Warning: This post is not about the overused, trivial “awesome,” which I provided alternatives for in my most popular post. What I want to talk about today is how you can inspire awe.

Awe, in its best sense, is rarely specified in advice on what makes content go viral in posts such as The Science of Viral Content, The Often Forgotten Viral Content Marketing Tactic and 13 Lessons from Upworthy and Buzzfeed.

But many awe factors, such as emotion, surprise and social activism, are woven through their share-worthy observations.

For the busy people who want the quick goods, here are five tips I gleaned from poring over research about awe.

  1. Write about an idea that will transform the individual’s way of looking at the world. This can range from discovering a new planet or a cure for the common cold to a new way to put on your eyeliner or clean your floor.
  2. Connect the dots in a way that nobody saw before. Like Copernicus discovering that the universe revolved around the sun, not the earth. Or Steve Jobs’ understanding of the hunger for an intuitive interface, instead of robotic computer commands.
  3. Feed steroids to beautiful, admirable, surprising, joyful, loving, scary and ground-breaking. If you think a Monet painting is beautiful, you will stare at it for a few minutes. If you’re in awe of the painting, you may start viewing lush landscapes from this perspective.
  4. Star powerful people who are bigger and shinier than the individual. Following a charismatic leader, whether it’s Osama bin Laden or Kim Kardashian, makes people do things they’d be afraid to do, or feel little point in doing, on their own.
  5. Think religion, social advocacy, politics and other good and uniting causes, the bigger the better. People want to belong to something that transcends themselves.

Why this works

For those patient, or skeptical, readers who want to know how I came up with these tips, keep reading.

I was inspired by a post from the New York Times about a 2010 University of Pennsylvania study that found its most-emailed posts tended to be longer, the theme of my last post.

For days, nattering away at the back of my mind, was the revelation that the most-shared posts relied on way more than word count. Above and beyond any other factor, Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman found that they inspired awe.

Let me stress that I’m not talking about the banal use of awesome or the trivial kind of content that goes viral. I too share quizzes, dog videos and other content that would fit into this category, but awe is the objective here.

As the Pennsylvania research found, the content that has the longest legs inspires awe, which explains why scientific breakthroughs were so widely shared by Times’ readers.

The researchers defined awe as an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” Immense in scale, awe forces the reader to view the world in a radically different way.

According to an interesting article in the Huffington Post, awe-inspiring experiences can make you happier, less stressed and more creative. True.

But what I found most helpful in searching for the key to awesomeness and virality was a 2003 indepth study of awe in religion, sociology, philosophy and psychology by Dachter Keltner at the University of California at Berkeley and Jonathon Haidt of the University of Virginia, big influencers on the Pennsylvania concept of awe.

What inspires awe?

Citing the examples of Arjuna in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and Paul of Damascus from the Bible, they pointed out how their god revealed knowledge that profoundly changed the hero’s worldview.

From sociology, they borrowed Max Weber’s analysis of charismatic leaders, such as Buddha, Ghandi, Hitler and Martin Luther King. By inspiring awe, they persuaded people to embark on heroic, self-sacrificing missions.

In philosophy, they looked to Edmund Burke’s writing on the sublime, which involves expanded thought and greatness of mind, inspired by art, literature and nature.

They also compared awe to what psychologist Abraham Maslow’s found in peak experiences, which includes disorientation, suspension of time and submission in the presence of something greater than yourself.

Although frequently hopeful, awe can also scary. For example, during an earthquake, you could be awestruck by the shaking, bangs and the earth opening up in ways you never thought possible.

People often feel awe during times of crisis, when they need to shed a way of thinking that no longer makes sense. This may explain why those jihadi cries go viral with distressed young men.

Can awe pass today’s share test?

Of course, all this deep thinking that has gone on for centuries is not worth a hill of beans to you if awe doesn’t play a role in going viral. What’s more, the University of Pennsylvania research involved The New York Times, which may have an older, better educated demographic than you’re trying to please.

Plus, the study focused on emailing, a far more popular way of sharing when the study was done five years ago. Maybe today’s social media platforms rely less on awe. But relying on the wisdom of the ages is worth a try.

So the next time you create content that you want to be awesome in the best sense, ask yourself does it

  • transform the individual’s way of looking at the world
  • explain something important in a brand new way
  • show something extremely beautiful, admirable, joyful, surprising or ground-breaking
  • star charismatic people
  • provide a noble cause the individual can belong to?

Seriously awesome content often does not hit all these buttons. But it must hit a few.

The more awe factors, the better

Take the example of this slick music video that publicized the launch of BBC Music.

The video lets us interpret an old song in new ways, with a mix of styles and vocalists, all charismatic music leaders. They performed in unexpected settings, such as a tiger climbing on creator Brian Wilson’s piano. I was in awe, as were the millions of people who shared this video. However, unlike other videos that use a roster of stars to reimagine classic hits to champion world peace or raise money for hunger, this one does not make people feel they belong to a noble social cause.

In contrast, this amateur video  about a homeless man playing piano in Edmonton changes perceptions of disadvantaged people. It bonded people who want to help. But did Rob have the charisma to attract followers? Probably not. Ironically, the lack of charisma and slick production values made this video more awesome to me.

So what does this mean for content creators who want more shares? In a nutshell, the more awe factors, the better.

At last week’s Meshmarketing conference, Ann Handley pointed to the large number of viral post titles that contain the words “mind-blowing,”  evidence that content marketers are pursuing the seriously shareable meaning of awesome.

Or as Trudy, the schizo bag lady in the play In Search of Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe would have said, creators of seriously awesome content are going for goose bumps.

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In search of awe—or 5 tips for creating seriously awesome, shareable content
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