Social media marketing: context is what makes people share content


A while ago I tried to answer the question "why do people discuss experiences, products, services, companies, etc. with others?" Or in other words: why do people participate in word-of-mouth? It is not quite that simple to answer this question. You do not just need the necessary marketing knowledge but especially a substantial dosage of insight into the human psyche, group dynamics, social psychology and even sociological phenomena. If you look at the question beyond obvious answers, you can spend quite some time on answering it.

The question "why do people share content" is a bit similar. But in answering it one can find a lot of value for his business and "target groups" in this integrated social media and cross-channel marketing age.

In fact, when attempting to understand what makes people share content and even building a model for it, one quickly discovers there are many similar answers with the "why word-of-mouth" question. But there are also many differences. This amongst other involves the fact that content is an enormously broad concept. Today we discuss the importance of relevant content and the fact that content should be worth sharing.

The latter has a lot to do with the focus on the informative needs of the client in a world where he/she searches the content that he/she needs at that time. But - let's be honest - we especially want to know why sharing of content happens because everyone dreams of their content being "tweeted" massively, appearing on social media bookmarking sites thousands of times and getting shared via all possible channels with viral options, including obviously e-mail.

Recently Jan Teerlinck wrote on this blog about a study of Chadwick Martin Bailey and iModerate Research Technologies that established e-mail is still used most for sharing content. These are findings that do not really surprise me. However, although e-mail is used by 86% of the respondents for sharing content, Facebook is already scoring 49%, the same study found.

The types of content that get shared most

It also provides some interesting findings concerning the reasons why e-mail is used so often to share content: it offers a possibility of saving and sorting content, as opposed to the more real-time nature of social networks such as Twitter. From the user viewpoint this is a valid argument, for businesses and especially SEO it is not. Obviously one can say that social bookmarking also allows you to save and sort content, but let's be honest: social bookmarking is used more for SEO than for "sharing" and the community-aspect of social bookmarking is quite low, depending on the used service.

The report also gives some tips and facts concerning the type of content that people share most and also how important it is to make your content share-worthy.
In decreasing order of importance, Chadwick Martin Bailey and iModerate Research Technologies found, people mostly share news about a family member or friends (81%), family pictures or video (80%), funny videos (63%), coupons/discount (54%) and news articles and blog posts (53%).

Based on this list, it is clear that personal and plain fun content are shared most, probably another argument for word-of-mouth marketing. From the business perspective, promotions and information score well. It's also clear that consumers want compelling and relevant promotions and that there are several reasons to focus more on content marketing in general and blog marketing specifically.

But what about all other forms of content that fit more in the interactions between business and businesses or businesses and "consumers"? Online presentations, customer cases, referrals and testimonials and the gazillion of other content formats and elements?

The many dimensions of content in context

Very few studies answer why people exactly share content but even less look at why people share one type of content more than the other or how they share different sorts of content per sharing medium or channel.

I do not think that one can answer these question by only looking at the content itself.

Obviously, for example, a blog post with a spectacular title will be "re-tweeted" easier as I recently established with an experiment and it is clear that a well written piece from the usability and even SEO perspective will be shared more (because people read and find it respectively).

But apart from the quality of the content the answer should be searched for somewhere else more: in the context. That context is function of the psychological promise, fulfilling, experience, perception, requirement etc. of the person that comes into contact with the content, irrespective of the channel and the format (an informative blog post, an ad, an online video, a press release, a white paper etc.).

It is probably not a world shocking finding and should definitely be further worked out (there is for example also an important dimension  of "timing" and even "coincidence" and "design") but it becomes time that we look further than the content itself and evaluate the context much more, something that is not done often enough today.

Dynamics of the act of sharing content

Sharing is an activity that occurs in a short time span and that assumes a "trigger" to share. It is like clicking a link: a quick action that happens in an impulse, although clicking sometimes is "easier and faster" than sharing (but then again, tweeting or retweeting is simply clicking a button as well).
The triggers are very personal, subjective and relative. Thus context. In general one could say there are two kinds of triggers to share content:

  • The rational trigger: content gets shared because it is rationally deemed valuable and relevant to do so.
  • The emotional trigger: content gets shared because it's fun or emotionally appealing and because sharing it fulfils an emotional need or desire.

But both overlap and from a psychological perspective what we call 'rational' is often really 'emotional'.

Moreover, in this easy model, many elements are missing: the timing-determined pertinence, the placement of sharing tools, the channels and how they are combined, coincidence (to share something you have to "see" it pass in the social sphere) and even the different characteristics of various types and formats of both content and sharing channels. Finally, let's not forget the dynamics of cross-channel sharing and spreading, and how sharing virally works after a specific piece of content has been shared a first time, as well as the different types of what we often call influencers, in this case "people that share and get shared".

An interesting puzzle for a matrix that answers the question why and when which people share what type of content over what channels. A challenge for which your input is welcome.

In the mean time one thing is sure: people share content if they want to and if it doesn't take too much effort doing it…


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