Viral ImagesGrumpy Cat, Success Kid, Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, Overly Attached Girlfriend, Ariana Grande Kissing Miley Cyrus – why do some images blow up on social media? To answer this jackpot question of internet marketing, researchers from digital agency Fractl and Vanderbilt University showed popular images from sharing site Reddit to 800 men and women, and asked the test humans to rate their emotional reactions. You can download the results here and see test images here. Some of the findings:

Positive Feelings Lead to Sharing But It’s Complicated

The most-shared images provoked amusement, surprise, interest, joy and other happy emotions. The emotion of admiration was a big driver in shareable images, too. Negative emotions like anger, despair, frustration and contempt also generated shares but to a lesser degree than happiness, and mainly when coupled with surprise and empathy. In general, popular images seem to generate a range of emotions, not simple pleasure.

The Older the Age Group, The Easier to Surprise

Surprise at an image often leads to sharing. But Millennials (ages 18 to 34) registered the least surprise overall at images. Fractl speculates that they may be “oversaturated by the type of static images we used for this study…If that is the case, marketers will need to find more angles to reach this group, including more dynamic and new media types.”

Women Feel More So They May Share More

Female test subjects reported “greater emotional complexity than men” and so may be more open to sharing, the researchers concluded, though, in fairness to men’s emotional complexity, it should be noted that the images in the study did not include any screenshots from “Call of Duty”.

Bottom line is that in your efforts to boost engagement with your target audience, images are key, not only in your social media efforts, but in all of your online marketing.