Contagious Communications The role of emotion in viral marketing

University dissertation from Stockholm : KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Abstract: The “connection generation” craves interaction with and connection to vast social networks through the sharing of information, photos, opinions, entertainment and news. This sharing comes in the form of electronic word-of-mouth or eWOM, and provides marketing and communication managers with an unparalleled opportunity to reach a large number of consumers quickly. With the ever increasing growth of the internet and the rise of social media and social network sites, viral marketing has cemented itself in the marketing and corporate agenda. However, while there has been a shift in marketing budgets towards online and social media, little is known about how to successfully leverage viral marketing. Consequently, understanding why some videos go viral and others do not is becoming an increasingly popular focus of academic research. This study aimed to answer the following research question: What are the factors that drive the virality of online content?  In an attempt to answer this exploratory research question, four papers were used to look at its constituent parts. In the first paper, the role of emotion in the sharing of online content was investigated. Rime’s social sharing of emotion theory was used to explain why emotion could drive the spread of content online. We suggested that people’s propensity to share viral content was a function of the intensity, sociality and complexity of the emotion elicited by the viral content. The following two papers further investigated the role of emotion in viral marketing by looking at the relationship between content and emotion. Paper 2 used interviews in a qualitative research design to propose a decision-tree of the interplay between content and emotion in viral marketing. This paper showed that the relevance of the content has an influence on viewers’ emotional response. Paper 3 took a closer look at the relationship between content and emotion by using a two-stage design: First, content analysis was done on the comments of selected YouTube videos. Second, an experiment was used to test the emotions that these videos elicited in respondents, the valence of those emotions, the intensity with which they were felt, as well as various content-related factors (e.g. the creativity and humor used in the videos). This paper looked specifically at the use of political communication in viral marketing and showed that creativity, valence and the intensity of the emotions elicited by the content are key drivers of viral success. The final and fourth paper culminates in a model for the sharing of content online. This paper built on the findings from the previous papers, but also made use of interviews, and the analysis of a longitudinal dataset to propose a comprehensive model for the spread of content online. The longitudinal dataset was compiled using the top 10 posts from, a viral aggregator website, over the period of 25 days. The comprehensive model shows that there are external, intrapersonal and interpersonal drivers of viral content. The external drivers of viral content are the viral videos themselves (content) and its popularity. The content construct refers to various aspects related to the content itself, for example how informative, creative, humorous etc. the content is. Its popularity, on the other hand, was driven by both WOM and mainstream media reports. The intrapersonal drivers of viral content refer to the emotions that the content elicited in viewers. Viewers’ emotional response to the content was influenced by its relevance, but also by the valence and intensity of the emotion that they felt. Even though some content elicited intense emotions in viewers, some viewers did not share the content and interpersonal drivers of viral content was introduced to the model. These drivers recognise the social aspect of social media, and that content gets shared with large social networks. The model contends that people share viral content with their social networks as a form of online gift giving, out of altruism, or simply to build their own reputation. Finally, we contend that, in this content à emotion à social sharing chain, people share viral content both online and offline, as many respondents simply told their friends about the content (thus prompting them to go and watch the content themselves) or showed them the content themselves. This online and offline sharing of content increased the popularity of the content and a self-reinforcing chain was created, increasing the exponential growth typically associated with viral content. As consumers are exposed to an increasing amount of marketing messages, and marketing budgets shrink, marketing managers could greatly benefit from better understanding how to more effectively make social media part of their marketing strategy. Viral marketing allows for a low-cost way of communicating marketing messages with great potential for impacting the market. This study ultimately shows what marketing managers can do to increase their chances of viral success, and ends off with a list of managerial recommendations to leverage the external, intrapersonal and interpersonal factors present in viral campaigns.