In order for Web content to go viral, it has to make people feel something. Positive emotions – joy, inspiration, amusement, hope – are the most powerful drivers of clicks and shares, but content that spurs anger, disgust, sadness and frustration can also become viral.
Professors Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, behavioral scholars at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school, studied 7,000 New York Times articles in an extensive effort to understand why some of them made the paper's "most emailed" list and others did not. They found that stories including emotional content were more likely to be shared among readers than those on nonemotional topics [sources: Konnikova, Jaffe].
Berger and Milkman also determined that those articles that evoked positive emotions were more likely to be shared than those evoking negative feelings. Perhaps more importantly, the pair concluded that the level of arousal of the emotions involved also played a role in something going viral. Content that drew on high-arousal feelings like anger, anxiety and awe became viral more often than those that evoked lower-arousal emotions, such as sadness. One explanation for this is that high-arousal emotions get people worked up and more likely to take some sort of action, like sharing a story, video or photo through social media, while low-arousal emotions often have a subduing result [sources: Konnikova, Jaffe].
The easiest and most effective way to convey emotions is through headlines. Former Gawker Web virality guru Neetzan Zimmerman had a knack for drawing tens of thousands of views to simple blog posts that averaged no more than 200 words a pop. How'd he do it? By piquing Web viewers interests with snappy headlines -- Crappy Teacher Tells Kindergartner Who Pooped Her Pants To Sit On It, for instance – that grab people's attention and make them want to know more [source: Phelps].
Emotions may be key to going viral, but they're not the only thing that drives clicks and views. Never underestimate the power of human vanity.