The Psychology of Social Sharing: How to Shape Your Content According to What People Want to Share

There is no magic formula to going viral.

Even if some blogs make getting shared big-time look effortless there simply is no 100% foolproof method to ensure that your content will reach huge audiences and inspire them to pass it on.

And that’s a good thing because it means those strategies cannot be abused.

However, going viral isn’t just a matter of throwing content at the wall and seeing what sticks. You can help yourself succeed by shaping your content to encourage social sharing on your social network of choice.

Keep reading to learn what drives people to share, and how to present your content to succeed on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Why Do People Share?

There is a lot that goes into a decision to pass along a piece of content. Sometimes all it comes down to is a fleeting thought: “Susan would like this, I should send it to her.” But there are a lot of other factors that motivate us to share certain types of content.

01. Timeliness

Did you know the half-life of a tweet is 16 minutes? While other social networks do not lose their engagement potential quite as rapidly as Twitter, typically the same principle applies.

Perhaps, the best illustration of this is the outpouring of emotion that spreads across social networks when a famous person dies. News articles confirming the death get thousands and thousands of shares. The death of someone whose work you admire can feel achingly personal, and afterwards it seems like everyone has to say their piece. Prince’s death in April of this year generated almost 13 million tweets in just 24 hours. The surge of social activity following Michael Jackson’s death broke Twitter.

These examples show just how explosive timely news, especially shocking news, is on social networks, especially Twitter.

02. Emotion

Emotion is a really strong motivator for sharing content online, but it’s not just any old feeling. A lot of this is driven by positive emotions. In an analysis of the most viral content of 2015, Steve Rayson from Buzzsumo identified the following seven emotions as the strongest for driving social sharing:

  •      Amusing
  •      Surprising
  •      Heartwarming
  •      Beautiful
  •      Inspiring
  •      Warning
  •      Shocking

As you can see, just two out of seven types of emotion listed above have a negative connotation, and all can trigger a very strong response from the viewer.

An earlier study by Buzzsumo and OkDork went so far as to break it down by what percentage of the top 10,000 most shared articles fit a particular emotion:

image08

The most stand-out emotions here are Amusement/Laughter, which combine to consume nearly a third of the pie, and Awe, which takes up a perfect quarter.

03. Visual Impact

One of the most commonly shared types of content are list posts full of pictures, or slideshows of incredible images. We share these for many of the emotional reasons I just mentioned – humor, awe, surprise, beauty – and these are the same emotions that draw us into this kind of content when we see it in our newsfeeds.

The Guardian’s second most-shared post of 2014 was a photo post containing incredibly high-quality, mostly aerial photos of extreme over-development in action:

image00

This piece garnered over 700,000 shares. We share this kind of content because it shocks us, amazes us, scares us, and inspires feelings within us that makes us want to share it with others.

04. Community

As humans, we crave being a part of things. Enterprising content marketers have capitalized on this, crafting articles that celebrate a sense of community.

This isn’t a new idea; I remember receiving email forwards (back when those were actually a thing) that did this. You know the ones – “You know you are from New York when…” The more recent reincarnation of this sort of thing are, of course, in listicle format, with a headline that invites you to learn more.

Some take the idea of “community” very generally. Here’s an example with 41,000 shares from the blog Wait But Why: 10 Types of Odd Friendships You’re Probably Part Of

Most of us can probably identify with something in that post, which is part of why it has been shared so many times. It’s also been shared so much because it is amusing, and because of the great visuals (crudely drawn as they are).

image04

Other posts break us into smaller groups, but not too small – there still needs to be a base of people to share the content, after all. Here’s an example from BuzzFeed that garnered half a million shares: 27 Problems Only Introverts Will Understand

And you can break it down even further – because even a subset of introverts earned this piece over 230,000 shares: 10 Everyday Things Only Extroverted Introverts Will Understand

The point is, each of these target communities of people – broad or narrow – who can relate to the content and pass on to their followers. They share out of a sense of affinity – yes, as an extroverted introvert I totally get that! – but also as an almost unconscious way of defining which communities they belong to.

05. Idealization

Finally, we curate what we share out of a desire to present an idealized version of ourselves to the world.

Anyone who has ever scrolled through their Facebook feed and experienced FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out) knows exactly what I mean. Between picture-perfect wedding photos, picturesque beach Instagrams, and iPhone shots of girls’ night, it sometimes seems like everyone has a perfect life – except for you. So we carefully shape our own social media activity to match, sharing content that makes us seem funny, clever, or always well put-together.

This manifests itself differently on every social network, but it is universal. One survey of 2,500 social media users found that 68% share content in order to “define themselves,” but I’m willing to bet that the true percentage is even higher. On Facebook and Instagram, we share our picture-perfect lives and social gatherings. On Pinterest, we carefully catalog our inspirations and aspirations. On Twitter and LinkedIn, we position ourselves as experts, retweeting industry news, interesting facts, and other career-oriented content.

Preparing Your Content for Social Sharing

With the reasons that people share in mind, there are a lot of ways you can shape your content according to what people want to share.

You don’t need to make your content perfect for every social network – in fact, that might be impossible. Plus, there is probably a key network or two that your audience tends to frequent. Don’t stretch yourself too thin; focus where it counts and you will see the benefits.

First, there are some steps you can take to prepare your content for any kind of social sharing. Then, I will go into some quick and detailed ways to prepare your content for social sharing on a social network of your choice.

Shaping Your Content for Social Sharing

There are certain steps you can take to make your content more shareable in general:

  1.     Make social sharing buttons readily available. If you want people to share, you need to give them a means of doing so! Add social sharing buttons at the top and bottom of your post, or like here at Design School, you could add sharing buttons that follow the reader as they scroll. Don’t forget to make sure your social sharing works on mobile.
  1.     Write a share-worthy headline. If it doesn’t grip a potential reader, they won’t read on – in fact, 80% of people never make it past the headline. The co-founder of Upworthy, Peter Koechley, has said that in their A/B tests of headlines, they saw variation in traffic of up to 500%. That’s a simply massive amount of influence the headline has on the success of your content, so the title of your post needs to be more than a passing thought.
  1.     Invite social sharing with a CTA at the end of the article. Don’t underestimate the value of just asking for it. In one study of over 10,000 tweets, the phrase “please retweet” garnered over four times the number of retweets than those that didn’t ask for shares.
  1.     Use open graph meta tags to add default images to your page for social media. These snippets of code tell social networks to include a default image when users share something from your website. Facebook posts that include images, for example, are shared over twice as much as those without. If you are running WordPress, Elegant Themes has a great guide to adding these tags manually or with a plugin.

Shaping Your Content for Facebook Sharing

What are Facebook users looking for? Facebook is a very personal social network; we use Facebook to connect with friends and family. Users are looking for content that helps them define themselves. It’s also where we go to waste time. Facebook use accounts for 20% of the time the average internet user spends online, and 2/3 of Facebook’s users consume at least some of their news through the platform.

  1.     Create a “curiosity gap” with your headline. As Joanna Wiebe from Copy Hackers puts it, “the curiosity gap is the space between what we know and what we want or even need to know.” Have you ever read a headline that evoked more questions than it answered? Copy Hackers used this technique to increase clicks to one of their pages by over 900%.
  1.     Invite engagement. Engagement is practically the currency of Facebook in these days of limited organic reach. The more people interact with your Facebook posts, the more impressions those posts will earn. Use your headline and image to try and inspire users to click through or like, and you can use your description to try and inspire users to comment; all of these actions will increase your engagement.
  1.     Double-check your open graph tags. You can use the Facebook debugger tool to test your URLs and ensure they are pulling the image, headline, and description as you intended.

Shaping Your Content for Pinterest Sharing

What are Pinterest users looking for? More than any other social network, the emphasis on Pinterest is on incredible image quality. Pinterest users collect images (which link back to their source site) onto boards they create around their interests. A lot of what users save is inspirational in nature; they are planning their next meal or DIY project, and a lot of pins invite users to “pin now, read later.” The most popular categories on Pinterest are Food & Drink, DIY, Home Décor, and Holidays & Events.

  1.     Create visuals with Pinterest in mind. Tall images take up more screen real estate on Pinterest than wide images, so if you are shaping your content for Pinterest you should always include at least one tall, attractive image for users to pin. According to social analytics agency Curalate, the sweet spot is an aspect ratio between 2:3 and 4:5.
  1.     Enable rich pins for your website. If you’ve added meta tags to your website, you can apply with Pinterest to enable rich pins. This means that more information is displayed on pins that come from your website, such as a headline and post description, in addition to the normal description. That’s great, because it means your pins will be longer and occupy more space on the screen. You can test your pages to see if meta tags are working using Pinterest’s validator, and when they are, apply for rich pins here.
  1.     Invite readers to share to Pinterest with an image hover. Design School, for example, provides three options for social sharing anytime you hover over an image: Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. You can use a plugin like this one to add this functionality if your site is running WordPress.

Shaping Your Content for Twitter Sharing

What are Twitter users looking for? Twitter users are news junkies, looking for breaking information in real time. Beyond a desire for fresh content, they are looking for useful or insightful information about their industry to pass onto their own followers. Specifically, bite-sized statistics or quotes do very well, and headlines are also very important.

  1.     Add tweetable pull-quotes to your articles. You can emphasize your key takeaways or surprising statistics by off-setting them from the main body of your article and adding an option to tweet the quote. This is a great technique for several reasons. “Click to tweet” links are less easy to overlook than regular social sharing buttons because they literally interrupt the flow of the post with a CTA to share. They also make crafting a clever tweet super easy for your visitors and will help them look smart to their followers, which they are sure to appreciate you for. If you are running WordPress, there is a great free plugin to add these.
  1.     Tweet your content out multiple times in different ways. Reframing your content will help it appeal to a variety of different audiences, and sharing at different times of day will catch people who weren’t online the first (or second, or third) time.
  1.     Use Twitter to test-run your headlines. Amanda DiSilvestro shared this technique for A/B testing blog post titles with Twitter several years ago, but it can still be taken advantage of to this day.

Shaping Your Content for LinkedIn Sharing

What are LinkedIn users looking for? LinkedIn users want to be seen as experts in their field. They are on LinkedIn for their own personal and professional development, so they are looking for content they can curate to look like a thought-leader in their field. Power users on LinkedIn heavily use the “groups” portion of the site, where users can create industry-specific communities with discussions.

  1.     Emphasize powerful statements in your articles. Even if you don’t make them “click to tweet” ready (though you totally should), emphasizing the key takeaways of your article will make it easier for LinkedIn users to quote them when they share to LinkedIn or one of their groups.
  1.     Repurpose your blog posts into SlideShares. Recycle your best content into a slideshow format that summarizes the main points of your article with more visuals – you can do this quite easily using Canva’s presentation designer tool. Then, embed the SlideShare into your original post, and link back to your blog post from the presentation and description on SlideShare. SlideShare is owned by LinkedIn and presentations shared from the site can embed directly into the LinkedIn feed, making them more engaging than the average share.

Wrapping Up

There are many reasons that people share what they choose to share. A lot of those reasons, however, boil down to a few key motivators – we like to share content that is timely, evokes strong emotions, is highly visual, makes us feel connected with the world, and allows us to put our best foot forward.

Now, I turn to you – what’s your favorite way to shape your content for your social network of choice? I’d love to hear your favorite tricks in the comments below!

Adrienne Branson is a freelance writer and design enthusiast in her 20s. She grew up enthralled by the internet and social media. She loves a well-organized Pinterest board, walking her dogs, and following the music scene in her city.