Contagious Emotions in Social Media

How contagious emotions in social media can affect business

Social MediaCategory
4 min read
Ariana Crisafulli

In college, I took a class called Interpersonal Communications. We learned all the essentials of person-to-person communication: why eye contact is important; how body language can determine the message you’re sending; and how emotion can be transferred to others in your immediate surroundings. What we didn’t learn about? Contagious emotions in social media.

With the advent of social media, it seems we need to add a new section to the Interpersonal Communications playbook — one that covers online interactions.

Studies suggest that social media acts as the digital twin of interpersonal communication.

For example, the University of Princeton recently conducted a study on the “emotional contagion” of users through Facebook. The study manipulated the newsfeeds of 689,003 Facebook users by decreasing the amount of positive or negative posts. The users who experienced a decrease in negative posts in their newsfeeds tended to post more positive messages. In contrast, users with reduced positive posts posted more negative messages.

Check out the image below. Does it make you happy? Would you share it with your social networks?

Contagious emotions in social media

Now, think about the nature of emotional contagion.

When someone laughs, we feel a sudden urge to respond in kind. If someone expresses sadness, you have an empathetic response. The Princeton emotional contagion study mimicked this phenomenon of emotional transferral — but did it through online communication. This begs the question: Are we not only adapting physically to new technology, but emotionally as well?

It appears that we ARE catching emotion from social media posts.

The study also found that when there was a lack of emotional posts in users’ newsfeeds, users had a withdrawal effect where they posted less frequently. It’s clear that emotions affect social media users and their behavior on social media platforms.

Create social content that provokes emotion

So, what can modern business owners do to make use of this knowledge? How can you create a ripple in the digital landscape and evangelize people to promote your business?

The key is simple: happiness.

Dr. Jonah Berger, a social scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, studies “word-of-mouth” communication. He and colleague Katherine Milkman analyzed The New York Times' “most emailed” list for six months to determine which kind of articles were most likely to be shared. They also accounted for other factors such as the amount of exposure on The Times’ home page.

What they found was that readers wanted to share content that provoked emotion, and mainly what they wanted to feel and share was content that provoked wonder and awe.

This is not to say that people don’t enjoy a good disaster. As anyone watching the evening news can attest to, we can still be hooked by our own morbid curiosity. But, although doom and gloom grabs eyeballs, it’s not as shareable as its opposite.

The business-customer relationship is no longer a one-way street.

Viewers of the evening news can’t interact with their TV sets, but they can now interact with the channel’s social media page. Similarly, your customers now have the power to be a part of your brand image by interacting with your social media posts.

Evangelize your followers

What’s more is that this is desirable. Posts that grab eyeballs but don’t provoke an interaction are duds in the social media realm. To really get exposure and be dubbed an authority in your field, you want to evangelize people to be digital billboards by sharing your posts. While the evening news only needs viewers, you as a small business owner could probably use some free advertising.

So, instead of the age-old adage, “if it bleeds, it leads,” start thinking, “if it cares, it shares.” Dr. Berger found not only that positive, emotionally-arousing messages were more likely to be shared, but that they had a higher chance of achieving that golden standard: going viral.

Perhaps you know the story of Joshie the Giraffe or the one about the tiger bread. Both stories had an insignificant start: A young boy loses his favorite stuffed animal, and a 3-year-old inquires about the name of a certain type of bread. The thing that makes these stories interesting is how the businesses involved were able to evoke emotional reactions from the social media community and turn their stories into viral sensations.

Though the opportunity does not always arise to take a stuffed animal on a vacation, or to rename a product on the whim of a youngster, you can take a lesson from these two stories about keeping your eyes open for opportunities to create a shareable ripple.