Video Marketing: Why Unlikely Online Content Goes Viral
Creativity Marketing Transformation

4 Psychological Reasons Why Mundane Online Content Goes Viral

Digital marketers are familiar with the basic building blocks of virality: Online content that’s highly emotional, timely, and sharable can catch fire across the Web.

But that’s not the full story. Even a livestream video of a puddle—yes, a puddle—can snag half a million viewers. A video of a so-called “mermaid pillow” (read: it’s a pillow with two-toned sequins) can earn 31 million views. Debates about dresses and dog pants can generate lively discussion online and in real life. But why does such mundane and silly content resonate so much? Of all the content in the world, why do we fixate on puddles and pillows?

The Psychology Behind Virality

It turns out human brains are hardwired to love content that stokes our curiosity, and even quotidian content captures our attention when framed in the right way. Here are four factors at play:

1. Information Gap Theory

George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University developed the information gap theory of curiosity, which explains why we’re driven to learn more when we feel a gap between what we know and what we want to know. This explains why clickbait headlines are so effective—we have to click to satisfy our curiosity. This curiosity gap has an emotional impact, too, says Jonah Lehrer at Wired. “It feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain,” he writes. “We seek out new knowledge because that’s how we scratch the itch.”

When social media chatter blows up about a puddle, pillow, llamas, or dog pants, curiosity drives us to find out more. Livestream video ups the ante. Even a puddle becomes a curiosity-fostering force. “As puddles go, it was eminently forgettable, unless you were one of the Campbellian heroes stoically trying to cross its path,” Sophie Gilbert writes for The Atlantic. For viewers, the fun part was watching how each successive passerby navigated the watery abyss. How will that sign-carrying man navigate the tumultuous waters? Will the next person barrel across or tip-toe around the boundary? Unless you tune in, you’ll never know.

2. Novelty Rules

Things that are novel—new, different, and unusual—can trigger the release of reward chemicals in the brains. Researchers Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Düzel found that if you show subjects never-before-seen-images, a region of the brain called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area lights up. When the brain interprets something novel, it also reacts by releasing dopamine, which in turn makes us want to go exploring for additional reward.

This idea helps explain why something we’ve never seen before—like a pillow that magically changes color when you brush it—can beat the odds and get tens of millions of eyeballs.

3. Synaptic Play

Our brains love making new connections among seemingly unrelated things. The more random the components connected, the more our synapses fire, building connections between neurons.

This idea of synaptic play helps explain why we find so much joy in discussing how a dog would wear pants—whether on two legs or all four. The more random the thought, the more beautiful the synaptic spark.

4. Impressing People

When you’re the first person in your office to comment on escaped llamas, you might feel a boost of social currency—you’ve just shared a cool tidbit that makes you look good. People want to impress their friends—whether on social media or real life—by sharing stories to bust boredom or show their intelligence, humor or wit. Online content that helps the sharer be perceived how he desires to be perceived is more apt to be circulated.

Psychological Reasons Why Boring Online Content Goes Viral

Marketing Takeaways

All of this suggests that even unsexy topics in so-called boring industries can become highly shareable and engaging with the right platform. According to TrackMaven’s 2016 Social Media ImpactReport: B2C Industry Edition, “With the exception of the Consumer Products and Telecommunications & Cable industries, B2C brands see the highest engagement ratios on Instagram.” This even translates to industries like insurance:

Instagram Engagement from TrackMaven

Consider the un-fun topic of public safety around trains. Instead of creating another boring PSA with the usual safety message, Australia’s Metro Trains chose to create a catchy, animated music video that earned millions of views and subsequently cut near-miss accidents by 30 percent. That initial success spawned follow-up videos, a game app, and even a toy line.

The key is looking at a seemingly ordinary topics in an unusual way. Abigail Posner with Google sums it up nicely:

“It may seem that all we’re doing is just capturing every mundane moment. But look closely. These everyday moments are shot, displayed, and juxtaposed in a way that offers us a new perspective. And then all of a sudden these everyday moments, places and things look… fascinating.”

For more insight on creating fascinating content, check out Skyword’s eBook on cutting through the social content clutter.

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