On Friday 6th May, we explored the psychology, creativity and science behind crafting shareable content that captures the attention of audiences online.
From viral video phenomenons that rack up views by the million, to iconic illustrations shared across social media, online content has the power to spread at speed and at scale, and to spark meaningful and far-reaching conversations in the process.
While it’s tempting to believe that content gains traction at random, brands and agencies are increasingly seeking to define the qualities that influence the shareability of online content in a more measurable way.
On the morning of Friday 6th May, we were joined by three speakers for breakfast and a panel discussion, moderated by YCN Head of Insights Sheena Patel, to explore what makes content shareable.
We asked if there will always be an organic, unpredictable element to the way that content gains popularity, or whether it’s possible for brands and marketers to pin down a foolproof formula that guarantees audience engagement.
First to speak was Juliano Spyer, who is part of the team of UCL anthropologists working on the Why We Post project, a study into the uses and consequences of social media in society. As part of the project, Juliano spent 15 months in Brazil, researching how social media is used in day-to-day life. From the morality of memes to the significance of selfies, the project analyses how social media shapes our behaviour in profound and wide-ranging ways. He previously spent 14 years as a producer, writer and consultant around participatory media, leveraging his expertise both in the US and Latin America, and co-authored the book How the World Changed Social Media, which is free to download, and available for Members to borrow from our Lending Library.
We then heard from Tim Telling, Editor of the hugely popular satirical news site The Daily Mash. Inspired by the success of The Onion in America, the site was set up by journalists Paul Stokes and Neil Rafferty in 2007. It’s since built a reputation for fast satire, leveraging its digital format to respond to breaking stories and current events with intelligence and wit.
Its entirely made-up satirical scoops tap into the cultural zeitgeist, and the site has gained enormous popularity for its ability to shine a humorous lens on developing news stories — from politics to celebrity gossip — in a reactive, relevant and (most importantly) funny way, that has helped ensure the consistent popularity and virality of its content online.
Finally we heard from Louise Tullin, Marketing and Communications Director, EMEA & APAC at ad tech company, Unruly. The agency has formidable expertise in helping brands to create video content that is more engaging, more effective, and that reaches wide audiences. Tapping extensive data around consumer behaviour, Unruly’s ShareRank technology uses algorithms to evaluate and optimise the shareability of video content.
Here’s what we learnt.
Curating and communicating personality
Described by Juliano as ‘display affinity', sharing content is a way of shaping and indicating parts of your personality to others. Whether it’s a meme or an online petition, what you choose to share helps you say something about yourself. As Tim more plainly put it, “You are appealing to human vanity” – people want to be seen as funny, intelligent, engaged, opinionated or socially conscious. Sharing content is a means of constructing an identity.
Eliciting an emotional response
Humour is an emotional response, and each story is a vehicle for prompting a reaction. As Tim argued, comedy is ultimately about eliciting a visceral reaction — a laugh.
Emotional responses more broadly — hilarity, amazement, shock — are the key to creating shareable content: a strong emotional reaction is what motivates people to click share, Louise explained.
Conversation and community
The Why We Post project’s research found that ‘reciprocity’ is another major reason people share content online — sharing stems from a desire to be part of conversations happening within your social group or community.
Unruly’s research has shown that interactions on social media are an integral part of the experience around any event. Brands can reach audiences by joining the conversation.
Tapping into the zeitgeist without mindlessly jumping on trends
Unruly’s Pulse tool helps brands track the changes in audience emotions over time — showing a desire for happy, uplifting content over Christmas, for example. These trends can help inform the tone of seasonal videos, while braver brands might also intentionally choose to go against seasonal trends, offering something different that has the potential to cut through.
But, as Tim reminded us, it’s important not to prioritise this above all else. “We never try to be populist,” he explained. As well as being an uninspiring way to work, the internet is already saturated with meme-chasing and clickbait content.
Crafting content with the medium in mind
From snappy headlines to well-chosen images, Tim also explained a little about The Daily Mash’s editorial approach.
“There should be a cadence to the written language,” he described, “we try to shape the rhythm of each reader’s inner voice” — comic timing and delivery are still important, even though the stories are written down.
Like a punchy joke, short, pithy sentences help build the humour in each story — and are also more palatable for online audiences with shorter attention spans. “I like to think of the text as a picture,” he continued, “there should be lots of white on the page.”
The visual impact of the content extends to the image too, “We don’t focus on the writing at the exclusion of the image,” Tim continued. The Daily Mash imagines real news stories from an alternate universe, so aims to mimic the appearance of real publications — ”we want it to look authentic.”
The cliche that comedy is saying serious things in a stupid way, or stupid things in a serious way rings true, Tim said: playing with the relationship between the tone and subject matter of each story heightens the bathos or the absurdity of each story — “A good headline pushes the language to its dramatic extreme.”
Ultimately, The Daily Mash’s pithy, short-form stories are informed in part by the journalism experience Tim and many of the The Daily Mash’s contributing writers share. “Journalistic and social media cultures overlap,” he explained, “they’re both about economy.” Paring back language helps the stories make maximum impact, augmenting the emotional response that drives people to share.
Placing branding front and centre
Unruly’s research has shown that the visibility of the brand in online video content has no impact on shareability. Videos are best when the brand or its products are actually integral to the story of the ad, as in the Superbowl ad created by Doritos this year.
As Juliano explained, one of the prevailing conclusions drawn from the Why We Post project’s research is that generalisations about the way people use social media around the world can’t be made.
Louise agreed, emphasising the importance of tailoring distribution strategies in order to engage audiences — “you can’t lift and shift.” Where audiences in Japan look to be amazed and exhilarated by content, people in Brazil value videos that have a social purpose.
Location:72 Rivington Street,
London, EC2A 3AY,
Start:6th May, 2016 at 9:00am
End:6th May, 2016 at 10:30am