Given the substantial ROI lifts enabled by word-of-mouth, marketers are always in search of ways to boost video ad sharing.
But as we know, self-reported reactions to ads can be very misleading.
A recent study conducted by Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger and Daniel McDuff of Microsoft Research sought to avoid that challenge by recording facial expressions and comparing them with rates of video ad sharing.
The study, published in December in The Journal of Advertising Research, was the largest of its kind and the first to investigate the link between emotional responses to video ads and sharing, according to the Knowledge@Wharton site, which interviewed Berger about the research.
For the study, thousands of consumers across five countries were asked to watch a random set of commercials on their home computers while their webcams recorded their facial expressions. Custom-built algorithms coded their emotional responses.
The results suggest that not all emotions increase sharing. But contrary to some assumptions, some negative, as well as positive, emotions seem to drive sharing.
Some facial expressions linked to negative emotions, like lip-depressor responses indicating sadness, did decrease sharing.
But some linked to disgust, like nose wrinkling, were linked to increased sharing, along with expressions of pleasure, like smiles.
“You might think that sharing is all about valence, or positivity and negativity,” Berger observed in the Wharton interview. “We share things that make us feel good and avoid sharing things that make us feel bad. After all, why would people want to share something with someone else that would make them feel bad? But that’s not the entire story.”
Consistent with other research conducted by Berger and colleagues, this study’s results show that “rather than just being about feeling good or bad, sharing is also about the physiological arousal associated with different emotions,” he continued.
“Emotions that fire us up to take action, like anger and anxiety — and in this case, disgust — boost sharing, while emotions that power us down, like sadness, decrease sharing.”
What does this mean for marketers, in practical terms?
“First, if you want people to share, making them feel good isn’t enough,” Berger stressed. “Feeling content isn’t going to make people share. You have to fire them up. Make them feel excited, inspired, or surprised.”
“Second, you don’t have to shy away from negative emotions. Because they fire people up, anger, anxiety or even disgust can be leveraged to encourage word-of-mouth.”
However, the specific dynamics appear to vary by culture.
In the U.S. and U.K., smiles were strongly related to increased video sharing, but the effect was less pronounced in China, France, and Germany, or any country that scores lower on individualism, Berger reported.
Most important for contextual consideration, the researchers acknowledge that increased sharing doesn’t necessarily lead to increased sales.
“Some of the emotions that boost sharing might not always boost sales,” Berger confirmed. “An ad that shows something gross might boost sharing, but it might reduce the chance people buy the product.”
But “the neat thing about the [facial expressions] method is that it can be applied more broadly,” Berger says. “Rather than ask people to fill out surveys, just watch how they react to ads. Hopefully, it will allow future research to examine a range of interesting questions” — including, marketers can hope, the specific conditions or factors that determine when sharing does and does not drive actual sales.