In January 2011, much was made of the ComScore data which placed MailOnline at the top of the internet news tree: it had just beaten The New York Times to become the world’s most popular news website. Since then, the Audit Bureau of Circulations stated the website’s unique visitors were up from 66 million in March 2011 to a striking 106 million in August 2012. For perspective, BBC News received 60 million.
So why is the site so popular?
The answer, perhaps, can be found in a study by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman which analysed the popularity of New York Times articles published online over a period of 3 months. Controlling for how surprising, interesting and visually salient the articles were, the researchers found that virality correlated significantly and positively with the emotional valence of the story. In other words, stories with strong emotional arousal (e.g. awe, anger, anxiety) were much more likely to be read and shared.
Consider also a study by Chip Heath of Made to Stick fame. They found the extent to which an urban legend was shared could be directly related to how disgusting it was. Have you heard the one about the woman who ate a taco containing spider eggs, and the eggs burrowed into her gums before hatching? Of course you have.
At Future Foundation we have first-hand experience of this (not the spiders in gums, the study of engagement via arousal). At our UK conference in May, head of research Katie Toll unveiled a brand new nVitro, Brainstorms at Bedtime, which studies the growing use of connected devices at times previously reserved for relaxation. The story was picked up by the press and went somewhat viral, but only after the Mail had taken the story and worked its magic, saying that “half of 16 to 34-year-olds would rather check their emails in bed than make time for love”. There is not much that is more emotional than sex, and sex sells.
This is where any insight professional outside of publishing says, “That’s great, but so what?”
Insights such as these speak to a new, burgeoning world of marketing; a way of engaging and nudging consumers with a level of efficacy marketers could only ever dream of before now. It tells us how to get brands noticed – and bought. BrainJuicer’s John Kearon, talking at Digital Shoreditch 2013, recently summed up the most successful adverts in two words: “pure emotion”. Think the Cadbury gorilla, the Three moonwalking pony or the Guinness horses. These adverts make no rational sense, yet they have been inordinately successful thanks to their profound use of emotion (and surprise and curiosity, but that’s another blog entry).
The most powerful marketing strategies are formed by those who understand Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 distinction – and by those who realise that System 1 (conscious, deliberative processes) makes up a tiny fraction of attention and judgment. The popular figure states that our brain consciously processes 40 bits of data out of every 11,000,000; the rest happens under the surface of awareness and control. The effective strategies of MailOnline, Cadbury, et al. demonstrate the awesome power of understanding the unconscious mind.