The Emotions That Trigger Video Sharing

By Susan Kuchinskas December 16th, 2013

If you want folks to share your video, triumphant people beat cute cats.

Karen Nelson-Field, a senior research associate at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, wanted to understand how emotions influence social media sharing. So, she analyzed a data set of 355 billion videos from Unruly, a video distribution and analytics platform that parses the emotional content of videos in order to identify the most compelling emotional triggers.

Nelson-Field found that videos which elicit strong emotions from viewers—whether positive or negative—are twice as likely to be shared as those that provide a weak emotional response. Like your marketing professor always says, though, it’s better to be positive. A strong and positive emotional response is 30 percent more likely to encourage sharing than a strong but negative emotion, like shock or anger.

Digging into the various positive emotions, Nelson-Field found that exhilaration is most effective in triggering a share, followed by hilarity. That’s why Unruly’s analytics show that videos illuminating personal triumphs were most likely to be shared. Even more important for marketers, the emotion of exhilaration also helps viewers remember the video—and, you hope, the brand. According to Unruly, 65 percent of videos that elicited a feeling of exhilaration were remembered. Hilarity, by contrast, aided recall in 51 percent of the videos.


Image via Ehrenburg Bass Institute Report

WestJet hit viral gold by triggering exhilaration in its recent “Christmas Miracle” video. The five-minute piece documented travelers’ surprise and delight when the airline made their gift wishes come true in the time it took them to travel to their destinations. The video was seen more than 19 million times on YouTube alone, and garnered tons of press, as well.

The connection between emotion and sharing holds true for other kinds of content besides video. When Jonah A. Berger and Katherine L. Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania analyzed stories from The New York Times, they found a similar connection between positive emotion and increased sharing.

While emotions are universal, according to marketing consultant Peep Laja, different kinds of people may respond more strongly to different emotions. “You need to thoroughly understand your audience and their “emotional baseline,” he wrote, “in order to develop a strategy that hits all the right emotional notes before reaching the final call to action.” For example, a 23-year-old single male may respond to different emotions than a 23-year-old new father.

Similarly, the emotion your branded content evokes should be tuned to your marketing goals. Anxiety might be the best emotional trigger for an accountant to use as tax time nears, while hilarity may make more sense than exhilaration for a nightlife brand.

Finally, getting people to share your videos or other content should not be an end in itself. Nelson-Field found that many of the most-shared videos are under-branded. The average social video has less than one third the branding of the average 30-second TV spot, but according to Nelson-Field, there’s no reason that should be the case. “There is no relationship between how much sharing across the social web a video achieves and the level of branding used,” she wrote. “Nor does overt branding make a video less emotionally impactful.”

When you’re putting some heart into your branded content, don’t forget to add your brand.

Image by Joe Shlabotnik /