By Doug Scott, the founder of Tectonic Video, a leading video agency for nonprofits. He and his team work with nonprofits across the U.S. and around the world to create award-winning videos that drive results. Their work has been featured in The New York Times, NPR, CNN and AdWeek and Doug is a guest lecturer at Stanford University on the power of storytelling for nonprofit organizations.


Imagine that you’re scrolling through Facebook or Instagram and start watching a video from a nonprofit organization. What would compel you to like or comment on that video? What would motivate you to share it with your friends? Why does social sharing matter anyways?

In this article we’ll discuss video engagement for social media, what it is and why it’s important. We’ll also look at the types of emotions that drive engagement and how you can leverage them to increase social sharing for your nonprofit’s videos.

What Is Video Engagement and Why Is It Important?

Video engagement on social media is the measurable action that viewers take after watching. If your video connects powerfully with your supporters they’ll like, comment on and share the video with their friends.

High video engagement should be your goal because social media algorithms prioritize content that get lots of reactions, comments and shares. The more engagement your video receives, the wider its reach and visibility will be, giving you access to millions of prospective fans, donors and partners without any additional work or expense.

But how do you create engaging nonprofit videos? What factors contribute to engagement? Is there a secret formula that sets a video up for success? My team at Tectonic Video wanted to find out.

The Nonprofit Video Index™

We studied 778 nonprofit organizations’ video posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram from January 1, 2019 – December 31, 2019 to establish benchmarks, identify trends, and uncover insights. After analyzing 45,000 video posts with 35 million engagements from 78 million followers, we’ve identified many of the factors that correlate with increased engagement and compiled our key findings in the Nonprofit Video Index™.

In this article we’ll focus on just one of those key findings: how emotion impacts social sharing.

Which Emotions Increase Social Sharing?

Psychologists have been studying the interplay between emotion and behavior for almost 150 years. Now their research is being applied to online behavior as well.

Science shows that certain emotions trigger our impulse to take action and share, while other emotions suppress it. The key is to understand which emotions increase social sharing and to create videos that evoke those emotions.

Let’s examine three categories of emotions and how they can be combined to create highly engaging video.

1. Arousing Emotions

What happens in your body when you see a bully picking on a little kid? Or when your team wins the championship on the final play? Or when you’re walking at night and something unexpectedly scurries across your path? Your emotions compel your body to take action.

You furrow your brow and clench your fists as you yell at the bully to stop. You spontaneously leap to your feet and shout as you celebrate your team’s epic win! You reflexively jump back from the thing that startled you.

Anger, jubilation, fear – these are what psychologists call arousing emotions. They trigger the release of powerful chemicals in your body that prime it for action.  Non-arousing emotions, such as sadness or contentment, lead to introspection and repose.

According to Jonah Berger, the author of a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science, arousing emotions are more likely than non-arousing emotions to spur engagement and social sharing.

For example, if a video elicits feelings of outrage or joy, there is a significantly higher chance that you’ll share the video than if it made you feel reassured, satisfied or sad.

Our research for the Nonprofit Video Index confirms this. We analyzed the Top 100 Most Engaging Nonprofit Videos Per Channel and found that the most engaging content types were:

  1. Animals, kids & cuteness
  2. Emotional reactions captured in real-time
  3. Political/controversial topics
  4. Emotional stories of beneficiaries

These content types elicit arousing emotions of joy, amusement, anxiety, anger and fear, and they significantly outperformed other videos in the Index.

2. Dominance Emotions

A robust study published by Guerini and Staiano identifies another facet of emotions that affect social sharing: dominance. Dominance relates to feelings of control and power. High-dominance emotions, such as outrage or pride, make you feel in control and powerful. Low-dominance emotions like fear and sadness contribute to feelings of powerlessness and despair.

According to their 2015 study, social media content that elicits both arousing and high-dominance emotions is shared more frequently and has a higher degree of virality. Content associated with arousing and low-dominance emotions still gets engagement, but it comes in the form of comments rather than shares.

So, if your video evokes arousing, high-dominance emotions like anger and outrage or jubilation and joy, you can expect more shares and less comments. But if you tell a story that makes viewers feel afraid or sad, expect more comments than shares.

3. Emotions + Surprise

Building off the concepts of arousing and dominant emotions, the digital marketing publication Marketing Land studied reactions to viral images online to determine if viewers experienced positive, negative or neutral emotions.

Results showed that although joy was the most common emotion elicited, surprise came in a close second. The feeling of surprise, when coupled with arousing emotions, results in highly engaging content that people can’t help but share (Chewbacca Mom is a perfect example of surprise and joy).

Putting It All Together to Create More Engaging Videos

Nonprofit videos that evoke arousing, high-dominance emotions combined with an element of surprise are the most engaging. But how do you apply this insight to your nonprofit?

Think about a story that your nonprofit can tell about one of your beneficiaries. Now consider all of the different ways you could tell that story, including narrative voice, structure and imagery. How you tell that story will elicit different emotions in the viewer.

Your goal is to make storytelling decisions for your video that will elicit arousing, high-dominance emotions with an element of surprise in the viewer. If you do that, you’ve told your story in the most engaging way possible, and you’ve set your video up for social media success.

For example, if you work for an animal shelter, there are many different ways you could tell the story of someone who adopted a pet. But, when my team and I were hired to create the most engaging video possible for a nonprofit called Mutual Rescue, we decided to tell the story like this:

This video went viral because it combines arousing emotions (jubilation, triumph) with high-dominance emotions (pride, mastery) and surprise (A dog saved his life? How?). Telling the story of Eric & Peety in this way resulted in a highly engaging video that went viral with the help of the social media algorithms.

Bonus Tip: Speak to Emotions In Your Video’s Title, Description and Call-to-Action

When posting your video on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or other social media channel, you can prime viewers to engage with your video by including arousing, high-dominance emotions in your Title, Description and Call–to–Action. For example:

  • We’re furious at Politician X for engaging in this behavior. Join us in telling him this is unacceptable!
  • Want to feel pride and joy in humanity? Watch what this group of teens did for their community.
  • You’ll be outraged when you see how people are treating this endangered species. We have to stop this!

You can also hint that a surprise is in store for the viewer:

  • You’ll never believe what this puppy does when he meets the cutest newborn kitten ever!
  • You’re going to want to turn the sound on for this one. Trust us.

Assuming your video is successful in eliciting arousing, high-dominance emotions, people will be ready to take action when they’re finished watching. Close the video with an emotion-filled call-to-action:

  • If this makes you angry, share this video and spread the word.
  • Give someone a dose of joy by sharing this video.

The more engagement your video receives, the more people you’ll be able to reach, inspire, and motivate. Now, go forth and make engaging videos for your nonprofit!

Visit the Nonprofit Video Index

Discover which social media channel is growing the fastest and has the highest engagement for nonprofit video. Learn which content types are most engaging, how production value correlates with engagement, and if length and frequency matter by checking out Tectonic Video’s Nonprofit Video Index™.

The Science of Nonprofit Video Engagement: How To Use Emotion to Increase Social Sharing