Feeling Viral: How Generations and Genders Respond to Emotional Content

High-arousal emotions are at the center of every viral content success – but which emotions are key to reaching specific age and gender demographics? Building on our previous research on viral emotions, we recently expanded our study to learn more about the variations in emotional responses between ages and genders.

Which emotions go viral?

In each of our studies, we showed research participants a set of viral photos from the popular image sharing site Imgur. Participants reported their emotional responses, which we categorized based on Robert Plutchik’s comprehensive Wheel of Emotion.

Emotion Chart

In our first study, we learned which emotions were most closely associated with viral content:

  • Amusement
  • Interest
  • Surprise
  • Happiness
  • Delight
  • Pleasure
  • Joy
  • Hope
  • Affection
  • Excitement

In our new study, we delved deeper to understand the differences in emotional responses between different age groups, as well as men and women. We found that three emotional components are central to viral images across all ages and genders:

  • They inspire positive feelings. We found a high correlation between feelings of joy, amusement, and happiness with the amount of initial views, which are critical to content sharing.
  • They are emotionally complex. While positive feelings garner initial views, an image must elicit multiple emotions in order to be highly shared.
  • They are in some way surprising. This emotion, which we categorized independently of positive and negative reactions, was the second-most reported response to all viral images in every demographic.

Generational Differences

Those in the 18–34 age range reported fewer feelings of surprise and anticipation than older viewers – a finding we think can be attributed to their greater exposure and possible desensitization to this medium. Since surprise was one of the most highly reported responses to viral content, this result may indicate that Millennials are the most difficult generation to target with static images.

How can marketers respond to this challenge? Try new mediums, such as flipbooks or interactive assets, to engage Millennials who have grown bored by static images. This group may also be inclined to share only more new or particularly intriguing content, so consider whether breaking news or a twist in the presentation might be appropriate for your campaign.

Want to see more results and takeaways for targeting different age groups, and see the specific images we used in this study? Download our white paper for free.

Gender Differences

Men and women reported strikingly similar emotional responses to viral images; however, there were some nuances that may give marketers an edge in appealing specifically to different genders.

Men: In addition to reporting a slightly smaller range of emotional reactions, men reported a statistically significant more reactions of joy. This may mean that it is easier to earn initial views from men because their positive feeling of joy is easier to engage, but that they may be less likely to share content due to their more difficult-to-engage experience of emotional complexity. To promote more sharing among male audiences, marketers may want to consider incorporating more opposing or dynamic emotional components in campaigns.

Women: While women reported more emotional complexity (which may make them more prone to sharing content), they reported slightly fewer positive feelings overall. The only exception was in the category of trust, which women experienced more often than men. Because positive feelings are so closely correlated with initial views, and initial views are critical to earning shares, marketers may want to tap into the trust emotion in order to elicit more first looks from women.


via Emotions Research

Kelsey Libert is a Marketing VP and partner at Fractl. She is a viral marketing and media relations speaker, and she contributes to the Harvard Business Review, Marketing Land, Buffer, and HubSpot. Connect with her via LinkedInTwitter, or Kelsey@frac.tl.

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