The Science of Making Things Go Viral
In today’s marketing landscape, the barrier to entry for creating and publishing new content is at an all-time low.
That means social networks and other distribution channels are flooded with content – and so naturally, as a way of filtering and screening our feeds, we gravitate to the content that everyone else is sharing.
These widely-shared articles, infographics, and videos tend to pique our curiosity, or they hit us with powerful “a-ha” moments. After all, these things are going viral for a reason.
Making Things Go Viral
Whether you are a marketer or an occasional writer, it’s worth knowing how this coveted viral effect comes about.
Today’s infographic comes from Outgrow, and it covers two psychological theories on what leads to viral content, why we share certain things, and some examples of winning viral campaigns that took advantage of triggering these emotions.
People share individual pieces of content for all types of reasons, but there are some commonalities.
According to psychological theory, content that feels novel or that fills information gaps may trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. Further, content that touches the right emotions (excitement, surprise, nostalgia, etc.) can also latch onto a viral effect.
Virality and The Brain
What role does psychology play in making things go viral?
Here are two well-documented psychological effects that trigger the reward pathways in the brain.
1. Novelty Seeking
Your mind is tired of seeing the same old ideas over and over again. That’s why things that are new or unusual will catch your eye – and this includes the content on your favorite website or social feed.
In fact, the brain is hardwired to search for novelty in this way. Seeing something new can motivate us to explore our environment for rewards, and with social media that reward is just a click away.
2. Information Gap Theory
Humans are obsessed with information and have an unquenchable interest in the world around them. That’s why, when your Facebook feed provides a chance to temporarily satisfy your curiosity with just one click, you can’t help but succumb.
Scientists haven’t figured out exactly how curiosity works yet, but what we do know so far is that it’s an itch that humans feel they must continually satisfy. More specifically, according to George Loewenstein’s information gap theory, we often act to fill a gap between what we know, and what we want to know.
Sharing is Caring
But even if something catches our attention, it still needs to spread far and wide to have a viral impact. That’s why the reasons we share content are important, and why posts typically hit on certain emotions to achieve virality.
People share content to:
- Connect with someone over a shared interest
- Promote a product they believe is useful to others
- Be involved in a current trend or event
- Be the first to tell a friend about a trend or event
- Share something about themselves
- Socialize with friends offline
- Promote a good cause
- Demonstrate their own knowledge or ability
- Start an online conversation
- Boost their reputation among friends
Lastly, specific positive emotions lead people to sharing content, including those of amusement, affection, surprise, happiness, and excitement. On the flipside, nostalgia and disgust are two other psychological responses that trigger sharing as well.
Charting Revenue: How The New York Times Makes Money
This graphic tracks the New York Times’ revenue streams over the past two decades, identifying its transition from advertising to subscription-reliant.
When it comes to quality and accessible content, whether it be entertainment or news, consumers are often willing to pay for it.
Similar to the the precedent set by the music industry, many news outlets have also been figuring out how to transition into a paid digital monetization model. Over the past decade or so, The New York Times (NY Times)—one of the world’s most iconic and widely read news organizations—has been transforming its revenue model to fit this trend.
This chart from creator Trendline uses annual reports from the The New York Times Company to visualize how this seemingly simple transition helped the organization adapt to the digital era.
The New York Times’ Revenue Transition
The NY Times has always been one of the world’s most-widely circulated papers. Before the launch of its digital subscription model, it earned half its revenue from print and online advertisements.
The rest of its income came in through circulation and other avenues including licensing, referrals, commercial printing, events, and so on. But after annual revenues dropped by more than $500 million from 2006 to 2010, something had to change.
|NY Revenue By Year||Print Circulation||Digital Subscription||Advertising||Other||Total|
In 2011, the NY Times launched its new digital subscription model and put some of its online articles behind a paywall. It bet that consumers would be willing to pay for quality content.
And while it faced a rocky start, with revenue through print circulation and advertising slowly dwindling and some consumers frustrated that once-available content was now paywalled, its income through digital subscriptions began to climb.
After digital subscription revenues first launched in 2011, they totaled to $47 million of revenue in their first year. By 2022 they had climbed to $979 million and accounted for 42% of total revenue.
Why Are Readers Paying for News?
More than half of U.S. adults subscribe to the news in some format. That (perhaps surprisingly) includes around four out of 10 adults under the age of 35.
One of the main reasons cited for this was the consistency of publications in covering a variety of news topics.
And given the NY Times’ popularity, it’s no surprise that it recently ranked as the most popular news subscription.
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