Science of Sharing: making ads more virally effective

Science of Sharing: making ads more virally effective

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By Phil Barden

In today’s world an ad briefing that does not demand that a commercial must also function online is very rare. The benefits of so-called 'viral' ads are obvious: coverage can be maximised cost-effectively via recommendation by one user to another. It doesn‘t appear to be easy, however, as the majority of ads that make the transition to online develop no lasting viral effect.

Research now has new insights into what exactly constitutes a successful viral spot based on what happens in our brains when we share content online. This understanding helps us in our quest to develop more effective viral ads.
Why is an ad shared anyway?
Recent studies by the well-known neuro-scientist Matthew Lieberman and his team at UCLA suggest that our exposure to an ad online is accompanied by two key assessments in our brain:
  • What is in it for me? i.e. what is the reward value of the ad itself and what is the potential reward to be gained by sharing it with others?
  • Intuitive judgement of whether the ad would be rewarding for others to view.
These two processes dictate whether we go on to share the ad with others hence we need to discover what makes an ad rewarding.
Factor 1 – What makes an ad rewarding
A study by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute in Australia helps us to understand this. Firstly, it discovered that strong and positive reactions to online videos are 30% more likely to be shared than those that trigger a strong negative reaction.
So, we should aim to generate a strong positive reaction with our ads. But which specific positive emotions are most likely to cause the desired effect of sharing?
The study found that the videos that triggered ‘exhilaration’ in the viewer (e.g. when a personal triumph is featured) are those that are shared most frequently, significantly more so than for videos that triggered any of the other positive emotions (such as ‘hilarity’ for example).
Factor 2 – Which creative mechanisms work best
So, which creative mechanisms are best at generating the desired ‘sharing’ effect? Is there a magic formula? 
The Ehrenberg-Bass study shows that creative mechanisms appear not to be main drivers of viral success. Analysis of drivers showed that each mechanism examined (babies, animals, celebrities, dances, comedy etc.) explained on average less than 1 percent of the variance in viral success – with one exception: videos that feature a personal triumph explained 5 percent of the variance. However, this creative mechanism was only used in less than 1 in 20 of the videos examined. It would seem, therefore, to be less a case of any specific creative mechanism working better than others, but more to do with the emotional affect that is generated in each specific ad. With the exception of personal triumph, there appears to be no creative mechanism that shows an above-average effect per se.
Put more positively: there are many creative ways to evoke positive emotions – but given the huge number of ads and competing messages it is absolutely necessary to be distinctive in the way in which one creates a particular emotional affect. Put simply: the positive emotion that the ad triggers should originate in the brand and its values.
But this in isolation is not enough. High, positive activation is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for viral success. This is linked to the fact that over 90 percent of people that watch an online video do not forward it (see diagram below). 
Factor 3: Maximising Reach
Microsoft researcher Duncan Watts already postulated, and provided empirical evidence of, so-called 'big seed marketing' a long time ago. According to this, it is critical for the viral success of an ad that its 'seeding' is correctly implemented – the further the reach, the more people that see the spot, the more probable its viral success

Factor 4 – Link the Ad to the Brand
So finally, as for all brand communication, another key lever is the ad‘s link to the brand. If the ad is not linked to the brand, any beneficial effect generated virally will not be attributed to the brand and hence be diluted.

Phil Barden is MD of Decode Marketing and author of 'Decoded. The Science Behind Why We Buy'.

The full report The Science of Sharing: How and why ads go viral is available to read online.

Author: The Marketing Society
Posted: 01 Jul 2014
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