The psychology of sharing

Posted on Apr 6, 2016

Understanding the diversity of personas improves the capacity of content to go viral.

According to data published by Twitter, by the end of 2014 people were sending 15 billion tweets a month. Alone the number sounds impressive. But don’t let all those zeroes fool you. With an estimated 302 million monthly active users (MAUs), all you need to reach that number is for each of those users to send 1.7 tweets in a day. Which doesn’t sound a great number, considering the prize. Right?

Think about this modest average number of tweets per day and all of the sudden understanding the psychology of sharing becomes crucial for advertisers and businesses using social media as one of the tools in their marketing toolbox.

What motivates people to share content online? How do you grab the attention of a single Twitter user so their 1.7 tweets per day are a retweet of your content?

Back in 2011 the New York Times Customer Insight and Advertising Groups (in collaboration with Latitude Research) completed a study on the psychology of sharing.

Perhaps the most important findings are that sharing is about relationships and that we are hard-wired to share (don’t let all the squabbling between siblings or in the playground make you think otherwise).

But the study went further and looked at the motivations for why people share online.

The findings show that we share to:

  • Bring valuable and entertaining content to others
  • Define ourselves to others
  • Grow and nourish relationships
  • Promote causes or brands
  • Achieve self-fulfillment

At the same time as the New York Times was conducting their study, Dr John Berger at the Wharton School of Business was carrying out a similar research on what makes online content go viral.

“Is virality just random, as some argue (e.g., Cashmore 2009), or might certain characteristics predict whether content will be highly shared?”

His focus was on how content characteristics affect virality. In particular, he focused on how emotion shapes virality. His findings show that

  • Positive content is more viral than negative content.
  • Content that evokes high emotions — positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) — is more viral than content without emotion.
  • Practical and useful content is the most likely to be shared.

Very quickly a picture starts to emerge of the sort of content that has the potential to get that social media follower to share your content. Consistent with the notion that people share to entertain others, Dr Berger’s study showed that surprising and interesting content was highly viral. Similarly, consistent with the notion that people share to inform others or boost their mood, he found that practical useful and positive content were more viral.

But what about the individual? Are some people more inclined to readily share content than others? The New York Times study found that there are 6 distinct personas of sharers

  1. Altruists – “I saw this and thought of you. Hope you find it helpful”
  2. Careerists – “Intelligent piece. I’ll share it my boss and my colleagues.”
  3. Hipsters – “Sharing is part of who I am”
  4. Boomerangs – “Let’s see who’s first to react after I share this”
  5. Connectors – “What a great deal! Let’s get everyone excited about it”
  6. Selectives – “I know who likes what. I only share what I know interests them. Spam in not my thing”

These two studies show that virality comes from an understanding of the intersection between content and people.

Ignore the different personas and you’ve sucked the ‘social’ out of your social media. Focus exclusively on your brand by turning your channels into megaphones and you’ll make it too easy for your followers to click away, ban, or worse, report you as a spammer.