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The Psychology Behind Sharing Content

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Marketers instinctively realize that referrals and word of mouth and are important to growing a business and a brand. There’s evidence to back this instinct up: a three-year study of German bank accounts found that referrals are both more loyal and more valuable customers.

Certain brands are so successful at this that they inspire levels of great devotion among customers, who become company evangelists through without any incentive. But why are customers so passionate about sharing some brands’ content and not others?

While consumers’ reasoning may seem arbitrary, psychological research reveals various profiles customers fall into, as well as some (relatively) universal characteristics that encourage them to share something. Read on to find out how understanding these psychology principles can actually help your business reach more potential consumers.

The Six Different Types of Sharers

The New York Times Customer Insight Group released a major study in 2011 and found that Internet readers can actually be divided into six specific types, each with their own motivations, sharing patterns and preferences. These six types are altruists, careerists, hipsters, boomerangs, connectors, and selectives. Here are the personality keywords for each type:

  • Altruists: helpful, reliable, email, thoughtful connected
  • Careerists: LinkedIn, valuable, intelligent, network
  • Hipsters: less likely to email, cutting edge, creative, identity, young popular
  • Boomerangs: reaction, validation empowered, Twitter, Facebook
  • Connectors: creative, relaxed, thoughtful, making plans, email, Facebook
  • Selectives: resourceful, careful, thoughtful, informative, email

As you can see, each of the six types share content for different reasons and also use different channels to share. The study divided people into these types based on their emotional motivations, desired presentation of self, roles of sharing in life, and the perceived value of being first to share.

You can tailor pieces of content to appeal to these different sharing type profiles much as you would with other demographics. You can also track how the content performs across each types’ preferred channel(s) using social media reporting tools.

The Importance of Emotion and Arousal

The six different sharing profiles are very helpful if you’re trying to target specific personalities. But what if you’re trying to reach a broader audience?

Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was fascinated by this larger question. He became an expert on viral marketing, word of mouth, and social influence and contagion. His 2013 best-selling book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, investigates why certain things become popular and why people share some things and not others.

He originally found that two larger phenomenons, emotion and arousal, drive almost all instances of sharing. In this case, emotion is the feeling that a piece of content evokes in a reader or viewer, while arousal is how much that emotion gets you “worked up.”

Any emotion elicits more shares than no emotion, but happy emotions generally do better than sad ones. However, the arousal of the emotion matters too, not just whether it’s positive or negative. That’s because some positive emotions with low arousal (for example, contentment) actually makes us less likely to share. Likewise, some negative emotions with high arousal (for example, anger) make us more likely to share.

Other Factors that Influence Sharing

However, as his research for book progressed, Berger realized that many other factors besides just emotion and arousal could influence people’s desire to share content. He devised the acronym STEPPS to encompass them all.

The E in STEPPS encompasses emotion and arousal, which we’ve already talked about. The five other factors that influence sharing are:

  • (S)ocial Currency: We tend to share things that will make us look cool, informed, or appear as insiders.
  • Memory-inducing (T)riggers: Your message relates to an activity or symbol your readers engage with frequently. This will remind them of (or “trigger”) your message more often.
  • (P)ublic: People are more likely to imitate something if it is visible or popular.
  • (P)ractical value: Educative content also tends to be shared more because it fulfills a need for information. Sharing it also makes the sharer seem helpful and smart.
  • Quality (S)tories: A story is a “vessel” for carrying the information you want to share. The more compelling the story, the more likely others are to engage with and share it.

Emotion and arousal are a great foundation for understanding the sharing process, but incorporating these other five factors can significantly improve the natural shareability of your content.

What This Means for Your Company’s Content

Berger’s research is an excellent description of the process of contagion, but for it to matter for your brand, you need to translate that description into action. Fortunately, The New York Times’ study included some practical tips specifically for marketers.

For example, the study recommends that brands appeal to consumers’ motivation to connect with each other and not just with the company, so that content doesn’t become overly self-promotional (which can be a turnoff when it comes to sharing).

Another tip, “trust is the cost of entry for getting shared,” captures an important truth: people probably won’t share your company’s messages until they genuinely believe you’re looking out for them. They’re also more likely to share if you keep your content simple. If it’s too complicated, they’ll probably decide not to share it, or even worse, mix up your messages and share a misunderstood version instead.

The study further urges brands to appeal to a sense of humor and embrace a sense of urgency when it comes to positioning content, both of which tap into Berger’s “emotion and arousal” principle. Finally, companies should also remember that sharing and being shared is just the first step: you also need to listen and respond to what people are saying as they share it.

However, marketers would be wise to ignore the study’s last tip. When the study was released in 2011, it counseled marketers that “email is still #1” when it comes to content-sharing channels. But according to a study by ShareThis, Pinterest had surpassed email as the third most popular sharing channel behind Facebook and Twitter by late 2013. Today, consumers continue to share more and more on new social networks rather than through traditional electronic channels, and that’s where companies should look to engage in conversation.

What factors do you see influencing the sharing of your content?

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