The science of sharing: How to create content that travels

Posted on June 3, 2016 by Vicky Welstead

Have you ever published a piece of content, then found yourself refreshing the page to see how many shares it’s getting, anxiously willing the magical snowball effect to start?

UK companies now spend almost a third of their marketing budget on content, and with all the money and sophistication going into it, you might think reaching the right people would be easy. The difficult truth is that quality alone is no guarantee that content will travel. In an escalating fight for a finite amount of audience attention the magic is a little more elusive.

To go beyond content that is merely shareable, to something people can’t wait to pass on, start by exploring what motivates people to share and check out the practical tips below.


Why people share

While online sharing habits are largely an extension of what we once shared over the garden fence, people also share online for different reasons, in no small part due to the public nature of digital communication. The act of sharing has become intimately linked with how individuals attempt to exert control over how they are seen.

Back in 2011 researchers for The New York Times published a landmark study on the psychology behind sharing. Five years may be a lifetime in digital marketing, but human nature takes its time to evolve and the fundamental insights remain true. Here are some of the most useful findings:

Kindness, or at least the impression of it

Wanting to help is a common motivation for online sharing, classified by the NYT research as altruistic sharing. Today’s growing ranks of psychologists who believe social media is turning us into a generation of narcissists might argue this is more about wanting to be seen as helpful than genuine altruism, but the effect is the same.

Whatever the true psychological motivation, content that is helpful to a well-networked group of people can spark great sharing. The key is homing in on a genuine problem and activating your material through influencers.

Sharing supports self-esteem

Sharing information can be about demonstrating knowledge, taste or good judgement. In the hope of earning respect from peers what we choose to share can show how clever and well-informed we are, especially now online profiles have become an extension of CVs.

There’s a good reason smart, insightful and beautifully-expressed content is highly shared within professional networks. It makes the sharer look good.

I share therefore I am

What we choose to share can be an expression of what we think, and even who we are.

From veganism to party politics, sharing can be used to show what individuals care about. What they want to support and be seen to support. This type of sharing is particularly susceptible to the news agenda and often moves in line with public debate.

This link between sharing and identity can also trigger controversial sharing. Sometimes sharing is motivated by the desire to provoke a reaction, even being controversial for its own sake in an attempt to mark out uniqueness. Of course those that enjoy a bit of conflict also relish in the debate that controversial sharing sparks.

So if this is why people share, how might this knowledge translate into content strategies?

First flight? Paper plane … Photograph: Chris Pancewicz/Alamy

Creating content that flies

Get emotional

Ad tech analysis company Unruly has created a whole science out of grading a video's likelihood to go viral, based on its emotional impact. The theory is worth considering for all types of content. If a piece doesn't make an individual feel something they are considerably less likely to share it.

Different emotions prompt more shares than others according to these rankings. Unsurprisingly humour is right up there, and anger gets people talking, but the most powerful is making people feel warm – think John Lewis Christmas ads.

Talk of emotional impact might seem inappropriate for b2b marketers, but business buyers are human too and in the fight for differentiation brands need to make a personal connection with decision-makers to win trust and influence. What’s more, prompting shares amongst a niche audience can be particularly challenging, so b2b content marketers need all the tools at their disposal.

Don’t start a conversation, join one

Responding to the topical news agenda is just as important for content creators as press officers, even if these days the agenda is just as likely to be set by a grassroots movement as a broadsheet.

Content that feels timely, relevant and even fashionable is more likely to tempt shares, while encouraging people to add their own voice and keep the dialogue fresh. That doesn’t mean repeating what’s already been said. It’s about figuring out how to move the conversation on, perhaps by offering a counter-argument or spotting a new implication to an existing trend.

This kind of quick responsiveness can be difficult if you’re producing content that takes time in everything from research to design, not to mention painful corporate sign off processes. If this sounds like your situation spot the issues that will run and run, and find a way to move the story on with new evidence-based insights. Better still, use research and the insights of your people to find issues on the ground that haven’t yet made it to the mainstream.

Gain a tactical advantage with perfect timing

Analysis of 4.8million Tweets by Buffer Social found some interesting trends around which types of content did best at different types of day in 2015 and a quick search throws up many similar studies on other social media platforms. These can offer useful clues to help match promotion tactics to each platform, but look beyond generic sharing times to think through when conversation about your particular topic is likely to peak.

Tempting shares is about catching the right person in the right mood, so think through the rhythm of your audience’s day. If in doubt follow the classic flow of conversation used by radio stations all over the world – with breaking news and hard facts early in the morning, more reflective thoughtful pieces later in the day and entertainment in the evenings.

Identify influencers and win them over

The truly magic ingredient to highly shared content is influencers. It used to be said that you could reach everyone in the world through six degrees of separation. Find the right influencers and two or three will do.

A little while ago Man Bites Dog was mentioned in @Onalytica's map of the top 50 #B2B #Social influencers in the UK. Once word got out that we’d made 15th place colleagues started talking and Tweets went flying. I have a feeling the same thing happened in another 49 offices that day.

Which just goes to show influencer mapping is vital to a great sharing strategy, and flattery is an easy way to win new digital friends.

Stick to your story

A great story invites retelling, and in the world of social media that means shares.

As the practice of PR and communications has broadened out far beyond its heritage in media relations the industry is in danger of missing a trick on the subject of storytelling.

When integrated campaigns are conceived without the need to work with journalists, marketers can lose out on an important stress test. Journalists are attuned to stories that will get their audience talking, which is just what digital content needs. If a story isn’t good enough for the media, it is unlikely to be good enough to send shares flying either

Storytelling is just as important with highly visual content. Think of great infographics like David McCandless’s illustration of the world's biggest data breaches, or this visual on the PayPal mafia behind Silicon Valley's leviathans by alternative finance lender Fleximize. Both invite shares by telling a brilliant story at a glance.

Every scenario is different and there is no one perfect answer for winning shares, but there are two big levers marketers can pull:

  • Creation: develop smart, beautiful, robustly-researched content with emotional impact on a subject your audience cares about.
  • Promotion: put thought and effort into how each piece is promoted, working with influencers and tapping into topical conversations and active communities.

Earning shares from the right people en masse take considerable time and effort, but it is one of the best ways of ensuring content programmes deliver great ROI. It certainly beats crossing your fingers and hitting refresh.

* 29% and rising according to the Content Marketing Institute’s UK Benchmarking Report, 2016



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