This Study On The New York Times Could Change Your Marketing


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This Study On The New York Times Could Change Your Marketing

I picked a random day this week and examined the list of the most emailed articles of the past month on The New York Times website. There were stories about cell phones altering your brain chemistry; lawyers being replaced by software, Google trying to make a better boss, a series of soup recipes, concerns about “sexting”, and an explanation of how General Electric avoid billions in taxes.

Sounds like a fairly random list, right? But according to a recent study out of the Wharton School, there’s science behind the spread of these articles…the science of emotion.

Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing, and Katherine L. Milkman, a professor of operations and information management, both of the Wharton School at the University Pennsylvania, studied the most emailed articles from the Times over a three-month period. Their purpose was to grasp what kind of content is more likely to be shared; the “virality” of content, as Berger and Milkman call it.

What they discovered was a tad obvious – with an unexpected twist. While many people assume that people share content that is helpful or practical, the degree of emotion the content evokes plays a significant role in its virality. For instance, more positive articles were more likely to land on the most emailed list than their negative counterparts. No big surprise there. But the study also found that the intensity of emotion evoked by an article played an equal, if not more important, role in causing someone to send an article.

They sum up this relationship in the following elegant equation:

Put more simply, the research “suggests that transmission is about more than simply sharing positive things and avoiding sharing negative ones. Content that evokes emotions characterized by high arousal (i.e., awe, anger, and anxiety), regardless of their valence, is more viral,” the study states.

That has real implications, not only for publishers, but for marketers as well. Paying attention to the specific emotions content illicit could drive decisions on what how articles are written, where advertisements are placed, how lead nurturing campaigns are crafted, even the design of marketing collateral.

Berger and Milkman used a mix of human and computer-based coding of nearly 3,000 articles. They established controls for a variety of other motivational factors such as practicality, an author’s fame, prominence of placement, etc. To back up their results, they also ran an internal experiment, showing people a film clip that inspired amusement (a high arousal emotion) and another that evoked contentment (low arousal) and examining how likely they were to share a coupon after each clip.

“Our goal is not to understand why people share newspaper articles, but to understand human behavior,” Berger told me in a phone call recently.

Both experiments found a strong correlation between high arousal emotions and the drive to share. Just as an anxiety-provoking Times story was more likely than sad story to land in inboxes, watching a funny clip from When Harry Met Sally made you more motivated to pass on a coupon than a scene from a nature movie.

When you think about it, this explains a lot. Amusement is what catapulted Rebecca Black’s ode the fifth day of week to stardom. And outrage is what made Alexandra Wallace’s racist rant so viral.

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Positive content tends to have a higher virality, Berger said. But you can’t plot the likelihood of content being shared on a straight line extending from positive to negative. Rather, publishers and marketers need to pay attention to the level of intensity of the specific emotion evoked, and whether it inspires a passive or actionable response. Awe and amusement beat contentment. Anxiety and anger beat sadness.

From Berger’s perspective that means marketers shouldn’t necessarily shy away from the negative, if they can position it correctly. He compares it to telling a good joke. “A really good joke can be told by someone who is a really good joke teller or someone who is not really a good joke teller,” Berger said. If the joke is truly amusing, it will win over the audience no matter who is telling it.

What do you think? Would you tap into negative emotion if it inspired more people to share your content? Does a good joke beat being a good joke-teller?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jesse Noyes
Jesse came to Eloqua from the newsroom trenches. As Managing Editor, it's his job to find the hot topics and compelling stories throughout the marketing world. He started his career at the Boston Herald and the Boston Business Journal before moving west of his native New England. When he's not sifting through data or conducting interviews, you can find him cycling around sunny Austin, TX.


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