Why Do We Share on Social Media? An In-Depth Look at the Psychology.

June 01, 2017


For countless reasons, content is king. It matters. It affects your everyday business performance and can be the difference between hitting a goal and not hitting a goal. Large brands know the value in content, both blog content and what’s shared on social media enough to dedicate entire departments around the world to their upkeep and maintenance. Why is content so important? Content establishes your brand as an authority that your customers can trust, assists with building SEO and backlinks, attracts the attention of new clients, and establishes your brand beyond simply your logo and visual designs.

But there are so many things about content that can get frustrating. When you’re just starting out, and even when it gets going smoothly, it can oftentimes feel like your content isn’t going anywhere. It feels like you’re putting time and effort into something that isn’t yielding a ton of results, whose measurability may be difficult. Content is a long-haul strategy. It’s not meant to be quick, it’s meant to be long-lasting. Yet there are brands out there that have mastered the ability for content to be rapidly effective, also known as going viral. Going viral means that a piece of content gets shared over and over since it affects the reader or viewer in some way. Now, there’s a method to how and why things go viral and for content, can be the small, measurable boost that your brand needs.

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Why Does Content Sharing on Social Media Matter?

Sharing and word of mouth carries weight. Consider your own personal usage of sites like Facebook and Twitter – there are accounts and friends that you follow that you find to be funny, engaged, thoughtful, and informative. It’s likely that you trust their judgment and insight, so you read or look at what they have to say. According to the Nielsen Global Trust Report in Advertising, 83% of people trust the opinions and recommendations of their family and friends. This means that the best form of advertising your small business will receive is sharing content and recommendations from other people to their extended networks.

While previously recommendations came from word of mouth, social media has connected us with more people than ever before and widened the kind of marketing, advertising, image, and brand content that we’re exposed to. Not only is there a ton of information shared across our screens on a daily basis, but we’re exposed to competing narratives. So when your old college roommate posts about a new skin care product they’re using or your dad recommends a new bank, you’re more likely to click through and see what they’re recommending, and even use the product yourself. Virality works a lot like this and has numerous benefits – it means that the content that is being put out there strikes a chord that resonates with many different people, calling attention to you and your brand.

Why do things get shared?

Content sharing on social media can be broken down a few different ways, and there are some common threads that link pieces that are highly viral and those that just get posted to the abyss. We’re going to outline for you here.

  1. Bring value and entertaining content to others. Consider a website like Buzzfeed – they promote great news content, but a lot of how Buzzfeed garnered the attention to their website was through pure, entertaining content. This entertaining content doesn’t mean that anyone needs to think too hard, but can have a laugh and send it to someone else who also needs some lightness. So many articles have gone viral from Buzzfeed because they’re able to purely entertain their readership.
  2. Give others insight into what the sharer is about. Content gets shared because they tell other people something about the person that shared them. Recent data from the New York Times suggests that 68% of people share content with other people in order to sort out who they are, what they care about, and to let other people know this information as well. In short, the content we share promotes the person we’d like to be seen as.
  3. Stay connected with others. Social media is inherently social, and the purpose is to create and maintain relationships with other people. It’s simpler than ever. It goes beyond mailing someone a Christmas card once a year, but you can send them an article or share something to your timeline. It’s a quick and easy way to stay in touch. A New York Times study notes that people really want to share the world with other people, and social media is where this happens.
  4. Involvement in the modern world around them. A large number of people, around 69%, share content because they want to feel connected with other and the world around them. Especially when it comes to a timely issue or a breaking news story, content is shared because it connect the sharer with their world and they’re looking to pass along this information to others. Appealing to trends makes sense.
  5. Support a cause or an issue. When someone supports a cause, issue, or brand, they’re very likely to share it with their audience. Why? Because it brings more attention to the issue and helps to ensure it’s success and helps to build a community of like-minded folks.
  6. Brings key emotions, such as amusement, surprise, heartwarming, beauty, inspiration, or shock to the forefront. A lot of what we do, especially online, is emotionally driven. As noted by Fast Company, more viral content amplifies the happiness centers of the brain, and people tend to react to emotions before thinking something through completely. There’s a primal human instinct related to emotions that we all cling to. Bringing them to the forefront helps. The New York Times even backs this up!
  7. Create a strong visual impact. There is almost nothing more important when posting something online that you want to be shared than including relevant images. Without images, the brain retains around 10% of it three days later; when paired with a picture, the brain remembers 65% of information after three days. Reading is less efficient for the brain than using images – so the most viral content will include great images and video to accompany its work.

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What lessons can we learn?

There are many key lessons and takeaways from examining social sharing that can help your content perform much better. Based on what you know about why people share what they do, there are actionable items for any small business owner to increase their marketing potential, social shares, and bring in additional revenue.

Most importantly, you want to bring content of value to your readers. This means content that is enticing, not just content for content’s sake. This includes content that tells them how to do something, a how-to guide, educational and informative while being entertaining. The value of what you’re sharing will shine through and make virality a lot easier. Don’t just whip something together – think about what the reader will be able to get out of it that they weren’t able to from anything else.

Here are some other handy tips and lessons about sharing that ties into what we learned above:

  1. Quizzes are great for helping bring insight to the reader and teach them something about themselves they didn’t know previously;
  2. Asking questions engages your users, allowing them to share content with their own lessons included;
  3. Don’t be afraid to shy away from controversy, since this can be a great way to engage with others;
  4. Catchy headlines are important. Forbes explained a survey that shows that 60% of links shared on social media aren’t read past the headline. Make sure your content is the 40% that gets seen;
  5. Literally, ask for your content to get shared. Requesting that an action is completed with your content makes it more likely that the action will happen. For example, tweets that ask for retweets usually receive more than those that don’t!
  6. Always, always include images in your content. Buzzsumo shows once again that content with images gets 2.3x more views than content without. Go ahead and stack all the content in your favor;
  7. Don’t just throw any old headline on content, since it matters much more than you think. With so many people not even making it past this line, this might be the most important thing you write;
  8. Give readers a tasty morsel of the content if it’s written, like a blog or article, to pique their curiosity. Pull the best quote you can find and place it with the link to give everyone a reason to click through and see what you’ve written;
  9. Don’t forget that you have a personality, and your personality needs to be showcased. People don’t want to interact with a faceless, nameless brand. They want something they can relate to and that appeals to their senses – bring that out in your content!;
  10. Great design always helps. The best images that are shared are visually appealing, the blogs that garner likes are those that take design into consideration;
  11. Don’t be afraid to be culturally-relevant and on-trend. This article by Buzzsumo shows that trends can be a great jumping point, and when you’re on point with what’s happening, people are very willing to jump on this bandwagon.

In short, sharing on social media is part science, part strategy, and part luck. Well-placed viral campaigns can sometimes flop when they don’t appeal to the right emotion or target audience, while a random, heartfelt post can get thousands of shares for tapping into a culturally sensitive and relevant point in time. When writing and creating content, remember the lessons here to tap into some of the things that really do work, and watch your posts get more and more success!