If you’re like me, the first thing you thought when the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral was, “how the heck did that catch on?” Celebrities challenging each other seemed to give it a little bit of extra push, but that certainly wouldn’t account for the $115 million (as of 9/30/14) raised! There must be something else going on. Let’s look for some scholarly research to perhaps discover the answer that most nonprofits really want: “How do I get me some of that?”

This won’t surprise regular readers, but there’s an awful lot of research out there on what makes things catch on. This is a topic that many businesses are keenly interested in, and as a result, it gets some good attention in journals. But we’re going to focus on just one article that gets us about 80% of the way there: Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman‘s 2012 Journal of Marketing Research article “What Makes Online Content Viral?

TL;DR: The New York Times keeps track of the news stories that web visitors share most frequently. The authors do some analysis to determine whether the most shared stories have particular characteristics in common. They isolate two dimensions that encourage people to share stories: positive valence (an article with a positive story) and high-arousal (an article that generates particular emotions, like anger or awe.)

Characteristics of contagious content

The authors reviewed 7,000 NYT articles to discover any characteristics that would predict the article’s appearance on the most emailed list.  Reviewers (both automated and human) codified each of the articles on a huge range of variables, including things like emotionality, positivity, awe, anger, anxiety, sadness, practical utility, interest, surprise, word count, author fame, writing complexity, author gender, article section, and the time of day the article appeared.

The study found that two specific predictors were correlated with making the most shared list: positivity and emotionality. These results held even when adjusting for other variables.

The strongest correlation was from articles that had a higher ratio of positive to negative words.1 These articles were considered  to be “positive” stories.  One example of a positive story is headlined: Tony Award for Philanthropy, and is packed with positive words like humanitarian, volunteered, charitable, and philanthropic.  (That’s good news for us!)

Positively angry?

The next strongest correlation turned out to be a little more complicated. Human readers coded articles by what emotion the story evinced, but they seemed to contradict the positivity correlation. While positive articles were most likely to be shared, articles coded to strong negative emotions like anger and anxiety also made the list. Strangely, some strong emotions (like sadness) had the opposite effect.  The authors ran two more studies to dig into this.

The second and third studies were done in the lab, to see if the authors could generalize their findings to other types of content. Participants were given stories specifically designed to generate (or not generate) particular emotions, and then asked whether or not they would be likely to share those stories.

The authors found that high-activation emotions, specifically anger and amusement, correlated positively with sharing. In other words, the more angry a story makes you, the more likely you are to share it. Low-activation emotions, like sadness, show the exact opposite effect. The more sad a story makes you, the less likely you are to share it. (Seasoned direct mail copywriters are all nodding their heads right now.)

The nonprofit spin: Looking back at the ice bucket phenomenon, it really did hit both of those marks. It was positive by being associated with charity, and it generated high-activation emotions, such as amusement and surprise. On top of that, it did a couple of other things that triggered not only sharing, but also participation, which was critical in generating $115 million:

  1. Low barrier to entry – Ice and buckets are cheap and plentiful, and everybody has a video camera on their phone and the ability to upload to YouTube.
  2. Challenge – There was an explicit challenge to participate and share the content. There was also the implicit challenge of actually pouring a  bucket of ice water on your head.
  3. Creativity – As seen in many of the clips, participants used this as an opportunity to show off their own creativity. (See Harlem Shake)
  4. Authenticity –This wasn’t an advertising driven “ALS Ice Bucket Month”.  ALS got lucky2 and happily hopped on the bandwagon.

So, can this success be replicated? Probably, but not with ice water, which has now gone from cool to lukewarm.3

But all this detail should be very helpful for those of us who want our day-to-day philanthropic content to become viral. Careful understanding of the power of positivity, high-activation emotions and the drivers of participation just might be able to amplify your messages.

Read it yourselfBerger, J., & Milkman, K. (2012). What makes online content viral? Journal of Marketing Research, XLIX(April), 192–205.

I have to mention that Professor Berger’s course How Ideas Spread, which is available through The Great Courses or Audible.com, is completely fascinating, and goes into this subject in great detail.

1 Positive and negative words were counted by running them through a text analysis program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). I’m really tempted to drop $90 just to play with it.

2 According to some fascinating digging by Josh Levin at Slate, the ice bucket challenge didn’t start out as an ALS specific activity. It’s possibly just a modification of a drinking game, and definitely directly copies what some folks were doing to get clean water to Liberia. Can you imagine what $115 million might do for that cause? Note: I checked the webpages of several “water for Liberia” charities and found a distressing lack of information about ROI. So, no, I can’t really imagine what $115 million would do for that cause. Please comment if you can.

3 I don’t envy the nonprofit marketing people who now have to contend with “ooh, let’s do the ice bucket thing” from helpful board members.

Image by Jason Auch (originally posted to Flickr as IMG_0263) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons