click on something. Zimmerman’s anecdotal evidence coincides with what various scientific studies into internet behavior have shown; that emotion plays a big part in what people do online.

In a 2007 study, researchers picked out six primary emotions that marketers can use when creating content: surprise, joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. The researchers noted that all viral messages must contain an element of surprise, as no one wants to watch or read something boring. However, surprise alone is not enough. In order to create a message that spreads virally, the content must combine surprise with one of the other primary emotions. Joy, which encompasses things like happiness, humor and love, is the best primary emotion to have in a message; but it’s important that the primary emotion chosen for a campaign is appropriate for the subject matter. As many marketers have learned the hard way, trying to make light of a serious situation can quickly backfire.

A small study published by the National Science Foundation confirmed the role emotions played in spreading content online and examined the underlying motives that cause people to hit the share button. The study points out a correlation to the affective response to a video and the likeliness that it would be shared. Broadly speaking, the more emotional people felt about a video, the more likely they were to share it. So marketers can continue trying to be humorous, appeal to family, and feature other things that people feel strongly about positively.

More specifically, anger-producing videos in the study were only shared when the subject of the anger was something outside of the viewers group. In other words, even when people are angry at a video they see online, they are less likely to share it if they feel that they or someone in their group is connected to the source of the anger. This particular finding is of importance to non-profit organizations or social activist groups. People are less likely to share content that is damning to them or to people they know. This means that sometimes a softer tone can help make content that people are more comfortable with sharing. When it comes to content sharing, positive emotions are better than negative emotions, and negative emotions are better than no emotion at all.

The results of the study echo an examination of 800 commercial and non-commercial videos that was performed by Australian researchers. This was the largest study of its kind and it showed that while the imagery mattered somewhat, it was the videos that produced high-arousal emotional responses that people were most likely to share.

There is also research that shows emotional responses play a role in written material as well. An examination of 7,000 articles on the New York Times website showed that when the popularity of authors and page prominence were accounted for, emotional stories were emailed more often than non-emotional stories. A study for a recent book by one of the study’s authors reported that when given a neutral article to read, test subjects who had been jogging were 75 percent more likely to share the article than those who read the same material in a rested position. This indicates that arousal plays a role in the decision to share content. Marketer who have content they think can spread virally should be schedule it for a time when their audience is mentally aroused and more likely to spread content as a result.

“More arousing content should be more likely to spread quickly on the Internet and should be more likely to capture public attention,” Jonah Berger concluded in Psychological Science.

Even with this understanding of the science and the psychology of content creation and social sharing, there is much that marketers have to learn through trial and error. Emotions and mental stimulation play a big part of what people are willing to share, but determining what produces a response in a particular audience depends on the culture of the group. So it’s time for marketers to do a little science of their own. Experiment to find out what works best for a particular audience.

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