5 reasons people share news & how you can get them to share yours

We know more than 750 million people actively use Facebook and 200 million tweets are sent each day. But what exactly motivates the frenzy of online sharing?

A new study commissioned by The New York Times answers that question. The study, including an online survey of 2,500 sharers (not just Times readers), finds five basic motivations for why we share information, and six types of personas who do the sharing.

The title slide from "The Psychology of Sharing" presentation.

Brian Brett, the Times’ managing director of customer research, shared the study results at a recent marketing conference. I’ve had a chance to look over the full presentation and his notes.

I’ll review and explain the findings first, and then suggest what it means for a news organization or any website publisher who wants content to be shared.

Here are the survey's findings on five primary motivations for sharing (the labels are my own words, not the researchers’):

  • Altruism. We share to bring valuable and entertaining content to others. We think about what our friends want to know, and try to help them out.
  • Self-definition. We share to define ourselves to others. Perhaps this notion is better phrased as, “you are what you share.” People consciously shape their online persona by the types of things they share.
  • Empathy. We share to strengthen and nourish our relationships. Sharing shows someone else we’re thinking about them and we care.
  • Connectedness. We share to get credit and feedback for being a good sharer, to feel valuable in the eyes of others.
  • Evangelism. We share to spread the word about a cause or brand we believe in.

The common thread is that content sharing is all about relationships. Sharing is driven by our desire to shape or maintain relationships with other people. As Brett summarized it in his presentation notes, “getting shared is about providing content that serves consumers’ relationships with one another.”

Next, the study uses these motivations and other results to categorize the six types of people who share. These are not mutually exclusive, some people may fall into multiple categories. But I think you’ll find one dominant streak per person. These are the personas, in the order of most to least common, with labels given by the researchers:

  • Altruists tend to be female, want to help others and spread the word about good causes. Motivated by altruism (of course), empathy, connectedness and evangelism. They tend to share on email and Facebook.
  • Careerists are professionals with strong networks, who like to share serious, useful content and build a reputation for doing so. Motivated by self-definition and connectedness. They tend to use email and LinkedIn.
  • Hipsters tend to be young and male. They like to start conversations and show who they are by sharing. Motivated by self-definition, empathy and connectedness. They tend to use Twitter and Facebook.
  • Boomerangs want to get a reaction. They like to start debate and generate lots of comments, positive or negative. Motivated by connectedness. They tend to share on many platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, email and blogs.
  • Connectors are mostly female, and they share to stay close with their friends. They like content that can lead to offline experiences. Motivated by empathy and connectedness. They tend to share on email and Facebook.
  • Selectives are older and more traditional. They share limited information of specific value to specific people. Motivated by altruism and connectedness. They tend to share on email.

So, what does it all mean? Here are six implications for any news site hoping to increase sharing activity.

Think of your users’ relationships. Create content that can help someone strengthen a personal or professional relationship. Think useful, fun, humorous, controversial, actionable.

Keep it simple. Many of your readers are sharing to get a response or to show how smart they are. Those people won’t share something they’re not sure they understand, or that their friends may not understand.

Reconsider your Facebook button. This research may suggest that Facebook’s “recommend” button is subconsciously more appealing than its “like” button, even though they do the same thing. Recommending is a social activity targeting your friends, while liking is just an individual expression.

Share on the right networks. When you share your own content, choose networks that make sense. If your story appeals to hipsters, use Twitter. For careerists be sure to use LinkedIn. To target connectors, use your Facebook page.

Remember email. It is still the No. 1 sharing method, the survey found. Though many social networks have blossomed, none has surpassed the simplicity and universal reach of email.

Customize sharing options. Should different types of stories emphasize different sharing options to the reader? For example, your business template may feature LinkedIn and email share buttons, while your features template pushes Facebook sharing.

Share your ideas in the comments (or on your social network of choice, you altruists and careerists).

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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