5 Ways to Guard Against “Emotional Contagion” in Agencies

Posted by Carol Setter on July 1st, 2014 at 8:28 am

In an earlier phase of social media research, a primary concern was about reach. How many people did an individual influence through social media? As tools became more sophisticated, the questions changed. No longer was it solely about the number of people influenced. The question evolved to the nature and emotional effects of the influence.

Two studies have been recently released that provide greater context to understanding the emotional underpinning of social media, and the messages they deliver are not only for marketers, but also for agencies.

  • Viral Anger Tentacles Quickly. An intriguing study was conducted analyzing tweets from Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter. They reviewed 70 million tweets from 200,000 users collected over a six-month period. The goal was to understand the influence of emotions: anger, sadness, joy and disgust. Word choice, response time and expression of similar sentiments were analyzed. The result was the anger tended to be more influential and viral than other emotions, slithering quickly and widely in the network. Additionally, in comparing the sentiments, “there is a stronger correlation between a pair of users if they share more interactions.”
  • Emotional Contagion Spreads without Direct Interaction. Facebook participated in a study of nearly 700,000 participants and 3 million posts. The study focused on the effects of exposure to more or less positive posts on readers’ news feeds. Results indicated that emotional states could be transferred to others without their awareness through "emotional contagion." For example, as individuals read more positive posts, readers reflected more positively in their posts and vice versa with reading/writing negative posts. The authors further reflected that in-person interactions or non-verbal cues were not necessary for emotions to transfer.

While these studies have interesting ramifications for brands and companies, they also have applicability to agencies. In agencies, we spend a good part of our days in the land of social networks, both our clients' and our own internal social networks. We also monitor email and texts that can be emotional laden. We constantly bounce between internal staff and clients' communications--conversing, identifying problems, working on solutions, getting praise or dealing with bad news issues. It’s a constant psychic battle trying to stay positive and centered with the range of emotional context experienced.

What can agencies do to help employees cope with the buffeting of emotions they experience in a typical day, including those transferred by emotional contagion?

  • Inoculate Your Staff. Talk about the studies outlined above and discuss ways to self-help or use a buddy system to keep negativity from one situation slipping into others. We all encounter a range of emotions and the impact may be more pervasive on staff than previously considered.
  • Guard against Angry Group E-mail Distribution. People get mad, situations can demand correction and sometimes anger is just a stress reliever for certain individuals. However, consider how anger can reverberate in an agencies’ social network.  Even if an individual is not a respondent on the email, the forwarding of emails, discussions and re-forwarding can start to have a life of its own, increasing emotional contagion.
  • Find Your Heroes. Through office discussions, identify situations where staff maintained an even keel, putting “inoculation” in play. Call out these moments to lift the positivity.
  • Keep a Tally. Since anger overwhelms more positive emotions with its reach and velocity, positive statements and experiences have to increase in number to find proportionality. This is not to indicate expressing a contrived sense of joy, but rather increasing supportive dialogue that builds a close knit community.
  • Consider the Ever-Evolving Ecosystem of Your Agency. New clients, new staff, new problems can all create ripples, and if left unattended, can transform into an emotional undertow. It’s not “one and done” with this issue. Dialogue needs to become an integrated part of the company culture.

The Facebook study, in particular, is gaining wide press attention and discussion for its methodology and findings. As brands and companies work to test how to optimize its findings in brand social networks, agencies can gain traction by utilizing their own strategies in-house. The agency’s efforts will create a test-bed that lends credibility to suggestions for clients in dealing with emotional contagion within their own social networks.

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