The Psychology of Online Sharing

The rise and popularity of social media has encouraged hot discussions and debates to what actually motivates humans to share. That’s why we at Linkdex decided to dedicate a blog to the psychological aspects of social sharing. Why do we share? Who shares what and what tools are used to do...

Valbona Gjini By Valbona Gjini from Rocket Fuel Inc.. Join the discussion » 0 comments

The rise and popularity of social media has encouraged hot discussions and debates to what actually motivates humans to share. That’s why we at Linkdex decided to dedicate a blog to the psychological aspects of social sharing. Why do we share? Who shares what and what tools are used to do so?

We know that Facebook currently has 800 million active users whilst 230 million tweets are sent each day. But what’s the motivation behind all this sharing?

What Motivates us to Share?

  • Interesting or Insightful Material – People share material because they have found it useful or think others might find it interesting. The motivation is to bring relevant information to those we care about the most. On the other hand people might share content which is relevant for them but not necessarily the recipient. This might be done to show off their knowledge or define themselves.
  • Advocative Sharing – We share to get the word out about causes (or brands) we believe in. Sharing is driven by our desire to maintain and shape relationships with others. Therefore if we are passionate about a cause we would want others to build a relationship with it as well.
  • Social Validation – People share to define themselves to show what they care about and give people a sense of who they are and why they care. For example, some social networkers regularly post updates of their day to day lives. They do this for a sense of importance and because it makes them feel connected and more involved with the world.
  • To Pass on Something Entertaining – We share to bring entertaining content to others. Humour is one of the main reasons why we are sharing content online. Just think of the memorable Old Spice campaign, which was one of the most talked about and shared viral campaigns ever.
  • Duty or Incentive – Using an incentive is a great way to motivate someone to react to your content. This could be in the form of a discount or sale. A good example of this is LoveFilm who have sent free trials to their current customers provided they sign up a friend. They are sharing the discount and the service in exchange for a reward. This is an offline strategy but it works the same online.


Note how easy it is to share a youtube link which led to the success of Old Spice viral campaign.

So far we have listed and explained the 5 primary motivations for online sharing. Now I would like to take a look at different categories of sharers and what actually drives them to share content online.

The Different Types of Sharers

Last August The New York Times and Customer Insight Group teamed up with Latitude Research to conduct a study to better understand the motivations behind online sharing and answer the above questions. The research segmented the types of sharers into 6 personas but I believe it’s fair to say you’ll find one dominant streak per person. Below are my thoughts, separated by the headers as denoted by the New York Times study.

  • Altruists: This refers to charitable sharing meaning that this type is driven by the desire to help others by sending an article to someone else for their benefit. Another example would be devoting time to review a product because they have enjoyed it and they want to share their positive experience. They are motivated by empathy and connectedness. The preferred tools for sharing in this case are email and Facebook.
  • Careerists: These can be categorized as well-educated professionals with established networks of personal and professional contacts. They aim to bring relevant content and people together to stimulate discussions in order to get things done. They aim to build a reputation for themselves by being dedicated professionals. Usually content is shared via email and Facebook.
  • Hipsters: Defined as mainly male and the youngest type of sharing persona, they are usually very familiar with the digital sphere and sharing content online is part of their social routine. They like to be perceived as being the first and get credit for it. Their aim is to start and encourage conversations and discussions as they feel the need to connect to the world. They are usually driven by the desire to show the world who they are and create new friendships. Their preferred tools are Twitter, Facebook and to some extent email.
  • Boomerangs: As the name suggests it’s all about what comes back to them after they have socially engaged with others, they simply want to get reactions. This persona tends to be actively engaged in online activities such as anticipating in debates and commenting. Boomerangs need to feel connected therefore they use many different social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, email and blogs.
  • Connectors: Are mainly female who share to stay in touch with their friends. They mostly enjoy entertaining content and simply get joy out of sharing it with their friends. They especially like content which might lead to off-line experiences such as vouchers for a free coffee etc. Connectors mainly use Facebook and email for content distribution.
  • Selectives: As the name already suggests this category shares valuable content but only with selected people. In return they also expect to get a reaction for their effort of sharing relevant content. Selectives tend to be older with a more traditional approach to social as a result email is their preferred method of sharing.

Why is it important to Understand Social Networking?

Understanding how and why people share allows us to target our content and promote sharing better. If you are a charity you can target the altruists who are sharing your content because they want to advocate your organisation. Or if you are an indie record label you might want to target the Hipsters on Twitter who all want to be the first person to notice and share your content. In this case, the record label might want to provide exclusive music tracks for free on Twitter.

People have to trust you enough in order to share your content with the people they care about and their peers. Brands have to ensure that the information and content they provide is trustworthy. The New York Times study highlighted the fact that more and more people (49%) are trusting peer recommendations over what a brand is saying. Sharing allows them to inform others of products they care about with the potential to change opinions and encourage actions. This clearly shows that brands have lost credibility and their appeal of trustworthiness. The good news though is that social media enables brands to provide quality content and to have a transparent dialogue with customers and further encourage communication and sharing amongst them.

The rise of social has created a two-way dialogue with customers rather than a one-way conversation therefore it is crucial for brands to be transparent and have a human voice. Brands have to ensure that they create sharable content. For example videos are more likely to become viral and useful blog-post should feature widgets so that it’s easy to share.

However, this content should be created with the understanding that the relationships that people value most are with one another and not with brands. Following on from this, consumers must find content trustworthy before they will share it.

In order for your content to be shared you have to choose networks that make sense to your audience. Make sure you know what their networking channel preferences are and which of them they are using. If your audience can be categorised as Careerists Linkedin will be the most suitable network; in regards to Hipsters Twitter will be the most suitable.


One way to get there is for a brand to encourage honest and open public dialogue without filtering out the negative comments. A good example is Nestle, when in 2010 a Greenpeace campaign was protesting against Nestle’s “unsustainable palm oil policy” accusing the brand for cutting down the rain forest. As a result its Facebook followers started to post angry comments on Nestle’s fan page. The reaction of Nestle was to delete fans and post defensive comments in return. By acting this way they turned their 90,000 plus fan base into angry protesters rather than online advocates.


What Brands have to Do to Encourage Social Sharing

  • Appeal to Their Sense of Humour: Humorous content is most likely to be shared and therefore become viral. People have always liked sharing entertaining and funny content. Informing consumers through entertaining content has proven to be an effective way to reach them and catch their attention. Funny content makes people laugh, it’s infectious and makes them want to share it with others (also because it’s likely that they get credit for sharing ‘this funny viral’). So think humorous content.
  • Create Content which is Reinforcing Your Customer’s Self-Image: It’s crucial to know your target demographic. Ask yourself questions like: What is my audience already sharing? What type of content? This will help you to figure out what type of content they are already sharing and ‘what’ they are likely to share with others. A very good example is Nike’s “Make Yourself” campaign. The aim of the campaign was to encourage women to improve their physical performance and to share their strategy of becoming their own ‘best version’ of themselves with each other. The Nike Women Facebook page featured a section named ‘I am making myself’ and all anticipating women could leave comments with statements in order to inspire other women to follow their example. The statements started with ‘I am making myself’ and users then finished it with adjectives such as fit, strong, healthy, etc; giving a short description of what helped them to achieve their chosen physical characteristics. This is a great campaign example of content people want to share even if they are not Nike enthusiasts.
  • Produce Interesting and Innovative Articles: According to a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania in partnership with the New York Times people like to share intellectually challenging articles. The study showed that people are more likely to share content aiming to inspire awe. Additionally, it’s interesting to note that longer articles featuring in-depth analysis and discussion are more likely to be shared than shorter ones. This is due to the more engaging nature of a longer article. Whatever market you are operating in make sure that you publish interesting and insightful content.
  • Provide Discounts and Incentives: A good real-life example for sharing and distributing content amongst peers is Groupon. They managed to work out that people value coupons and that they are likely to share these with their friends and peers without the actual merchant having to advertise the discount. Therefore their entire business is based on offering group discounts on a daily basis. It’s time that brands recognise the value of incentives in terms of sharing. People are far more likely to share content which is  beneficial to them and their peers.
  • Supporting a Good Cause and Advocative Sharing: Imagine you are a brand and you just have added a new addition or feature to one of your products or even extended one of your services. Surely, you want your customers to know about that. Consider informing loyal customers about the latest additions and features as they are likely to anticipate in advocative sharing. A different example for this would be the ‘Walk the Walk – Uniting Against Breast Cancer’ which originally started as a one-off fundraising event but has since grown into a multi-million pound charity raising awareness for breast cancer. The reason for the charity to have blossomed to that extent simply is because women who participated shared their experiences and encouraged others to take action as well.

Using Analysis to Inform Strategy

Keep in mind that once a brand is able to successfully get their content shared, it doesn’t stop there. Brands should listen to what is being said (or not being said) about the content shared. Is it resonating? Are people commenting on what they are viewing/reading? Is the brand responding? In order for your content to be shared you have to choose networks that make sense to your audience. Make sure you know what their networking channel preferences are and which of them they are using. If your audience can be categorised as Careerists Linkedin will be the most suitable network; in regards to Hipsters Twitter will be the most suitable.

So be sure to identify why people are sharing content about your brand, who they are and what it is you need to create for them to share. Encouraging online sharing of content should be seen as a process that begins with the inception of content and continues long after the content is shared.

Valbona Gjini

Written by Valbona Gjini

EMEA Marketing Manager, Rocket Fuel Inc.

Valbona was formerly Digital Communications Manager at Linkdex, and now works for Rocket Fuel. She grew up in a beautiful but very rainy region in the north of Italy, so the London weather makes her feel right at home.