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Personality matters: the tie between language and how well your video content performs

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Rajiv Garg
Rajiv Garg, associate professor of information systems & operations management

Why does one piece of online video content perform better than another? Does it come down to its relevance, production values, and posting and sharing strategies? Or are other dynamics at play?

There are plenty of theories about what, when and how to post if you want to drive the performance of your video. But new research by Goizueta’s Rajiv Garg, Associate Professor of Information Systems and Operation Management, sheds empirical and highly nuanced new light on the type of language to inject in a content if you really want to accelerate consumption. And it turns out that a lot of it depends on personality.

Together with Haris Krijestorac of HEC Paris and McCombs’ Maytal Saar-Tsechansky, Garg has run a large-scale study, analyzing the words spoken and used in speech-heavy videos posted to YouTube, and then organizing those words by personality – how they “score” in terms of the so-called Big Five personality traits.

“The Big Five is a system or taxonomy that has been used by psychologists and others since the 1980s to organize different types of personality traits. These traits are extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism,” said Garg.

“In previous research into video content performance, we’ve looked into mechanisms such as posting and re-posting on different channels and how they impact the virality of one video over another. But we were intrigued by the role of language and how different words map to these personality traits, which in turn might have an impact on user emotion or response.”

The Big Five

The Big Five is a well-established psycholinguistic framework that characterizes personality along five dimensions: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Individuals or collectives may exhibit each trait to varying degrees. Specifically, high openness is associated with curiosity and willingness to try new experiences, while low openness is associated with caution and reserve. Conscientiousness refers to a preference for planning over spontaneity, and self-discipline over free-spiritedness. Extroversion is marked by high levels of engagement with other individuals and the external world, whereas individuals who are less extroverted (i.e., introverted) are more internally-focused. Agreeableness suggests an attentiveness towards others, and a concern for social and interpersonal harmony, while disagreeable individuals are more assertive and confrontational. Finally, the neuroticism trait is associated with emotional volatility; feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, envy, jealousy, guilt, depressed mood, or loneliness. The degree to which each of these traits is exhibited by an individual, group, or entity can be referred to as its “personality.”

Garg’s curiosity about content was initially piqued by a set of videos published by automobile manufacturer, Mercedes Benz, in 2015.

The “She’s Mercedes” campaign ran a number of short films featuring women and focused on themes like gender equality in business and growing up in different socio-economic contexts. The videos were shot using the same production values and speaking to the same core themes and values. However, despite their similarities, the Mercedes videos performed very differently from one another. Some were generating thousands of views; others far fewer.

“We were intrigued,” said Garg. “Here was the same story about women’s empowerment, so these videos should have had similar impact; they should have resonated with the broader audience in the same way. But they didn’t. So, we wondered if inherent differences in the personality of each video might matter; if the language, the words used, and the personality inherent in these words and language might somehow elicit different user responses. And we found that they did.”

The transcripts revealed that some videos were obviously more introverted or neurotic, says Garg; intimate stories about life events that focused on personal experiences and learning. Others were clearly more extroverted, conscientious, or open; speeches made by authors or public figures on more generalized areas of gender equality.

When Garg et al. performed some preliminary analysis, comparing how these different personality types resonated with YouTube audiences, they found something both extraordinary and counter intuitive. The neurotic, introverted content was outperforming the extroverted by more than 200%.

“We did some qualitative analysis, asking volunteers why they preferred the introverted videos, and they told us that is was more exciting and less flat than the more open or extroverted pieces,” Garg said.

From here, Garg and his colleagues started to explore video content on YouTube in greater depth, to get a better sense of the tie between personality and performance. In total they downloaded more than 25,000 videos from 300+ popular brand channels on YouTube – organizing them into comparable categories, then tracked audience interaction for a period of 12 months. They also processed the transcripts for each video, using a machine learning model based on IBM Watson, to determine the dominant personality in each.

“For years, psychologists have been able to assign a personality score to different words. For example, the word ‘fascinating’ excites stronger emotions than, say, ‘interesting.’ So, we were able to tally scores across word clusters and the big five traits, and ascribe a specific personality trait or combination of traits to videos that performed well, and those that didn’t,” said Garg.

As the consumption trajectories for the videos began to change over time – some continuing to engage audiences as others fell off – Garg and his co-authors were able to pull the data together to determine which personalities were performing better than others. And the results mirrored what they’d found with Mercedes-Benz.

“Globally, the videos that perform best are those that have high score for neuroticism, and lower scores for agreeableness. And that feels a bit counter intuitive because you’d expect agreeableness to be better received. But it turns out that it’s the combination of these two traits that seems to be the magic formula.”

What seems to be happening, said Garg, is that content that is less “agreeable” doesn’t confirm or merely appease audience expectations. It is inherently more confrontational, less understood and accepted; it’s new and unexpected. When this kind of challenging content is augmented by the ‘neurotic,’ there is an injection of stronger feeling or passion that appears to excite greater interest and response in a general audience. Similarly, the more conscientious or disciplined the video – the more rigid or flat it was – the less well it performed relative to fun or spontaneous content.

“Pulling it all together, the top-performing personality traits are high openness, high neuroticism, high extroversion, but low conscientiousness and low agreeableness. We found this across the board.

“In fact, we found that if you create a video using words and language that map to these personality traits, you are likely to get one percent additional daily user views, and some 14 percent additional aggregated cumulative views over time,” said Garg. “A simple model that we’ve created based on this analysis can predict this with around 72 percent accuracy.”

For organizations competing in this context for user clicks and engagement, Garg and his co-authors have created a practical framework to help determine what kind of personality and content will work best for brand channels – right down to the choice of individual words.

“The internet is a very busy place, and your brand is competing for user attention at a moment in time when user attention span is very reduced. People are looking for strong emotions and content that makes them feel something profound or significant – and they want it quickly. Understanding the role that language and personality plays in eliciting these kinds of responses is arming your brand to compete effectively in a world where every second – and every word – counts.”

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