What Compels People to Share Your Content?

February 26th, 2013 | Jim Dougherty | 95 Comments

Baby birds bathing together Have you ever wondered what compels people to share content on their social networks? Two social accounts cross in the night, and a re-tweet or Like is born – why is that?

Facebook insists it has the answer: write better content. Be succinct, use photos, on and on down the list of cliched suggestions that have peppered many a blog post. But if I ask my audience a question and hear crickets, why didn’t anyone engage or share my post?

It’s complicated.

A Harvard marketing professor named Thales Texeira has done some recent studies of content virality and sharing. His findings are pretty illuminating.

In his research on viral advertising videos, he found that a very small percentage of advertising videos (0.1%) actually go “viral.”

What this means is that professional advertisers have a one in one thousand chance of going viral and that percentage is static. In other words, the bandwidth for content consumption is fixed.

Universal McCann’s Wave 6 social media study seems to substantiate that claim for written digital content as well, showing that blog creation and consumption may have peaked in 2010.

When it comes to what compels us to share video ads, Texeira asserts that the best ads begin with an element of humor, then takes it away, and reintroduces it near the end. While drawing a conclusion about blog content sharing based upon video sharing would be a stretch, it does substantiate that consumers of digital content need variety in order to stay engaged with a piece of content. Sufficed to say that as dry as I write, I probably won’t be going viral anytime soon.

Why we share.

Texeira concludes that the vast majority of sharing is done with selfish motives. That sounds worse than it is. Sharing makes people feel a sense of prestige that they’re associated with something funny or informative.

What they won’t share is something shocking. Take the GoDaddy commercial from the Super Bowl where supermodel Bar Rafaeli passionately kisses a homely looking fellow. Texeira would argue that shocking humor like that under normal circumstances would not go viral. Incidentally, it was the worst reviewed ad of the Super Bowl.

They also won’t share anything religious, political, racial, or gender-specific. In doing a postmortem of sharing and traffic on my site for the last half of 2012, posts that referred to the U.S. Presidential campaign had 30% less shares than posts on other topics. This was despite the fact that my critiques were apolitical.

A recent study by the University of Edinburgh determined that users with high numbers of “friends” were distressed about Facebook for fear of offending one of their social groups by appeasing another. That distress probably keeps users risk-averse when it comes to provocative content.

Texeira’s work confirms that there isn’t a silver bullet for content virality. But if you can find a way to make your content reflect well on other people, they’d probably share your stuff more often.

Image: Joseph Swan via Flickr, CC 2.0

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Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Community Manager, Writer & Social Media Guy at Leaders West Consulting
Jim Dougherty is chief writer and ringleader at leaderswest.com, a social media and technology blog that sometimes veers into the bizarre but never into the mundane. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with his wife, two kids, and four animals. He is currently working to avoid being a "#3."
Jim Dougherty
Jim Dougherty
Jim Dougherty

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"A Little Birdie Told Me" could fly into your inbox just once a month. It's Shonali-as-seen-nowhere-else. What're you waiting for?

86 comments
rhondamerrick
rhondamerrick

find a way to make your content reflect well on other people' wonderful example of why it's important to read the whole article. Sometimes the little gem of information that you can use as a rule-of-thumb is hidden in the text towards the end.

mssackstein
mssackstein

@leaderswest great stuff here. I always have wondered what makes some things more readily shared

shonali
shonali

@opedmarketing @jenniferherndon @denisewakeman @martinamcgowan Many thanks for sharing @leaderswest #WUL post

leaderswest
leaderswest

@denisewakeman Thanks so much Denise!

DomesticDivasKK
DomesticDivasKK

@bwjewelrysupply @mmangen @shonali kittens and sacharin cute?

shonali
shonali

@kmueller62 @shashib @profkrg @mjgottlieb @mmangen Many thanks for sharing @leaderswest terrific guest #WUL post!

LaceyLuxx
LaceyLuxx

@leaderswest Another great article Jim

Kristen Hicks
Kristen Hicks

I just shared this, so you're one stranger closer to going viral. 

ariana fernandez
ariana fernandez

Interesting post. We have all heard, "we don't see things as they are, we see them as we are. " I think @Shonali has made a great point. Everything is ego driven whether that is considered negative or positive. 

waterloobikes
waterloobikes

Someone forwarded around your post at work. I disagree. Your conclusions are in contrast to Chris Anderson and Seth Godin's work (Long Tail, Tribes etc etc).

The internet is the death knoll for mass marketing, which is really what your talking about. When you communicate with the masses it's got be shallow cause you're bound to offend someone and when you're doing it on behalf of a coroporation you afraid someone will take a negative slant on your message. But that's really a function that mass marketing is dead.

Now it's all about building community amongst tribes. If you want to market your product / message whatever you need to tailor it to the tribes you're interacting with. Within tribes virility changes based on the values and behaviours of the tribe. In the tribes I'm part of religious, gender, politics is discussed all the time.

Join a vibrant community and you'll come to different conclusions.

leaderswest
leaderswest

@mssackstein Thanks. As you saw this weekend - distribution is key so long as the content is strong.

shonali
shonali

@mssackstein What do you mean, get it out there? @profkrg

leaderswest
leaderswest

@LaceyLuxx Thanks Oly!  Loved your piece on the Harlem Shake. It does seem everyone's gone a bit mad... 

leaderswest
leaderswest

@LaurelJMintz Thanks Laurel. I sent you an email...

Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong

@JasMollica a never ending question, no?

leaderswest
leaderswest

@ariana fernandez I have heard that 96.5% of the time you can't go wrong agreeing with @Shonali, but I don't recall the source of that research... :D  Thanks for reading and for your comment! 

leaderswest
leaderswest

@waterloobikes I've read all of Chris Anderson and Seth Godin's books and I don't think the conclusions of this research are incongruent. What I'm discussing is virality in a general sense. Sure, if you're an active part of a community with similar interests you may share more within the community at the expense of sharing somewhere else - but you also won't share content that isn't acceptable within that community. And you may be able to talk politics and religion within a certain group but the likelihood that your conversation will significantly grow from your tribe is low. I don't mean this disrespectfully at all, but "The internet is the death knoll for mass marketing" is a platitude with no basis in reality. There's good evidence that Dunbar's number is valid for social ties as well, so common interest in a "tribe" is much different than your capability to influence that tribe. Just because you are one of thousands doesn't mean that you have the capability to influence them. What social networks have given mass marketers a capability to do is to segment better, but saying that mass marketing is dead is like saying that an Etsy store and a mass-manufactured jeweler have an equal playing field.   They do not. When Chris Anderson described the long tail of the internet, his point was that it made niche things accessible and not that it was going to make niche products mainstream. Some people like to share anecdotal stories of individual success to controvert evidence-based findings and to tell people to "join a vibrant community," and from my point of view that is fine so long as it isn't intended to advise others on a course of action. For me, research and data are important, but I respect your experience and appreciate your comment!  (post-script, I reposted this comment after noticing I wrote virility instead of virality, which of course is an entirely different post)

mssackstein
mssackstein

@leaderswest distribution seems to be everything. I'm learning how to work that aspect. Confident in my content :-)

mssackstein
mssackstein

@shonali @profkrg how to get readers to share my material

JasMollica
JasMollica

@Frank_Strong it sure is. I'm often asking myself the same thing.

mssackstein
mssackstein

@leaderswest amazing how I have carved so much time to write recently.Helps me teach better. Practice what I preach. won't forget. Never do

mssackstein
mssackstein

@leaderswest I had no idea. Lol my head is usually trapped under a pile of essay and articles from students of varying talents. It has been

leaderswest
leaderswest

@mssackstein .. just remember me when you're famous.

leaderswest
leaderswest

@mssackstein As well you should be. You know USA Today has an education section, HuffPo, I would imagine even Mashable have opportunities.

mssackstein
mssackstein

@mssackstein @shonali @profkrg you need to follow me too, now, cause it wouldn't let me DM you back

shonali
shonali

@mssackstein Thanks. Just DMd you. :)

leaderswest
leaderswest

@profkrg "Don't be subtle" is my new mantra.... @mssackstein @shonali

mssackstein
mssackstein

@shonali @profkrg done and done! just followed you.

shonali
shonali

@mssackstein It does. Can you follow me, please, btw? I was trying to DM you and couldn't. @profkrg

mssackstein
mssackstein

@shonali @profkrg yes, I know it takes practice. I've been watching people who seem to be good at it and trying new things.Listening

shonali
shonali

@profkrg True. There is an art to it, though. Not everyone is a good community builder and/or manager. @mssackstein

mssackstein
mssackstein

@profkrg @shonali I think that is what has shaken my reticence. I think I can help people, so I've become more vocal. I'm an eager learner

mssackstein
mssackstein

@profkrg @shonali @Triberr a little green.Don't even know what that is. Will check it out. I started with FB, but fell in love with Twitter

profkrg
profkrg

@mssackstein @shonali aren't we all? But, if you don't do it, who will?

mssackstein
mssackstein

@profkrg @shonali Thanks Kenna. I'm working on being more comfortable with self promotion. I'm also becoming more comfortable with blogging

profkrg
profkrg

@mssackstein @shonali I get a lot more traffic from Twitter than Facebook, but you have to know your audience. Are you on @Triberr?

profkrg
profkrg

@mssackstein @shonali We've followed each other for awhile. I'm sad to say that I missed your blog. It looks fabulous. Don't be subtle!

mssackstein
mssackstein

@shonali @profkrg I'm working on it. That's what I've been using Twitter for, to drive traffic to it, and develop a community. FB page too

shonali
shonali

@mssackstein Well, do you have a community built up around the blog? That's a large part of it. @profkrg

leaderswest
leaderswest

@waterloobikes Chris, about your expectations for this post: My opinion (influenced by different research) is that you have to pay to build a community, pay to reduce barriers, you must understand Facebook's EdgeRank and Twitter filtering as the standard for social monetization, build an email list as fast as you possibly can to diminish those costs, understand that 99-9-1 is probably more like 85% of the community didn't see a post because the social network didn't show it to them, 14% may have seen it and taken no action, and less that 1% took some action. I don't really know off the top of my head of any research on community values. The biggest takeaway that I can offer for a business of your size would be the importance of an email list - it is opened more often, and is the most effective digital means of getting repeat business (incidentally AdWords is one of the most effective means to get new business). If any of that is helpful or if I can provide you more detail about any of that, contact me off site and I'm happy to share what I can.

leaderswest
leaderswest

@waterloobikes No worries about snark and I appreciate you taking the time to share find and post those articles. There are many different opinions and I respect yours, but I'll also point out to that I run a site that had 100K visitors last year and will likely have a quarter of a million this year, so while my observations are limited to that (relatively small) audience I don't consider them platitudes (platitude is a trite, meaningless, biased, or prosaic statement often presented as if it were significant and original). Again, no hard feelings here and hope you don't feel that I diminished your point of view.

waterloobikes
waterloobikes

@leaderswest 

Ok my previous posts were a little snarky. When I saw this title here's what I was expecting.

* How to build community

* Steps to reducing barriers to sharing within the community

* Tips on how to spot those barriers

* Strategies on how to nuture the 99-9-1 rule. 99 lurkers, 9 commenters, 1 content creator, progressing the community through the various stages of engagement

* Tips on identifying community values

etc, etc

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