Monday, January 6, 2014

Emotion is a Powerful Driver of Engagement...But can You Fake it?

Everyday as we surf the internet, check our social media profiles and watch TV,we're exposed to viral content. More often than not, this content is hilarious but in some cases it can be shocking or sad. It's really no surprise that emotion-rich content is the type that is the most likely to be shared and spread around from person to person.

A recent article in Fast Company features a research study that validated the importance of emotion in a person's likelihood to engage and share content. Their conclusion is that it's not really the content itself that is contagious but rather the emotion that it invokes. 

Their findings indicated that when you're trying to create viral content:

Positive Emotion > Negative Emotion > No Emotion

The hierarchy makes sense if you think about it. When you see a picture of a tiny cat, or a puppy with huge eyes, I'd have to question the existence of your soul if you didn't have a massive smile on your face. But according to this study, what's more important is the fact that when we see something like this, we tend to immediately think of two or three people that we know will enjoy this as much as we did. On the other hand, when we see a video or read an article about some wrong in the world, we often feel anger, and are empowered by a sense of advocacy to share that content with the world. 

There's a subtle nuance in that description that you may or may not have noticed but it's extremely important (assuming the assumptions about our behavior that I just made are correct). It seems to me that the reason positive emotions lead to the highest engagement is because of the fact that we have specific people we want to share with. Sure we may post that content on Facebook but at the same time, I know that I at least tend to IM or text a link to a few people as well. Just like the study inferred, when we know another person will get the same emotion from something that we did, we can expect them to react the same and spread it farther. On the other hand, when we share content with a large group, even though it may have a larger reach, you don't know who is going to look at it and feel the same way. In many cases, those rage-inducing articles are often very interesting and relevant; think about all the (semi-obnoxious) political debate that goes on over Facebook and Twitter, especially during election season; but you may not send things like, "Hey Dave, check out what [insert political figure here] just said on CNN".

Though I wholeheartedly agree with the findings from this study, there's a follow-up I'd like to see done. Typical viral content is organic, and thus the emotion is real (or it's a really awesome graphic). However, as marketers, I think we face a challenge in trying to recreate or honestly portray that sense of raw emotion. Social media certainly makes it easier, allowing brands to actually converse with their audience and utilize their financial power to create amazing content in real-time (that's a key right there). However not all brands can do that, and what about content that isn't on social media? Working in a heavily regulated industry, I know all to well what feigned emotion looks like. After a few rounds of being told that our writing is too strong or makes unjustifiable implications through tone alone, the copy falls a little flat. Additionally, I see brand sites throw sharing widgets in their utility navs and later wonder why people aren't using them. This new study seems to indicate why.

I don't think I need to say that it's important to know your audience and know the emotions accompany their interaction with your brand. But I think good copy comes from marketers who really feel what the audience feels. I'd wonder if people can tell the difference (or at least subconsciously through behavior) between organic and crafted emotion. Educational content on a website rarely carries the same feel as organic content (unless maybe you're Buzzfeed), but I feel like if a brand has a certain value, it should be able to speak, and speak well with the associated emotion. 

I think strategists need to work closely with creative to help them truly understand that emotion. Externally, we should be continually providing proof points and backing up our copywriters who are doing their best to empathize "organically", especially in regulated industries, where straying too far can get you a slap on the wrist. In pharma especially, this may be a value proposition for unbranded campaigns. Focused more on education and advocacy, there's a bit more leeway to write with feeling and, potentially, for more ad hoc type of communication. The trick is to develop your brand into one that is clearly a champion for that same cause, so that people who are looking to get involved or need support see the company as one who understands. Just don't connect the two campaigns. No pressure. 

How do you feel about how brands portray emotion? Are they doing it successfully? How would you change it? Let me know in the comments below!


  1. I think a bigger issue is time. Not every brand has that resource as a luxury to always craft the post at the instantaneous rate that social demands. I think this is something every company strives to achieve, but has difficulty executing. Someone who I think does a great job on Facebook is Dunkin Donuts!

  2. Thank you for your post, David. Along with my Digital Team, we are working on online funding in education. Upon the decision on positive emotion, as you alluded, it's very challenging to define our audience confidently.

  3. Particularly on the social media front, this is where having a community manager becomes incredibly crucial to this process. They are the ones on the front lines having conversations (albeit virtual) with the target every single day. They know what works, what doesn't, and what gets fans fired up. As strategists begin to think about content marketing in general, it's crucial that community managers are tapped and at the center of the conversation.