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What makes some ads more shareable than others?

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In one of the more memorable Super Bowl 2020 commercials, rapper Lil Nas X and actor Sam Elliott clash in a dance duel for Cool Ranch Doritos. Was the one-minute video cost effective for the company, given that big game ads cost $ 5.6 million for a 30-second commercial? Yes, if you consider that the spot was viewed millions of times and shared on social media platforms for free.

Shared content is a gold mine for marketers, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what moves viewers enough to want to share. A new study from Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger and Daniel McDuff of Microsoft Research examines the emotional triggers – happiness, sadness, and even disgust – that drive people to share advertising content.

The study is the largest of its kind and the first to examine the relationship between emotional responses to video ads and sharing. It’s also unique in its approach: thousands of attendees in five countries were asked to watch a random series of commercials on their home computers while their webcams recorded their facial expressions. Algorithms specially developed for the task encoded their emotional reactions. The researchers found that positive emotions led to more sharing, but so did feelings of disgust.

Berger answered a few questions from Knowledge @ Wharton about the study “Why Do Some Advertisements Get Shared More Than Others,” which was recently published in the Journal of Advertising Research. His answers appear below.

Knowledge @ Wharton: The idea of ​​quantifying emotional responses is fascinating, especially when you think of high profile advertisements like the one during the Super Bowl. Marketers invest a lot of money in these ads and really want them to be shared. What made you do this research?

Jona Berger: Everyone wants their content to be shared – from companies with their ads to “influencers” with their videos to content marketers with their content. But in fact, getting consumers to share is harder than most people think.

As I speak in my book Contagious, word of mouth has become big business. Instead of paying for extra impressions, word of mouth is a cheaper way to get the word out. Sharing is free. The more people get your message across, the less you will have to spend on advertising. The only question then is how do you get people to share? And that led to the current research.

Knowledge @ Wharton: Why study facial expressions as an indicator of emotions? Wouldn’t it be easier and more precise to ask participants how they are feeling or to rate their emotional response on a scale from 1 to 10?

Berger: It certainly seems easier to ask people how they are feeling or to have them rate their reaction on the scale. But there is a problem: self-reports are often imprecise. People don’t always have a good sense of what they’re feeling, and even when they give you an answer, it’s not always right. Additionally, people sometimes skew their answers based on what they think you would like to hear. So facial expressions can be a valuable alternative. Our face often signals how we are feeling, even when we don’t realize it.

Knowledge @ Wharton: What are the key takeaways and implications for marketers?

Berger: You may think that sharing is all about valence or positivity and negativity. We share things that make us feel good and avoid sharing things that make us feel bad. After all, why would people want to share something with someone else that would make them feel bad about? But that’s not the whole story. While ads that made people smile were more likely to be shared, some negative emotions like sadness or confusion decreased sharing while others, like disgust, increased it. In line with other research we’ve done (PDF), this shows that sharing is not just about feeling good or feeling bad, but also about the physiological arousal associated with different emotions. Emotions that make us act, like anger and fear (and in this case, disgust) encourage sharing, while emotions that put us down (like sadness) decrease sharing.

This has a number of important implications for marketers. First, if you want people to share something, it’s not enough to make them feel good. The feel of content is not going to make people want to share. You have to cheer them on. Make them feel excited, inspired, or surprised.

Second, you don’t have to be afraid of negative emotions. Because they fuel people, anger, fear, or even disgust can be used to promote word of mouth.

Knowledge @ Wharton: Your paper touches on the role of culture in expressing emotions and how this can affect results. Can you talk about it?

“The feel of content is not going to make people want to share. You have to cheer them on. ” –Jonah Berger

Berger: We also looked at how the results differ depending on the culture. While smiling was strongly related to sharing in the United States and the United Kingdom, the effect was less in China, France, and Germany, as well as in all other countries that performed worse on individualism. It’s hard to say, but it suggests the importance of understanding what different emotions mean in different countries.

Knowledge @ Wharton: In the paper, you mention that more sharing doesn’t necessarily translate into more sales. How can future research address this?

Berger: Some of the emotions that drive sharing may not always drive sales. An ad that shows something gross may encourage sharing, but reduce the likelihood that people will buy the product. The nice thing about the method is that it can be applied more broadly. Instead of asking people to fill out surveys, just watch how they respond to ads. Hopefully future research will allow a number of interesting questions to be explored.

Jonah Berger’s latest book is The Catalyst: How to Change Everyone’s Mind.

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