The psychology of social sharing

By Rowan Grace Evans | 02 Mar 2015

I often find myself, in pitches or when speaking to clients, explaining that social media is a study in psychology. The formula for virility, or the secret to shareability, is something of a myth if you ask me. While we know the basic tenants of good content, the extent to which that content is shared is much more to do with the thought processes of the social audience.

There is something intrinsic in the human psyche that encourages us to share our thoughts and opinions with others. What we love, what we hate, things that appal us, things that amuse. The basis of social media is rooted in the human desire to share, unprompted. We used to share these thoughts and findings across the desk with colleagues, or around the dinner table with our family. Today, the process has not changed, we are simply able to share much more widely since the advent of social media. We have a captive audience of hundreds, thousands, perhaps even more, at the click of a mouse, ready to listen when we share. You and I, and others like us have taken the power away from mainstream broadcasters; suddenly what we think and feel matters.

This can be a tough thing to explain to clients. Why do people share 'no makeup selfies'? Surely that sort of self-effacing vanity is a contradiction in terms? Why do people share and like inspirational quotes so much? Just why are the #dogsofinstagram such a phenomenon? All valid questions that we need to address when constructing a campaign, as we need to ensure the content we create appeals to the current human sharing trends on social.

Personally, I have long held beliefs on what makes people tick (and share), ideas which have been confirmed by a recent study by the New York Times.  The NYT Customer Insight Group conducted a study into the psychology of social sharing, identifying the motivators for sharing content across social platforms.

Quite unsurprisingly the results showed that on social, as in life, humans are largely self-serving and self-aware, as borne out by the top five sharing motivators: 

  1. Entertainment: Nearly half of those surveyed suggested they share in order to entertain their social peers, or inform them about something that they found entertaining.
  2. Self-definition: 68% of those questioned said that sharing social content they found touching allows them to define their personality, to stand for something socially, and give people a better impression of who they are.
  3. Relationships: While brands aim to build a relationship with their customers, the average consumer is much more concerned with their personal relationships, sharing content as a way of keeping in touch with people with shared interests.
  4. Self-fulfilment: Over half of those surveyed suggested they share socially as a way of keeping in touch with the world and to feel part of something. If you say something out loud, to one, ten, a hundred people - does that make it more valid, more real?
  5. Promotion: The Holy Grail for brands - 84% of respondents claimed to share socially in order to spread the word about a cause, brand or product that they really cared about. An impassioned social community - great news for brands, but a powerful force for bad press should your social content go awry.

So, should this insight in to the social sharing mind-set alter the way brands approach social content? Yes, all good social content should speak to these motivators - if you are not creating content that sparks emotion, encourages reaction and furthers the self-interest of your audience, then you will not be shared. Speak to the motivators above and your content has a fighting chance of turning a few social heads!