This summary is presented by the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center

Key Findings

  • News story posts on social media are more likely to be read and shared if they include an image, especially positive images.
  • Posts with images attract more attention and evoke stronger emotional reactions.

Implications for Public Relations

Public relations professionals should use images on social media to capture peoples’ attention and motivate them to consume and share online content. Web pages should be optimized so that images are included in social media posts when they are shared. Communicators can also attach images to their own posts when sharing information. How people respond emotionally to thumbnail images should be considered when selecting the image to use, since that can influence engagement behaviours.

Including images on social media posts should be a standard practice for communicators, as they attract attention much more than text alone. Social media provides users with a continual flow of information through post feeds, so the first step for successful communication is to capture their attraction. The next step is to motivate users to click on the post to learn more and to share it with their social network. Carefully selected thumbnail images can accomplish this through evoking an emotional response. In this study, positive emotions were associated with increased intentions to share new stories.

Practitioners should consider how people might respond emotionally to different potential images and even test their impact before making a final selection. It is important to recognize that both positive and negative emotions can motivate action, so it is worth investigating the behavioural effects of specific emotions, beyond broad categorizations of positive and negative valence, in different contexts and for different messages or information. Websites should be optimized so that social media platforms can automatically detect the chosen image and insert it into social media posts when shared.

Communicators can also apply these findings to the design of other online communications, since many websites present information in a similar feed-like format and include social sharing integrations. Images should be carefully selected to best support understanding and engagement.


Social media has become a prominent way people consume and share news. News stories on social media most commonly appear as posts with short descriptions and a thumbnail image that links to the full story. Social media behaviour is unique from other means of accessing news information because users are presented with information curated by members of their social circle, have to decide whether to proceed to the full story or not, and have the ability to share with others instantaneously. Since posts can be shared without people having to fully process the information in the full story, the presentation of the post and the anticipated response to the story play key roles in how news is viewed and shared through social media. Prior research has established that emotional response greatly influences decisions to share stories. News that evokes negative emotion and surprise is often shared out of a desire to inform and protect others.

Keib and colleagues examined the influence of images and emotions on social media news viewing and sharing behaviour. Images, like photographs or illustrations, are a common fixture in new stories because they capture people’s attentions and provide information in a quick and accessible way. The same applies for social media news posts. Since pictures act as a preview for the story in these posts, they frame people’s perceptions of the story even before they actually read it.

The researchers presented participants with mock news posts in their preferred social media platform (Facebook or Twitter) on a wide variety of topics ranging from politics to entertainment. The posts either had a positive image, negative image, or no image. The participants had their visual attention monitored using an eye tracker and completed a survey after seeing each post. The survey asked about participants’ intentions to read the full story or share the post, their emotional response to the image, and their level of emotional arousal. Emotional arousal refers to the stimulation or excitement people experience from emotions regardless of it being positive or negative, and can be characterized as ranging from calm to exciting.

The results highlight the value of including images in social media posts. The presence of images was strongly associated to greater visual attention and emotional arousal. The positive images led to greater intention to read the full story or share the post with their social circle. These findings are in line with research showing that more positive news articles are actually more likely to be shared. Since sharing behaviour is public, people may be more inclined to share social media posts with positive images to enhance other’s perceptions of them.

Emotions are complex and this study only compared positive and negative emotions in a broad sense. It is important to recognize that specific emotions may have different influences on sharing behaviour. For example, anger or outrage can still be strong motivators for sharing. The findings of this study underscore the importance of examining how people respond emotionally to images used in social media news posts. Through careful testing and selection, images can lead to greater reach and engagement. Generally, new sources may be better served used positive images as long as they appropriately reflect and frame the news story.


Keib, K., Espina, C., Lee, Y. I., Wojdynski, B. W., Choi, D., & Bang, H. (2018). Picture this: The influence of emotionally valenced images, on attention, selection, and sharing of social media news. Media Psychology, 21(2), 202-221.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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