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Research Reveals Secrets of Social Sharing

Karen Taylor

May 19, 2020

Content marketing combines the creation of valuable content with social media marketing and search engine optimization. It helps companies drive new leads, establish industry credibility, and stay top of mind with existing and potential clients. 

But how can you get more people to share more of your content on social media? Ironically, the answer lies in a 50-year-old psychological study. Fifty years before the iPhone and social media took over our lives, an Austrian-born psychologist and market researcher cracked the code on a marketing challenge every business faces today: How to encourage people to tell others about their products and services. Whether it’s called word-of-mouth or social sharing, getting consumers to share with others is the Holy Grail for any marketer.

In 1966, Ernest Dichter, who was trained by one of Sigmund Freud’s pupils, conducted research on what makes shoppers tick. His findings transformed the way the world looks at relationships between products and consumers. It was the first international and interdisciplinary study to reveal the hidden world of motivation research and insights into the way consumers think, feel and act. Since then, others (including The New York Times) have built on his findings.

What Dichter Discovered About Social Selling

Dichter discovered there are four motivations for consumer sharing, but they boil down to two primary reasons people share: You’ve blown them away with your product experience, or you’ve made them feel good in some way.

Dichter’s four motivations for social sharing include product involvement, self-involvement, other involvement and message involvement.

  1. Product Involvement. 
    About 33 percent of sharing is based on a good product experience. The customer found the experience to be so delightful or fulfilling they had to tell their friends - whether on social networks or offline. This is why some companies’ Facebook pages are filled with happy consumers. Take Starbucks, for instance, where people share pictures of their daily cups of coffee.
  2. Self-Involvement. 
    This comprises about 24 percent of shares. Users share the social media content that expresses their knowledge and opinions, and makes them feel smart — like breaking news and political issues.
  3. Other Involvement. 
    About 20 percent of sharing fits here. People want to help a friend by sharing, for example, coupons or product reviews.
  4. Message Involvement.
    This makes up about 20 percent of shares. It’s triggered when someone finds a message so humorous or informative they want to share it. Cat videos and memes fall into this category.

Fast Forward to 2004

In 2004, results from a study conducted by four researchers, published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing, referenced Dichter’s research and others, and added an electronic component to the analysis. While the researchers found eight factors that contribute to word-of-mouth sharing, they all strongly correlate to Dichter’s original findings, with three new incentives for sharing — venting negative emotions, receiving a positive platform assistance and gaining economic incentives.

But what is most insightful about this study is the discovery of four primary segments of users who share online. This insight could be viewed as a precursor to today’s buyer persona creation.

  • Segment 1 — Self-Interested Helpers.
    These social media content sharers appear to be strongly driven by both concern for others and economic incentives. This segment is the largest group, representing 34 percent of audiences sharing this content.
  • Segment 2 — True Altruists. 
    These consumers appear to be both strongly motivated by helping other consumers as well as helping companies, because all other motives are less important. This is the second largest segment, representing 27 percent of the sharers.
  • Segment 3 — Multiple-Motive Consumers. 
    They are motivated by all factors, except economic incentives. This segment includes 21 percent of all sharers.
  • Segment 4 — Consumer Advocates.
    They seem to be motivated primarily by a concern for other consumers. It is the smallest segment at 17 percent of all sharers.

New York Times’ 2011 Study Findings

One of the most frequently distributed recent studies on the topic of why people share social media content online is a report compiled by The New York Times. The Psychology of Sharing revealed people’s motivations for sharing, six sharing personas and best practices for encouraging users and consumers to share content.

Regarding sharing motivations, the study concluded that the primary reasons for sharing were linked to relationships—improving others’ lives, defining themselves to others, enriching relationships and gaining fulfillment. This aspect of the survey correlated strongly to Dichter’s original findings.

The study also cited several statistics on what inspires and motivates people to share links, videos, images and offers on social networks, including:

  • 85 percent say reading other people’s responses helps them understand and process information and events
  • 84 percent share because it is a way to support causes or issues they care about
  • 78 percent share information online because it lets them stay connected to people they may not otherwise stay in touch with
  • 73 percent share information because it helps them connect with others who share their interests
  • 73 percent say they process information more deeply, thoroughly and thoughtfully when they share it
  • 69 percent share information because it allows them to feel more involved in the world
  • 68 percent share to give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about
  • 49 percent say sharing allows them to inform others of products they care about and potentially change opinions or encourage action

NYT Survey Breaks New Ground on Sharers

A groundbreaking aspect of the New York Times study was that researchers could determine which areas of the brain were triggered during the sharing process. From this insight, they formulated six online sharer personas defined by emotional motivations, desired presentation of self, and role of sharing in life. Along with two more sharer types than the 2004 study, this study also revealed more sharer insights.

  • Altruists. 
    These sharers are helpful and reliable. They are motivated to share by being seen as thoughtful and connected. Their primary sharing vehicle is email.
  • Careerists. 
    These sharers are valuable and networked. They are motivated to share by being seen as intelligent. Their primary sharing vehicle is LinkedIn.
  • Hipsters. 
    These sharers are young and popular. They are motivated to share by being seen as cutting-edge and creative. You will find them using multiple social networks or sharing vehicles, but not email.
  • Collectors. 
    These sharers are relaxed, thoughtful and always making plans. They are motivated to share by being seen as creative. Their primary sharing vehicles are email and Facebook.
  • Selectors. 
    These sharers are resourceful and careful. They are motivated to share by being seen as thoughtful and informative. Their preferred sharing vehicle is email.
  • Boomerangs. 
    These sharers respond to reaction, validation and empowerment. Their primary sharing vehicles are Twitter and Facebook.

The New York Times study also detailed seven best practices that contribute to encouraging more customers to share more content.

  1. Sharing is how consumers connect with one another. Appeal to consumers’ motivation to connect with others, not just with your brand.
  2. Trust is the cost of entry for getting shared. If consumers don’t see you as an authority they can trust, they won’t share your content.
  3. Keep it simple. Publish content on a highly focused topic. This boosts your brand and helps you stand out in a crowded marketplace.
  4. Appeal to their sense of humor. A little personality and humor can make a big difference.
  5. Embrace a sense of urgency. If there’s an element of urgency in your content, it appears valuable. As a result, people are more likely to share it.
  6. Getting content shared is just the beginning. One share is not the endgame. You need to continue to support sharing, and even reach out and say thank you now and then.
  7. Email is still No. 1. In a world dominated by social media, don’t forget about email. It’s still the primary way people communicate. So consider making it easy for your readers to share your content via email with a click (unless they are hipsters, of course).

Don’t Forget About Quality Content

And finally, a study conducted by Ogilvy & Mather in 2014 condensed global insight on sharing into one primary takeaway—to encourage content sharing you must produce high-quality content.

The study also identified companies leading the way in producing shareable, quality content by country. In the United States, for example, companies taking the lead include: Huffington Post, Upworthy, Apple, NPR, Buzzfeed, The New York Times, Mother Jones, Humane Society, Amazon, Drudge Report, NPR, PBS, Kraft, ESPN and PETA.

While the world we live in today is very different than it was 50 years ago, a review of the research conducted since Dichter’s groundbreaking study shows that our motivations for sharing have stayed relatively the same. The biggest difference between the world then and now is how much content is created every day, how much content is shared and how frequently it’s shared.

To stand out in this crowded social world requires a strategy that takes into consideration the insight shared by leading voices on the subject. Understanding the motivational forces behind the act of sharing—and working with them in mind—is the best way to help your company get more of your content shared more often by more people.

How to Improve Social Media Shares of your Content

Social media plays a large role in content marketing as one of the key distribution vehicles for content. In addition to advertising and email marketing, social media shares of content via sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr and other platforms allows good content to spread: the modern version of word-of-mouth marketing.

With that said, the spread of content via social media doesn't have to be left to chance. There are specific things that companies and organizations can do to either encourage (or inadvertently discourage) the social sharing of content.

1) Choose Topics People Care About

Not all topics are created equal, so you need to develop a sense for what your topics your audience really cares about. Some ways to do that include looking at search keyword volumes (e.g. via Google Adwords or various keyword tools), asking sales what customers always ask about, or seeing what consistently gets shared and commented on on your blog, competitor's blogs and in social media in general (see this deep dive about business blog topics).

2) Rewrite That Headline!

I hate to say it but 99% of business blog post headlines are accurate but extremely dull. "Why Your Company Should Use Encrypted Storage Solutions" may describe what's in the post clearly, but is not that compelling. Here are a couple of twists on the same content, with new headlines to increase interest, curiosity and share-ability: "5 Reasons Hackers Love Current Data Storage Solutions" or "Traditional Data Storage + Your Corporate Secrets = Serious Risk". You may be able to come up with better, but the point is to intrigue the audience who sees this headline in social media or on your blog.

3) Make Posts More "Skimmable"

Many industry influencers stay top of mind with their social media followers by curating valuable, unique or interesting content. In fact, they often won't read whole posts before they share. If your post is not designed in a way that makes it easy to quickly grasp the key points, they won't bother to skim it or share it. In addition, many of your regular readers don't have time to dig into large blocks of text. Think bold headers and key points (2-3 sentences) for each versus dense paragraphs.

4) Don't Skimp on Pictures or Graphics

In addition to skimmable posts, pictures are a very important element for increasing social shares. Sites like Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Pinterest usually feature the main picture from your post. The visual elements are critical to getting attention for your post in social media, to communicating the key message, and often can make or break the social sharing of a post. Don't spend time on a great post and take 2 seconds to pick a very boring and generic picture or graphic. Worse yet is to completely skip pictures. Take the extra time and find a unique style of graphics or pictures that works for your company and your social sharing will grow (and yes, you can use stock photography but don't always go for the obvious).

5) Improve Ease of Sharing

Supermarkets make it easy to buy impulse purchases like candy and magazines by positioning them strategically at the check-out line. If you want people to share your posts, you need to position social share buttons right where any reader (or skimmer) will find them. I typically like to put them at the top or on the side (scrolling with the content) so they're hard to miss.

6) Prime the Pump

This refers to the fact that many companies will create content, have share buttons visible (with counts of shares), and the posts will have a measly 0 or 1 shares. Are you telling me that you can't muster more than 1 share across your whole company for that content? Having only a couple of shares per post communicates a lack of interest from both the company and readers. Having at least a few shares per post shows that there's some interest and makes other people more likely to share it themselves. Encourage the authors and others in the company to prime the sharing pump.

7) Build Your Social Foundation

In order to maximize sharing of your content, it helps if you have a large set of followers on one or more social platforms that make sense for your brand. Each real (not paid for) connection, follower or fan can have 10's, 100's, 1000's, 100,000's (you get the point) of followers themselves. With great content optimized for sharing, you can potentially reap 100's of shares of your content from your own social base and their connections.

8) Don't Be Selfish!

Don't expect people to be jumping over each other to share your content if you've never lifted a finger (or clicked your trackpad) to comment on, like or share other people's content. By building up some online goodwill, you'll increase interaction with your content, including shares. Don't forget to help others spread their great content well before you ask people to share your content!

9) Connect with Current Events or Memes

Connecting topics that your readers care about with current events is a great way to create a relevant and interesting post. People love to share a new angle on a current topic or a creative addition to recent Meme. See some examples here: Big Data and the Superbowl, Justin Bieber and South by Southwest (SXSW). To connect with current topics in your content, you have to move fast or plan ahead!

So you can see, growing the number of social shares is not something that will "just happen". Savvy digital marketers, business owners, PR professionals or social media managers (including you) can be strategic about the content they produce, how it appears, how it's introduced into the world and who sees it.