6 Emotions That Will Make or Break Your Content Strategy

By Matt Clough February 18th, 2016

For decades, marketers have had it drummed into them that triggering an emotional response from the audience is a vital component of any successful marketing campaign. This is still true, and nowhere more so than with content marketing. However, the art of marketing has evolved so much that this truism needs to be reassessed.

Although marketing in the age of social means contending with a daunting amount of noise and competition, it also offers dazzling potential for reach and impact if done right.

U.K. retailer John Lewis, for instance, only started producing its annual Christmas advertisement in 2007, but since then, it has become an eagerly anticipated institution of the festive period. The Christmas campaigns succeed by ignoring the hard sell, opting instead to tell heartwarming stories about generous children. The mantra of pathos over product placement is paying off. The 2015 ad was mentioned 23,000 times on social media within just two hours of being released, a testament to the power of smart, emotional content.

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising found that marketing underscored by emotion performed twice as well as campaigns based around rational thinking. In short, using emotion in content marketing isn’t so much an option as a necessity—as long as you use it the right way.

Happiness and fear

Traditionally, marketing has been dominated by two emotions: happiness and fear. Eliciting happiness is a no-brainer; people associating your business or product with positivity is clearly a good thing. Stories that are awe-inspiring, amusing, or funny are much more likely to be shared than other types of emotional content. According to a 2014 BuzzSumo analysis of the 10,000 stories with the most shares, awe, laughter, and amusement were the three most popular emotions, accounting for 57 percent of the content.

Why not chase happiness all the time? Because consistently hitting the mark is very difficult, if not impossible. A story that is too contrived or too manipulative can make you look disingenuous. Upworthy, one of the first media companies to invest heavily in emotional clickbait, had nearly 90 million uniques in November 2013; last month, however, the site had less than 13 million uniques. The sheer amount of positive content out there also makes it tougher to stand out from the competition. This shouldn’t be a deterrent in itself, but it’s worth bearing in mind when thinking about balancing your output with other emotional triggers.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is fear. Content based on fear has good potential for virality. As Buffer’s Courtney Seiter noted, “The theory is that when we’re scared, we need to share the experience with others.”

In the research paper “What Makes Content Go Viral?” Dr. Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, and Katherine Milkman, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, found that content that New York Times‘s content that triggered anxiety performed 21 percent better than average.

However, fear needs to be wielded wisely. While evoking happiness is a relatively broad goal, fear is much more subjective and the margin for error is narrower. For every success story, such as hand sanitizer company GoJo using the swine flu pandemic as a way of emphasizing the importance of its product, there are many examples of companies misjudging the tone of their content, as was the case with Nationwide’s much-criticized commercial from last year’s Super Bowl.


Aside from happiness and fear, one emotion has seen the biggest rise in popularity as a result of the Internet’s gold rush for clicks: anger. For example, Berger and Milkman’s research found that content that makes the reader feel frustrated or angry is 34 percent more likely to be featured on the New York Times‘s most e-mailed list than the average article.

The key with content meant to anger readers is to frame an aggravating issue in a constructive, engaging manner. Case in point: This interactive data piece from The New York Times challenges readers’ perceptions of how income affects a child’s chances of attending college.

However, like fear, anger is a dangerous emotion to rely on too much. While we all take a secret pleasure in getting riled up every now and then, if a publisher only pushes out content designed to make us consistently irritated, the novelty will wear off quickly.


Most brands probably don’t want to be associated with sadness. But, if harnessed correctly, sad content can be beneficial if it’s incorporated into a larger narrative. Charities such as the Salvation Army and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals place a heavy emphasis on sadness in their content, which then helps to emphasize the different ways their initiatives help people and animals. In this respect, if good content marketing relies on storytelling, then sadness can form the crux of the second act of a traditional three-act structure.

The big risk is ending a piece of content on a somber note, which may limit potential for virality. In BuzzSumo’s analysis of the 10,000 most-shared articles on the Internet, only 1 percent emphasized sadness. While it may lack in viral reach, sad content still has the power to start (or continue) a lasting connection between brand and consumer. Unlike fear, which encourages us to share in order to seek reinforcement that others feel the same, sadness tends to lead to a more personal, empathetic response.

Anticipation and surprise

If you’re on Facebook, odds are your feed is full of stories promising to show you things you’ll never believe. Even if you’re against clicking on these posts, it’s hard to deny how seductive they can be. Here, you’re seeing two secondary emotions at work: anticipation and surprise.

The reason readers ignore these social posts is because they often promote low-quality clickbait. But brands and publishers that don’t manipulate their audiences can benefit a lot from a strong headline that teases a topic or a well-timed promotion.

On Pacific Standard, stories about health and behavior typically receive fewer than 100 shares, but Stanton Peele’s piece “The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy” garnered more than 7,000. Why? Because of the combination of the headline and a scientifically robust argument, both of which run contrary to a common belief.

Think of it this way: Setting up the anticipation is a good way to get people to click once; delivering on that anticipation is how you get an audience to keep clicking again and again.

Ultimately, however, the goal of any good content program should be balance. All of these emotional triggers have their own benefits, and using them when appropriate is crucial. So the next time you start on a piece of content, don’t just aim to strike an emotional chord—pay close attention to which chord it’s striking.

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