What Makes Online Content Viral?

17 Pages Posted: 27 Dec 2009 Last revised: 30 Aug 2012

See all articles by Jonah A. Berger

Jonah A. Berger

University of Pennsylvania - Marketing Department

Katherine L. Milkman

University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School

Date Written: December 25, 2009


Why are certain pieces of online content more viral than others? This article takes a psychological approach to understanding diffusion. Using a unique dataset of all the New York Times articles published over a three month period, the authors examine the link between integral affect (i.e., the emotion evoked) and whether content is highly shared. Results suggest a strong relationship between emotion and virality, but indicate that this link is more complex than mere valence alone. Positive content is more viral (than negative content), as is content that inspires awe. But while sad content is less viral, anger or anxiety inducing articles are both more likely to make the paper’s most emailed list. These results hold controlling for how surprising, interesting, or practically useful content is (all of which are positively linked to virality), as well as external drivers of attention (e.g., how prominently articles were featured). The findings shed light on why people share online content, provide insight into how to design effective viral marketing campaigns, and underscore the importance of individual-level psychological processes in shaping collective outcomes.

Keywords: Social Transmission, Word-of-Mouth, Social Epidemics

JEL Classification: D7, M31

Suggested Citation

Berger, Jonah A. and Milkman, Katherine L., What Makes Online Content Viral? (December 25, 2009). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1528077 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1528077

Jonah A. Berger (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania - Marketing Department ( email )

700 Jon M. Huntsman Hall
3730 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6340
United States

Katherine L. Milkman

University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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