The Emotions that Spark Word of Mouth - Ed Keller

By Ed Keller Word-of-Mouth Matters Archives

In his keynote speech to the Advertising Research Foundation's recent media conference, New York Times columnist David Brooks talked about key themes from his new book, The Social Animal, that relate to marketing. He told the audience of nearly 700 that he believes the primacy of emotion is one of the three most important "foundations" coming out of scientific inquiry in the fields of neuroscience and psychology. "Emotions are central to how we think and to the wiring of the fibers of the brain," he said.

At the same conference, I presented a paper with MediaVest's Emily Vanides on the topic, "Conversation Triggers: Sparking Conversation with Advertising and Media." Consistent with the point made by Brooks, our research shows that strong emotional content is key to people's desire to pass along things they hear about brands either though word of mouth or online sharing.

In our firm's ongoing word of mouth tracking study, consumers report to us on brands about which they had a recent conversation (either offline or online), and then summarize the things that were said about the brand. We also ask them how likely they are to tell others what they've heard in their recent conversations. This allows us to compare the words, phrases, and ideas that pop up in conversations which are very likely to be passed along to other people, versus all other conversations.

One of the most interesting findings is that, overall, positive word of mouth is more "viral" than negative. While there is an assumption that people are more likely to spread negative news or experiences than positive, that turns out not to be the case. On an overall basis, people are far more likely to have positive conversations about brands than negative. And, they are one third more likely to tell others about conversations in which they hear positive things about brands versus when they hear negative things.

We also find that positive emotions are especially viral. In the tech category, for example, 36% of those highly likely to forward the opinions were exposed to strongly emotive and positive words and phrases, compared to 17% of those unlikely to pass along what they heard. We see a similar pattern in a very different type of category –beauty– in which people are also far more likely to pass on word of mouth when the conversations they are a part of include strongly positive words like "love" or "great".

Indeed, a similar conclusion was reached by Wharton professors Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman when they undertook a study of the "most shared" articles appearing in the New York Times. In addition to positive stories getting shared more than negative ones, they found that articles that get shared fall into two categories: (a) those that provide practical utility such as articles about how to save money or live healthier, and (b) emotion-laden stories– in particular, ones that inspire awe. In describing to us what is meant by awe in this instance, Berger says "stories about curing diseases, discovering new planets, or people overcoming odds can all evoke a sense that the world is an amazing place and inspire senses of awe in the reader." A specific example Berger cites is "an awe inspiring article is a hockey player who continues to play even while they have brain cancer. It makes the reader feel that the world is an amazing place and that anything is possible."

With the growing recognition of the value of recommendations, many marketers are now trying to uncover the keys that will trigger conversation and sharing. The takeaway from these research studies is that while it's common to assume that bad news travels further than good news, and that "funny" or "quirky" or "clever" are the keys to helping something "go viral," that's just not true. Give people things of value and they will share it (e.g., the utilitarian items such as coupons or tips for healthy living,) or give them something that will drive strong emotions (what psychologists call "activation") and they feel inspired to share it with others.

For marketers wishing to spread good news about their brands, the findings about emotion and word of mouth are both positive and exciting. Spread the word.

Ed Keller, CEO of the Keller Fay Group, has been called "one of the most recognized names in word of mouth." The publication of Keller's book, The Influentials, has been called the "seminal moment in the development of word of mouth." Ed can be contacted at

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