When you’re on Facebook, Twitter, or any other of your favorite social networks where sharing pictures or videos is possible, it always feels good when a whole bunch of your friends decide to share what you’ve posted with all of your friends.
For people who have their own YouTube channels, or marketers trying to get their carefully crafted video to spread across the Internet, understanding why people choose to share some things and not others has become a bit of a science.
What lies behind a person’s motivation to share anything is a psychological phenomenon that predates the Internet. Radio and television marketers worked relentlessly ever since the invention of radio broadcasting to create musical ditties that would make people remember the product, or news stories that would get people talking at the water cooler at work the next day.
Emotional Motivations of Sharing
Motivation for sharing anything comes from a very primal set of emotions and reactions to acquiring new knowledge. It comes down to a magical mix of personality, a personal belief system, and a set of common primal responses that make us all human.
Because the desire to get people to share information with each other goes so far back, it shouldn’t be surprising that some of the most fundamental research in this comes from a 1966 psychology study published by William C. Schutz titled “A three dimensional theory of interpersonal behavior“, where Shutz concluded that there are three kinds of interpersonal human relations: inclusion, control, affection.
In fact, these are three extremely powerful human motivators that have driven much more serious and impactful things throughout history than anything the Internet has influenced.
- Control: People need to feel like they are in control of their own social environment. They want to control how friends and family (and strangers) view them, and by framing the social conversations around them online, they can portray whatever image they prefer.
- Affection: Having a connection with another human being is an innate human need, and this is no less true on the Internet. The act of sharing something with someone expresses many things to the other person. It conveys that you have concern for their interests and their needs, and in doing so it strengthens the common bond that you both share.
- Inclusion: The final motivator listed in the 1966 study is also one of the most powerful. The need to feel part of a group. Most often online this translates to things like activists who are passionate about the same things, the religious or political who share a common belief system, or any organization or club where membership is somewhat exclusive.
If you’re a YouTube vlogger looking to create videos that’ll attract a large crowd, or you’re just looking for something interesting on Instagram or Pinterest that you’d like to share with your friends, understanding these three core motivators can help you identify videos that will make a strong impact on people who see it. You will develop a strong eye for the things that people like to share.
Which Videos Get Shared?
Believe it or not, of the hours and hours of videos that get uploaded to YouTube every day, only 50 percent of those are ever seen by more than 1,000 people. If you want to truly grasp the odds of making a video going viral, consider the fact that barely 6 percent of the videos on YouTube ever get over million views.
According to Christina Desmarais at Inc.com, the secret comes down to tapping into one of those three core motivators through creating content that, “…triggers a strong response from the emotional, cognitive or primal areas of the brain.”
How do you accomplish this? It’s actually not that difficult to trigger one of those responses from someone. The real trick is triggering a strong enough response for the person to take the time to share that video with everyone they know. There are seven ways you can accomplish this.
Tug the Heartstrings (Affection)
Cats, babies and more. Almost everyone loves to see adorable kittens do silly things. When a baby laughs, people smile. Positive videos like these are some of the most likely to be shared.
That cat video compilation above got over 10 million views since it was published. I kid you not.
The reason such positive videos have the highest share rates is because they satisfy several needs at once. The need to shape how people view you as a kind and caring person, and the desire to connect with another person through something uplifting and heartwarming.
Positive videos like these that make anyone that sees them go “aaaaawww” are a sure winner nearly every time — assuming they’re cute enough.
Shock and Awe (Control)
There are a lot of people out there who want everyone to think they are thrill-seekers or adventurers. No one wants to be boring. One of the most common ways many people try to shape that image of themselves on social networks is by sharing the most amazing, exhilarating videos. One that may come to mind immediately is that of two thrill-seekers who climbed the Shanghai Tower, in China and captured a point-of-view video of the climb.
The video went completely viral since it was posted in 2014, reaching over 45 million views by the time this article was published.
These types of videos — the ones that make your stomach crawl up into your throat when you watch it — are so shocking, inspiring and awesome that it’s very difficult not to share it with everyone you know. That’s the allure of shock and awe videos. Share them, and they’re likely to get shared again. Make them, and you’re likely to become YouTube famous!
Contempt and Disgust (Inclusion)
Even though positive videos are more likely to get shared, there is a category of negative videos that do just as well. I call those “contemptuous” videos. These videos appeal to the “group-think” mentality, because usually people with the same belief-system or biases tend to make these go viral within those communities. These are videos like cops beating up unarmed protesters, people abusing animals, or videos of disgusting people at Walmart.
One example of this from a few years back was the UC Davis police officer who made a dramatic show of pepper spraying unarmed, non-violent student protesters directly in their faces.
Lt. John Pike was eventually fired after the public outcry after this video spread through social networks like wildfire. Just one of the videos hit over 2 million views, with several other shots of the same event getting hundreds of thousands to millions of views across YouTube.
These aren’t all negative videos, sometimes they just appeal to the common beliefs — usually very strongly held beliefs — of a large group of people. When that group is large enough, such videos go viral.
One important example is the many videos on YouTube that deal with the claim that schools want to remove “One nation under god” from the pledge of allegiance.
The truth is that there isn’t a whole lot of support for removing those words from the pledge of allegiance. In fact, President Obama himself responded to one such petition (usually launched by small activist groups) by saying that, “Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation — context matters.”
In fact, many even fabricate claims of companies or organizations trying to remove the word “God” from some form of advertising, such as the claim — debunked by Snopes — that Pepsi had removed the word “God” from the design of new patriotic cans of soda.
Why would people make up such claims? Because they get people angry and disgusted, and this gets people to share — whether it’s true or not.
Shockingly Hilarious (Affection and Inclusion)
There are a lot of people trying to make funny videos out there. For sure, marketers try and fail at it every day. However, there are those magical times when a certain video just hits the mark, and when you watch it you just about die laughing.
Those are the videos that get shared — and they get shared a lot.
“Fail” videos seem to be some of the funniest videos that get shared the most, probably because it combines extreme humor with shock.
Another example are the “after wisdom teeth” videos, where teens are filmed returning home after recovering from the strong drugs administered during a wisdom teeth removal procedure.
These never get old. The video above received almost 6.5 million views, and most of the other similar videos typically go just as viral.
It isn’t just that these videos are funny — it’s that they’re funny at level where you just can’t help but laugh uncontrollably.
Pride and Nostalgia (Inclusion)
It feels nice to be a part of something larger than yourself. Sometimes, it can be as simple as sharing nostalgic memories with everyone else on the Internet who is also your age. This is why videos about retro games and toys, or memories about old TV personalities almost always go viral.
This is especially true when the video attests to the loss of something special or meaningful over the course of time. Posts abound on Facebook from older folks about how “life used to be” before all these newfangled gadgets, but even kids of the 80s and 90s are now reminiscing about their childhood, and how drastically things have changed.
If you can create a video that appeals to any group sentiment like this — it can be related to age, religion, race, political party or anything else — you are that much closer to landing a truly viral video.
Inspiration (Control and Affection)
There is something very primal about effective and powerful motivational videos. The combination of music, quotes and images can often touch you so deeply that you get chills through your whole body.
These are the videos you can’t help but share with your friends, family and anyone else who you feel could be inspired by them. They move you, and they tap into the “affection” human motivational driving force that compels you to share that video.
These videos resonate with something someone may be going through, and friends often use shared videos as a way to cheer someone up or inspire them through hard times. And when friends are inspired by friends, they want to do the same for their own circle of friends — and so it goes.
Fear (Control and Inclusion)
Even though positive emotions may spark more sharing online, one of the approaches that is nearly as effective — and sometimes more effective — is tapping into the fears of people.
This can be a fear of things like GMOs, vaccines, scary legends like slender man, or gruesome accidents.
The “fear” could be for or against either side of any particular debate, but the approach is almost always the same — implying, through the use of nuggets of fact, that there is some sort of impending doom.
This is why legends like slender man proliferated so easily throughout the teenage online community, because even though the character was fictional, there was intense fear created among teens that it could be real. Slender man stories went viral.
Considering how dangerous it can be to proliferate fear in this way, is it ever okay to use fear to create a viral video that is almost guaranteed to be shared? It depends.
If you truly believe in the information you’re sharing, and you feel that it could be helpful to the people who you’re sharing the video with, then you’re trying to inform and help them. However, if you’re only using fear-mongering for the sake of making a video viral, that may not be considered ethical by most people.
Which Viral Video Traits Have You Noticed?
It can be very impressive when a particular video starts spreading so fast from person to person, all across the world. There is surely some truth to the psychological findings of Dr. Schutz back in the 60s, but does it explain or cover every conceivable motivation people may have to share ideas with other people?
Have you ever noticed that certain types of videos you share on social networks are much more popular than others? Do they tend to follow the theories outlined above?
Have you observed other types of videos that go viral? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!