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...

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.

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