Why we share is just as important as—arguably more important than—what we share. While research that addresses the what abounds, there aren’t many studies dedicated to the why of content sharing. The New York Times teamed up with Latitude Research to fill this gap in our knowledge with a new study, The Psychology of Sharing, which combined qualitative research on heavy sharers and light sharers with a survey of 2,500 medium and heavy sharers. Brian Brett, Managing Director of The New York Times Customer Research group presented his findings yesterday to a packed room at the ANA Digital & Social Media Conference, and the top-level insights are compelling.

Why we care to share

Humans are sharing more content, with more people, more quickly than ever before. Our reasons for doing so generally fall into at least one of these five categories, the study found.

  1. We share to bring valuable and entertaining content to others
  2. We share to define ourselves to others, and to receive social validation
  3. We share to strengthen and nourish our relationships with one another
  4. We share for self-fulfillment—“We enjoy getting credit for it”
  5. We share to advocate for causes we believe in, and less commonly, brands we want to support

Sharing personas

By combining the how, what, and why of our sharing habits, the Times was able to develop a typology of sorts. Sharers can be segmented into six sharing personas, but “we’re all likely to find a little of ourselves” in each of them, according to Brett. The personas, by population:

1. Altruists

They share content to be helpful to others, and aspire to be reliable sources of information. They prefer sharing by email and Facebook.

2. Careerists

These well-educated sharers want to earn a reputation for bringing value to their networks, preferring content that is more serious and professional in tone. LinkedIn and email are their channels of choice.

3. Hipsters

These younger sharers “have only known life in the information age.” They use Twitter and Facebook to share cutting-edge and creative content, and they focus on identity-building.

4. Boomerangs

Thrilled by the reaction of others to the content they share, Boomerangs are even happy with negative responses. They’re after validation, and they employ Facebook, email, Twitter, and blogs without a strong preference for any one of them.

5. Connectors

The name says it all—this persona sees content sharing as a way to stay connected with others and make plans. Their sharing behavior is more relaxed, and they typically use email and Facebook.

6. Selectives

Selectives put more thought into what they share and with whom they share it. Because their sharing is more personalized, they expect people to respond to and act on their content. They prefer email.

Brands that get sharing get shared

Brett ended his talk with a set of recommendations to brands. Some of the best:

“Sharing is about relationships,” he said. Content should be created with the understanding that the relationships that people value most are with one another, and not with brands.

Consumers must find content trustworthy before they will share it, said Brett. One way to get there is for a brand to encourage honest and open public dialogue without filtering out the negative.

Humor, too, is powerful, because it’s essentially a social phenomenon. The success of Volkswagen’s Cannes-winner, The Force, and its myriad parody videos, shows this phenomenon in action, he said.

Lastly, don’t discount email—it’s still the most frequent way we share content, the study found. Brett reasoned that people consider it more private, and have a higher expectation that others will respond when they send a personal email.

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5 Responses to “Motivation matters: New research on “The Psychology of Sharing””

  1. At the end of the day, content is one more way to serve your customers. Why not give them what they want?

  2. Good point- we silo ourselves according to the channel. When we use multiple channels our persona on each may be different.

  3. Hadn’t thought about it this way before.  While the description of “Careerists” resonated with me the most, I find that I may take on a different “persona” depending on what my objective is in sharing specific types of information. There are things I’ll post routinely on Twitter and/or Facebook that I wouldn’t necessarily post on LinkedIn, for example.  However, nearly everything I post on LinkedIn, I would probably post on Twitter. Thanks for the insight!

  4. Intriguing post, Ian! Thanks for sharing insight into who shares content, hopefully helping businesses tailor their social media and email campaigns to better fit their market. Knowing your target audience and consumer group can help you focus on where your business needs to spend more time, rather than trying to market to them all.  

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