Amy Snelling
May 7, 2019

Do you relate? The psychology of social sharing

Understanding the science behind what compels people to share can lead to new ways of thinking about content.

What was it about content like this that made it go viral? Clockwise from top left: #TheDress, the Starbucks cup inadvertently left in a Game of Thrones scene, Coke's
What was it about content like this that made it go viral? Clockwise from top left: #TheDress, the Starbucks cup inadvertently left in a Game of Thrones scene, Coke's "Mate" and "Dude" cans, a Peppa Pig campaign in China

As social media makes it increasingly easy to share more content far and wide, what makes one campaign soar and another fizzle out is an issue that businesses grapple with daily. While chance, timing and a solid idea obviously all play their part, success also comes down to understanding psychology.

According to Emily Wong, senior marketing manager at Hootsuite, the Asia Pacific region "has seen a 12% growth in active social media over the past year, leading to around two billion active users." In light of this, "brands increased their social ad budgets by 32% in 2018." To get a slice of the social pie, businesses need to break through the millions of other posts by creating content that is highly shareable, which means understanding the psychology behind what compels people to share in the first place.

Brands seeking to understand the social motivations behind sharing information is nothing new. In 1966, Harvard Business Review reported on Ernest Dichter’s essential study into the motivations driving word-of-mouth marketing. Fast-forward some 50 years, and we’re still studying the same crucial questions – what drives people to share – only the focus has shifted to digital.

A study by The New York Times Consumer Insight Group found that one key driver for online sharing is relationships. People's main considerations included offering entertaining and valuable content to others; helping grow and nurture relationships; giving others insight into ourselves; making ourselves feel good through comments and likes; and supporting causes and issues we’re passionate about.

Observing motivations in the context of trends, Virginia Ngai, strategy director at branding and marketing agency CatchOn, highlights the "influx of short DIY GIF videos – like recipe videos – that we save or share with someone to suggest we’ll do it for dinner, even if we never do." Not only do these ‘bite-sized’ life-hacks feel practical, they’re linked by what Ngai calls a "feel-good factor". A number of videos align themselves with global trends so that sharing becomes a way of allowing us to do "our bit". Targeting parent communities, for instance, Ngai sees videos for things like DIY nappies that "tap into sustainability and responsible consumption... There’s the feeling that, if I’m doing this, I’m doing something good for the planet."

The most shareable content is also highly relatable. As Pitchfork editor Jeremy D. Larson poetically put it in a recent article, "Relatability is the chief psychological lubricant that glides you thoughtlessly down the curated, endless scroll of your feed." Our obsession with how we relate to and connect with others is key. "By nature, we crave connection with others. Humans are a tribe," explains Ngai. Certain content, like #TheDress (below) or those Buzzfeed character quizzes that take over Facebook feeds, "put you into camps, and you share it because you want to know your tribe… It taps into that natural desire to connect with others and to belong."

With relationships at the heart of our motivations, brands can’t overlook trust. As the NYT Consumer Insight Group report defines it, "trust is the cost of entry for getting shared." Given common concerns over privacy issues and fake news, Hootsuite’s Wong notes that, "users are becoming more cautious about the content they consume online and are placing greater confidence in those shared by their immediate network." As such, "building trust will play a crucial role in deepening relationships between brands and consumers."

Like all strong relationships, this calls for commitment and projecting a clear identity. Mimrah Mahmood, APAC regional director of media solutions for media intelligence company Meltwater, states that "showing consumers how a brand is aligned with their identity and beliefs is the first step, but in order to take this relationship to the next level, commitment is key." The stronger the relationship, the higher the level of trust, he explains. "Social media users engage with brands that share authentic content on relevant themes in a manner that resonates with their personal identity."

One way brands develop trust and credibility is by employing influencers to represent them. By associating with celebrities or experts, brands can tap into phenomena like social proof theory – the idea that if others are doing it, especially those who know better or we look up to, it must be okay.

However, particularly amongst millennials, the success of such campaigns comes down to their authenticity. "Netizens are seeking a real connection between influencers and the brands they represent," Mahmood explains. When Singapore’s Ministry of Finance opted 50-plus influencers to engage millennials in the run-up-to the 2018 budget, including blogger Cheng Kai Ting, whose post is below, the online community was "quick to spot a disconnect between the subject matter and each influencer’s niche, resulting in social content that was not as relatable," says Mahmood. "Social media users know when they are being pandered to and brands need to walk this fine line very carefully so as to avoid a social media blunder."


Before we penned down our signatures to seal our union for #KenTingWeds, there was a lot of planning done to make sure we worked within our budget and planned our finances well for our future together. �� Similarly, the Singapore government has to plan the #SGBudget ahead to help us Singaporeans and support our businesses in the next Financial Year, and our President will pen down her signature as assent for the enactment of the Supply Bill. �� If you didn’t know, the #SGBudget2018 is a strategic financial plan to position Singapore & Singaporeans; and you can actually voice your thoughts & needs to help the Government plan this! �� Read more on the Budget 2018 at �� #sp #MOFSG #ministryoffinance #MOFxStarNgage

A post shared by Kaiting Cheng (@kaitinghearts) on

The emotional response content evokes is another key component of its shareability factor. After all, as Wong explains, "around 80% of decisions made by people today are driven by emotions, yet customer experiences often lack emotional context."

A well-known study, ‘What Makes Online Content Viral?’, suggests content that provokes emotional responses is more likely to be widely shared. Content that elicits high-arousal emotions (awe, joy, anger, fear) is more likely to go viral, and content that makes us feel positive generally outperforms that which triggers negative emotions. A later study analysed by Fractl, digging deeper into the link between emotions and sharing, adds that feeling in control could be another important piece of the viral puzzle. Emotions that people have control over, like happiness and admiration, had high correlation with social sharing – hence, lots of feel-good content shared on social channels.

According to Mahmood, "the most popular type of content on social media is the unexpected kind – authentic, entertaining, relatable content." It’s the stuff that ‘leverages personal stories for an emotional spark.’ British cartoon Peppa Pig took the Chinese internet by storm in January after an unexpected short film 'What is Peppa?' and its hashtag (#啥是佩奇) stole the hearts and keyboards of China’s netizens – the hashtag itself rapidly racked up over one billion views on Weibo. A collaboration between Entertainment One and Alibaba Pictures, the movie doubled up as an ad for China Mobile and a promo for the then-upcoming movie, Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year. With a strong narrative about family, the humorous film tugged at the holiday heartstrings, with many netizens commenting that the ad moved them to both laughter and tears.

At the controversial end of the viral scale, Gillette’s campaign targeting toxic masculinity, ‘We Believe: The Best a Man Can Be’ both divided and compelled the masses. Evoking strong emotions ranging from anger to admiration, according to Meltwater insights the ad racked up 136 million potential views on Twitter across APAC and 2.3 billion in the West throughout January. Mahmood notes, "While the sentiment both in APAC (51%) and the West (54%) was largely negative, the ad got audiences talking about key themes such as toxic masculinity, bad behaviour, and action, and associating Gillette as a brand that supports #MeToo."

The takeaway? To build sustainable relationships with potential consumers, Mahmood emphasises the importance of "going beyond a surface scan of trending topics, popular vernacular or the volume of conversation, and digging deeper into the motivations, sentiments and nuances of these conversations." As for emotions? Go for something that’ll make your audience’s heart beat faster, and where possible, focus on the good stuff.


Campaign Asia

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