The Link Between Viral Content And Emotional Intelligence

Want to get 30 million pageviews in a month? Then you need to understand the murky forces that compel us to click.

If you wanted to land a gig as a film writer for BuzzFeed, you'd have to a few expected traits: experience as critic, a love of entertainment, and a "proven ability to get viral traffic." Another requirement: high emotional intelligence.

What's the link? As founder Jonah Peretti said when he hired Doree Shafrir from Rolling Stone back in 2012, she was “ahead of her time writing stories with the emotional intelligence and social impact that has now become the currency of the social web.”

But why is emotional intelligence the currency?

The Wall Street Journal profiled Neetzan Zimmerman, a former Gawker writer who pulled in 30 million pageviews a month. His best qualification: "he understands the emotions that might compel a human being to click on something online," in the words of Farhad Manjoo. That traffic generation garnered much in the way of attention: Zimmerman left Gawker for a yet-to-be-named startup.

A few sample headlines:

  • Black Gay Dads Post Adorable Photo of Daughters, Get Bashed with Hate
  • Texting Driver Learns Too Late Why That's a Terrible, Terrible Idea
  • Woman with 'World's Most Instagrammed Ass' Gives Rare Video Interview

Zimmerman provides a compelling case study in our Internet compulsions: we like the adorable and outrageous, the self-righteous come-uppance, and, clearly, we're not above butts.

What's at the bottom of all this?

A few scholars have gone through the trouble of codifying the way we share now, namely University of Pennsylvania professors Katherine Milkman and Jonah Berger, who have teased apart shareability into six snackable steps:

  • Social Currency: We share things that make us look good (even if that means pictures of our cat).
  • Triggers: Easily memorable information means it's top of mind and tip of the tongue.
  • Emotion: When we care, we share.
  • Public: Built to show, built to grow.
  • Practical Value: News people can use.
  • Stories: People are inherent storytellers, and all great brands also learn to tell stories. Information travels under the guise of idle chatter.

To dig deeper into these half-dozen keys to writing for shareability, page through our extensive excerpts of Contagious: here, here, here, and here. For some healthy skepticism, read economics blogger Rob Horning. What we're interested in is why emotional intelligence matters.

As New Yorker psych writer Maria Konnikova discusses, headlines that evoke emotional responses do better than those without:

An article with the headline “BABY POLAR BEAR’S FEEDER DIES” did better than “TEAMS PREPARE FOR THE COURTSHIP OF LEBRON JAMES.” But happy emotions (“WIDE-EYED NEW ARRIVALS FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE CITY”) outperformed sad ones (“WEB RUMORS TIED TO KOREAN ACTRESS’S SUICIDE”).

The other emotional aspect is what psychologist call arousal, which is a way of talking about the strength of the response engendered. If an article pushes you into extreme emotions--outrage over the unjust jerkiness of people hating gay dads--then you'll be much more likely to not only click, but to share.

As you're probably already aware of from within your social feeds, sites like Upworthy and newcomer Viralnova are largely built around those strong emotional responses--and thus their insane numbers: though less than two years old, Upworthy got the second-most Facebook likes in the country in December. Viralnova was seventh.

What do we have to learn from this? That crafting shareable content is a skill--one strongly linked with emotional intelligence.

You, emotional intelligence, and us

As we've talked about before, emotional intelligence has a number of component factors. We're most concerned with emotional understanding: our ability to actually name what we're feeling at a given time.

Emotional understanding is a gate to empathy, an understanding of how other people will experience the world that can be increased with coaching, meditation, or other practices. Because if you can predict how a cat video, moral outrage, or spandex pants might affect you, you can use your understanding of your own reactions as a proxy for other people's experiences.

So strangely enough, traffic kings like Neetzan Zimmerman demonstrate a remarkable degree of empathy: they've internalized how others internalize stories--and write the headlines that fit.

[Image: Flickr user J]

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