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2 Emotions To Exploit (And 2 To Avoid) For Contagious Social Media Marketing

Colorful woman showing emotions for contagious social media marketing

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No matter if you’re trying to inspire empathy in your readers or just trying to make them laugh, harnessing emotions with your social media marketing is a vital skill to have.

In no field of marketing is an effective use of emotional direction more important than social media. With such limited and congested real estate, every nuance of your headline, copy and post topic must work in tandem in order to rise above the rest of the pack.

Studies have found that content that elicits an emotional response typically gets shared twice as much as that which contains little emotional value.

However, playing with emotions can be a dangerous game. Not only can it lead to accusations of being manipulative, but picking the wrong emotions to target can have a dampening effect on the potential virality of your content.

With the help of several psychological studies, this post will detail exactly which emotions you should try to elicit in your readers – and which you should avoid – in order to give your social media marketing a contagious edge.

Emotions to avoid

1. Joy

Joy and happiness may seem like an obvious target when pursuing social media virality, particularly as countless heart-warming stories invariably clog up our newsfeeds on a daily basis.

However, while aiming to achieve happiness through your post is not necessarily a bad goal (any emotion is better than none), it isn’t always the home run that you’d expect it to be.

Although happiness can be a fantastic driver of sharing behaviour, it has the dual problems of being difficult to achieve and without doubt the most sought-after emotion in marketing. This  market saturation of people trying to make readers smile makes it extremely difficult to stand out from the crowd.

The content that does rise to the top is almost always human stories, due to the extra gravitas that comes with the reality of the subject matter. It often takes a mammoth marketing budget and a huge established presence for a branded happiness campaign to take off, as was the case with Coca Cola’s “Share a Coke” series.

At the very least, humour or inspiration (both of which directly lead to happiness and exhilaration) should be considered as the primary aim of your post:

Emotional trigger table for contagious social media marketing


2. Sadness

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, sadness-based content is another almost ever-present feature of our newsfeeds.

However, like happiness, sadness is another emotion which is too frequently chased in marketing. Whether genuine sorrow or an offshoot emotion such as nostalgia, the power of such a palpable emotion has long been clear to marketers, who have exploited it to the extent that audiences are now highly desensitized to it.

With such levels of desensitization comes increased scrutiny. If something is designed to make someone feel sadness and misses its target, it risks incurring cynicism instead.

Without paying due care and attention to your copy or overusing sadness as an emotion, it’s also possible to create an unwanted association between your brand and sorrow.

What’s more, a study conducted by Johan Berger concluded that sadness-evoking content fared much worse when compared to other emotions due to being characterised by inaction and low levels of emotional arousal, thus considerably weakening the potential for content to be shared.

Emotions to use

1. Anger

While it’s once again important to stress that playing with emotional appeals does come with risks, anger and frustration are two emotional sensations that offer huge social amplification potential.

Clearly, having people associate you or your brand with feelings of anger or frustration is not a good thing. However, by acting as a conduit for news that causes feelings of consternation, you can tap into huge viral possibilities.

Framing your content or product with anger is a delicate business. Whether achieved by sharing a genuine grievance that you have personally suffered or otherwise, it’s important that, once your content has the reader emotionally hooked, you offer a resolution. Avoid inciting righteous indignation, as it’s extremely difficult to backtrack from.

Leaving the anger lingering risks the association between it and your brand sticking. If you’re able to turn that anger into a positive emotion then the journey you take the reader on can be truly invaluable in terms of brand building.

Brian Acton Tweet example of contagious social media marketing


The example of WhatsApp founder Brian Acton is a fantastic one. Although not framed in an overly angry fashion, every reader can relate to the frustration Acton must have felt upon being rejected by Facebook for a job opportunity.

The resolution is that he went on to found WhatsApp, eventually selling up to the very company that rejected him back in 2009 for a mind-blowing sum. It’s little surprise that the Business Insider article covering the story received much more attention than almost all of their other stories about the app and Acton, despite its comparatively short length.

Another way of closing the loop opened by utilising anger and frustration is by highlighting a common pain point in your initial social post and then demonstrating how your business or product solves the problem.

2. Surprise

Just as it’s not always in your best interests to chase joy or sadness due to their saturation, surprising readers and subverting their expectations is a sure-fire way of stoking the social flames.

Surprise may not be one of the first emotions that springs to mind when it comes to social media, but a study conducted by professors at Emory University found that people are “designed to crave the unexpected.”

Examples such as the Oreo Super Bowl blackout Tweet, which surprised through the speed with which it responded to a real life event, are proof of how well surprise can work on social media:

Oreo Super Bowl Tweet example of contagious social media marketing


Surprise also has an amplifying effect on the emotion it leads towards, offering further sharing potential.

If the audience know your social channels consistently deliver content designed to make them smile, they’ll enjoy it. However, if you place a post designed to elicit happiness or laughter in amongst more serious content then it will receive much more attention.

Surprise is also perhaps the best emotion to use in order to create a memorable, lasting relationship with readers. We consume heart-warming and sad content every day, but outside of our favourite news outlets, we’re unlikely to remember where we saw that content.

By surprising people, you connect in a more memorable fashion.

Guest Author: Matt Clough is the content marketing manager at Cloggs and has covered a wide range of topics, including marketing, branding, SEO and entertainment and the arts for the likes of Search Engine Land, the Guardian and the Independent.

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