What makes content go viral? What causes one video to soar while another sputters? These are questions that vex the best marketers—because virality is more black art than precise science.

In an attempt to codify the laws of virality, a professor at Harvard Business School is studying the characteristics of viral content by analyzing eye movement and facial expressions in reaction to branded content. His findings? Not surprisingly, audiences are repelled by overt brand images and transparent attempts to persuade.

Nobody likes to be on the receiving end of a sales pitch—that’s not a breakthrough insight. But it’s an important reminder for content marketers who must recognize—and honor—the paradox of brand engagement: That it occurs only when a brand has the humility to step aside. On the social web, engagement is earned, not by swinging a sledge hammer, but through the subtle influence of authentic connections that are made over time.

A less obvious finding relates to the structure of viral content. The research finds that, while traditional persuasive storylines place the surprise at the end of the narrative arc, viral content inverts the model. Here, owing to audiences’ gnat-like attention spans, the surprise is revealed within the first five seconds.

The research also finds that the most viral content induces joy, often through humor. As content consumers, we get this intuitively. What’s perhaps less obvious is that this joy is optimally dispensed in small doses over an alternating current; it turns out that an uninterrupted stream of laughs is perhaps more joy than we can handle. When you take it away, you remind audiences that they want more.

For me, the most revealing insight is the psychology behind social sharing. The research finds that, while viral content almost always offers a surprise, it ranks low on shock value. Why? Because, by and large, social sharing is driven by self-interest—personal brand building through the acquisition of social capital. What we share is an indication of who we are—or who we aspire to be. Sure, some of us aspire to be crass, which may bode well for beer ads, but I’d contend that the majority of audiences prefer to be clever.

In the end, understanding your audiences’ social aspirations may be the long-sought cipher for cracking the code on viral content.

1 Comment
  1. 25 February 2013 at 1:42 am
    Kiersten says:

    In eighth grade I was awarded Class Clown. At first mom was horrified then very proud. Thinking back about what I really wanted was to be influential to have power to be in control more than just be funny. Being subtle was something I hope as an adult to have achieved. The blending of the two is a weighty task & difficult for all of us to master much less when you’re a digital marketer Responsible for so many “first impressions”

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