Brains Don’t Lie: The Neuroscience Of Viral Content

It was once enough for a piece of marketing content simply to be memorable and communicate positive qualities about a brand or product. But today’s consumer holds such incredible power to amplify content reach that marketers and designers need to build in hooks to compel users to share messages far and wide.

By analyzing the neural mechanisms underlying decision making, we can gather insights that help us create mass interest, nudge audiences to action, and ultimately create content that’s more shareable. Designers and marketers have an eye for what is compelling, but looking at the neuroscience behind what works and what doesn’t can help creative teams craft attention-grabbing experiences that will extend brand reach.

Here are six recommendations to keep in mind when creating content:

1. Keep It Positive

Positive content overwhelmingly outperforms negative content. Even after controlling for the prevalence of positive content, it is still shared more than negative content.

A study that analyzed 7,000 New York Times articles over a three-month period for traffic and social shares confirms that content shared the most reflects feelings of joy, anticipation, interest, and trust. Just look at the 50 most shared Facebook posts of 2014. It’s a compilation of people doing awesome things, a manifesto on the joys of falling in love, and, of course, the sunny and adorable minions from the movie “Despicable Me.”

If you must go negative, try provoking strong emotions in the viewer. Content that incites anger or anxiety still moves people to share. For instance, political messages tend to do well when they provoke outrage. The number of shares may be fewer than that of positive content, but more than that of depressing content. This is because sadness is a deactivating emotion. Users often scroll past after engaging with the content instead of sharing.

Bottom line, don’t make people feel sad and leave it at that. Mixing emotions is an effective way to offset sad content. By incorporating more positive emotions, such as awe and joy, with a tinge of sadness, you have got the makings of a moving story, like Hyundai’s: A Message to Space commercial. In this, Hyundai helps a little girl send a message to her dad that’s so big that he can see it from space. Always’ “Like a Girl” campaigns also do a great job of turning frustrating and negative experiences of women and girls into something inspiring, hopeful, and very shareable.

2. Be Original

New things make us feel good. Research indicates that only absolutely novel imagery activates the region in our midbrain called the substantia nigra/ventral segmental area, or SN/VTA. Your audience won’t receive that boost of dopamine or activation in the SN/VTA if they’ve seen something similar before. The SN/VTA is linked to the hippocampus, a memory center, as well as the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. These neural connections explain why we remember the pleasure and sensations we feel in response to new things. They also explain why we are not excited and interested by things we’ve seen before. So if you’re not so subtly ripping off someone else’s idea, don’t, for both moral and practical reasons.

In being original, there’s also the element of surprise. Capitalize on that. Some commercials are bizarre and surreal, like the “I’m on a horse” Old Spice commercials featuring Isaiah Mustafa. Some are so inventive and imaginative–like this fantastical foray into the Air France dream world, complete with swings, flowers, ballerinas, and love–that they surprise and delight.

3. Lure Them with Breadcrumbs

We’re all curious creatures and usually take the bait if we’re teased with a small amount of knowledge about something. We’re hungry for more information to fill that knowledge gap. The gap theory of curiosity was coined by George Loewenstein in the early ’90s and suggests a gap “between what we know and what we want to know.” This produces a mental itch. We are compelled to learn more and fill that gap in order to scratch the itch.

Loewenstein’s theory is supported by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) findings. There’s activation of the caudate region of the brain when curiosity is piqued. The caudate is linked to new knowledge, positive emotions, and the dopamine reward pathway. Essentially, curiosity begins as a dopamine craving embedded in the same primal pathway that responds to sex. Scratching the itch makes us happy. This is what makes curiosity so powerful.

Use the gap theory as your secret weapon to bait your audience. Offer them a little morsel and wait for them to click and fill that knowledge gap. Car companies are great at employing gap theory. Take, for example, the Volkswagen commercial that starts with a boy dressed as Darth Vader motioning at various household objects, or the FIAT commercial that starts with an older gentleman who has lost his little blue pill. You don’t really know what’s going on and keep watching until you realize, “Oh, it’s a car commercial. Heh, that’s clever.”

Curiosity is ultimately an emotion we can employ to tease and provoke. People take pleasure in wanting to know more, so don’t give it all away at once. Also, once you’ve hooked one person, you’ll have a diffusion effect on your hands. After all, people tend to share content that makes them happy or has fulfilled their curiosity.

4. Stack Those Brands

Two is more powerful than one. This concept applies to synaptic connections in the brain as well. You can combine two trends to strengthen their synaptic association. You can make a weaker connection stronger by pairing it with a stronger association. The Hebbian theory in neuroscience supports this idea, positing that neurons who “fire together, wire together.” Simultaneous activation of cells increases synaptic strength, like how hearing Green Day’s Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) will always bring back memories of the high-school prom.

Establishing positive experiences between consumers and new brands is challenging, especially if the brand is trying to enter into a new market. Enter co-branding: Pair a lesser known, yet intriguing, brand in one sphere with a prominent brand in that same sphere. Take, for example, Nike’s collaboration with Sacai. Typically known for men’s fashion, Chitose Abe of Sacai has now created a line of edgy workout-wear for Nike. These two brands are maximizing their reach by creating a super fan. Nike consumers are going to get a dopamine boost at the novelty of the workout wear. Plus the curiosity about Sacai will trigger the neurons in consumers’ reward pathways to offer double the fire power. Now both Nike and Sacai are associated with innovation, and Sacai is associated with trustworthy, well-made performance gear.

Co-branding also circles back to novelty and the compulsion to share it. Nike and Sacai will both be positively associated with a “cool factor.” In their consumers’ minds, these brands will be associated with the reward of sharing such an interesting collaboration. Ultimately, the collaboration results in a strengthened association between sharing Nike and Sacai merchandise and feeling pleasure.

5. Be Strategic About Color

Colors are everywhere and can drastically impact our behavior. For designers and marketers, it’s useful to understand what’s shareable when putting together ad campaigns on social media or what filters to add on Instagram. In 90 seconds, users formulate their color impressions, which determines the acceptance or dismissal of objects, individuals, or environments. Choose colors wisely because they just might determine the success of a project.

Of note, the colors red, purple, and pink seem to promote diffusion, whereas green, blue, black, and yellow suppress shares. A study of 1 million Pinterest images reveals the granularity of color usage. While red images are more shared than blue images, the amount of red on a page or screen matters. Red backgrounds elicit greater feelings of arousal than blue ones, which means they are more shareable. However, products on blue backgrounds are liked more than products presented on red. The excitement that red incites starts off pleasurable, but after a certain point, it decreases pleasure and increases anxiety. Everything should be done in moderation.

Color images, images with people in them, and more saturated images are also shared more. Look at these viral ads from last year, and you’ll see a collection of very human content with warm coloring.

6. Know Your Audience’s Audience

Keep in mind that your audience has an audience, too. If the goal is market penetration, then delving deeper is important. Research suggests that the likelihood of content propagation is not only linked to activation that signals reward processing, but also to the ability to simulate the minds of others. People feel pleasure when sharing content and anticipatory pleasure in imagining how others will respond to that content. Brain scans have confirmed that activation in the ventral striatum, a pleasure center–as well as the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DPMFC) areas, which govern empathetic anticipation of pleasure in others–can predict shareability. For example, I share inspiring dance videos with my network of performer friends because I know they will react positively to it.

Furthermore, research has shown that content is shared as a reflection of self and a means to connect to and moderate a large social network. Everyone curates their social presence, and the likelihood of users sharing content that will position them as social influencers is much higher. Craft experiences that will surprise and delight so that your audience, in anticipation of positive feedback from their audiences, will be very eager to share these experiences with their networks.

The bottom line is that neuroscience can help designers and marketers create smarter, thoughtful, and more evocative campaigns. It can help them avoid being tired, cliché, and boring.

Hopefully some of this information has been positive, new, or has piqued your interest. Science says you should share it.

This piece appeared in’s CMO Exclusives on 11/6/15.


Amanda is an Art Director at Primacy, a full-service digital agency. She has done brand design and motion work at Percolate, CMYK+WHITE and The MET and holds a master’s degree from Pratt Institute’s Communications Design Program. Prior to becoming a designer, Amanda studied neuroscience at Columbia University and conducted Alzheimer’s Disease research at Columbia Medical Center. Her scientific background grounds her design process and work in the fundamentals of human cognition and emotion. She believes in multidisciplinary design, collaboration and asking permission later.

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