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New Study: Why we Forward Emails

by Brian Blum on February 16, 2010

in Interactive,Research

Jonah Berger

Jonah Berger

Katherine Milkman

Katherine Milkman

If you’re like me, you probably receive a lot of forwarded emails from friends with shots of awe-inspiring photography or some insight about why humans behave in the strange, amusing or crazy ways they so often do. Now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania can tell us why.

These researchers – Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman – were pretty serious about their study. They intensively analyzed The New York Times list of most-emailed articles, checking it every 15 minutes for more than six months, reviewing the content of more than 7,500 articles, and controlling for factors such as where the articles appeared on the site (i.e., home page, tech page, etc.) wrote John Tierney in The Times last week.

The results are consistent with what tends to fill up my own inbox: positive rather than negative themed articles, and long pieces on intellectually challenging topics. Take that, silly dancing cat videos.

Berger and Milkman said that the most shared emails were those that “inspired awe,” and that science articles were particularly popular. And not just reviews of the latest gadget. “You’d see articles shooting up the list…about the optics of deer vision,” Berger told Tierney.

Of the thousands of articles flagged during the research period, a random sample were rated by independent readers for qualities like “providing practical value” or “being surprising,” Tierney wrote. The researchers also used computer algorithms to track the ratio of “emotional” words in an article and to assess their relative positivity or negativity.

Explaining why “awe” sells…or at least results in more frequent forwarding, Berger explained that the most emailed articles tended to be those that triggered an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” That might include standing in front of a beautiful piece of art or listening to a grand symphony.

Of course, there were also the show-off’s. If you send an article off about quantum mechanics, you might preface it by writing “of course this is just a superficial treatment.” And there were the fear mongers, too, who shared pieces on impending terror attacks or tax increases (in equal measures, I’m sure).

But it’s the awe that’s the stickiest. “If I’ve just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe,” Berger concluded.

So, am I doing my job here on this blog? I’m not sure. I try to write about interesting topics, perhaps even those that will surprise you (“Kids Consuming 11 Hours of Media a Day”) or that will provide some scientific insight (“Addicted to Email”). But do you feel a sense of awe when I share my thoughts on the latest Apple products or the latest trend of TV viewers tweeting live while they’re watching Heroes?

I’m not a big believer in writing exclusively for SEO, making sure my keywords are all punk’d out to their stickiest max. That would go for posting only awe-full articles too. If there’s something that I believe would be of value to you, my dear reader, I’ll blog it. And vice versa. If you enjoy what I’ve shared, feel free to forward it…regardless of what the researchers say.

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