Why Do People Share Content?

In my recent content strategy post I told you that I would be writing up some articles on how to promote the hell out of the content you had created.

image001I think it’s important for anyone involved in digital marketing to understand what will motivate someone to share your content and when they are most inclined to do so you can develop the next step in your strategy.

Most marketers have a good grasp of the Extrinsic Motivators (price, features, benefits) of a product or a piece of content but we often struggle with the Intrinsic Motivators (how does the product align to a person’s feelings or goals). People are thinking feelers not feeling thinkers.

What do we know about People?

  • we depend on mental models
  • we want to be in control
  • we don’t like change
  • we’re not great at remembering
  • we love a good story
  • we are highly visual by nature
  • we do have some limitations
  • we are social creatures
  • we’re curious
  • we don’t want to put in a lot of effort
  • we love patterns
  • we make mistakes

A Goodbye Song for Google Reader

A very recent example of this is the latest video from Chris Gilchrist, which has been picked up by various sources across the web such as Buzzfeed and Knowyourmeme.


The reason this particular post has been successful is it plays to many of the factors I listed above as it is emotive, funny, timely and highly visual.

There have been a number of scientific studies into understanding why content goes viral or the motivations people have to share a specific piece of content.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

A large part of what compels people to share can be brought back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If our most basic of needs are satisfied we will start to satisfy the higher levels within the hierarchy, and it is no surprise that our desire to share information with others comes from the top 2 tiers.

image007Image from Wikipedia

One of the studies I am going to cite in this blog post is The New York Times’ Psychology of Sharing whitepaper – which I highly recommend you download. The study was an intensive process carried out in three phases:

  • ethnographies
  • immersion/deprivation focus groups
  • quantitative survey of 2,500 medium to heavy social sharers

The study determined that above all else, sharing is part self-fulfilment and part relationship building – which isn’t really surprising seen as, back in 1966 Ernest Dichter’s study on “Word of Mouth” reveals 64% of sharing is about the sharer, themselves.


The NYTimes study split the motivations down into 5 main categories

  1. To bring valuable and entertaining content to one another. A significant 94% of respondents carefully consider how the information they share will be of use to other people
  2. To define themselves to others.  68% of respondents said they share to give others a better sense of who they are and what they care about.
  3. To grow and nourish our relationships. 78% of respondents said they share information online because it enables them to stay connected to people they may not otherwise stay in touch with
  4. For self-fulfilment. 69% said they share information because it allows them to feel more involved in the world.
  5. To get the word out about causes they care about.  84% of respondents share because it is a good way to support causes or issues they care about.

The study also identifies six personas that share content. These personas can be defined by their emotional motivations, desired presentation of self and how valuable it is to the individual be the first to share.

  1. The Altruist: These sharers are helpful, reliable, thoughtful, connected, and use email to share.
  2. The Careerist: These sharers are intelligent business networkers and are more likely to share content on LinkedIn.
  3. The Hipster: Less likely than other sharers to use email for sharing content, these sharers are creative, young and popular. They consume content that is on the cutting edge and care about defining their identity.
  4. The Boomerang: These sharers share information to get a reaction and to feel validated. They are empowered by social media and tend to use both Twitter and Facebook
  5. The Connector: creative, relaxed, thoughtful, making plans, uses both email and Facebook to share information.
  6. The Selective: These sharers are resourceful, careful, and thoughtful. They share content that is informative and also use email to share content with individuals.

In the New York Times article “Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome“, researchers found that people preferred to share long positive articles on intellectually challenging and engaging topics, especially such that inspired awe. Furthermore, surprising and emotional articles were more likely to be shared.

Popular Times For Sharing

According to this study carried out by RadiumOne there’s not only a peak time to share on social media but there are also different peak times for sharing to certain social platforms.


The tweet counts per minute of a New York Times article. Image from New York Times.

  • There are two peak sharing times during the day: First between 10 a.m.  and noon and then again between 8 and 10 p.m.
  • The worst time to share an article, if your goal is to maximize clicks, is between 9 and 11a.m.
  • Sharing and clicks remain consistent from 1- 6 p.m.
  • The hours between noon and 2pm see the most shares with the highest clickthrough rates.

Best Times for Sharing on Social Channels:

  • Twitter: 1 p.m.
  • Facebook: 5 p.m.
  • Pinterest: 11 p.m.
  • Google+: 10 a.m.
  • Email: 7 a.m.

Cornell University also did a study that used language software to determine that there was a higher presence of positive words in 509 million tweets early in the morning. People’s moods peak early in the day, suggesting a correlation between sharing and happiness.

Why do you share content online, can you identify with the six sharing personas?

Do you see a correlation with the times of day people share your content that align to these studies?

Image Credits: cdraff, cj isherwood

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14 Responses to Why Do People Share Content?

  1. Tad Chef says:

    It’s not just where people share, it’s also what. For example you’d rather share SEO related content during work hours while entertainment can get popular on the weekend. There is no one size fits all.

    • RootsWebSol says:

      100% Tad and that’s why you need to test these things, social sites like Linkedin are alive 9-5… UK folks are more active on Twitter in the evenings compared to their US counterparts.

      There is no magic bullet, but I think the study from Cornell showing a correlation between happy tweets in the morning is quite interesting and one I do seem to see as there is definitely a greater sense of optimism and pleasure in my stream at 7am than at say 11am or even 3pm…

  2. good job, Chris. thanks for the links to the studies. this reminds me of marty weinberg’s moz preso last year.. he started by questioning what makes personas tick, then began adding layers depending on platform, degrees of engagement, and impetus for behavior..

    imo (Anthony) the digital age taught marketers nothing ‘new’ regarding core marketing but added occasion and tools to listen and observe a lot more and better if one decides to put in the time.

    • RootsWebSol says:

      Cheers Mr P… what I found interesting was the the NYT study was lauded as groundbreaking yet it came to the almost the exact same conclusion as a research paper from almost 50 years prior, like you say we are better equipped than ever for this stuff.

  3. trying to do some investigative reporting for your post, Chris.. just so happened to shoot this earlier with a peer in the coworking space, IndyHall.org


    Jason thinks it’s more important that something is funny..not so much entertaining for him to share

  4. AJ Kohn says:

    There’s far too little discussed in our industry about this topic. I’m fascinated about why people remember or share certain content. You’ve hit on most of them though I often think of these in more rudimentary ways and how they connect with specific emotions (or memes).

    The only thing I’d add here is that in all of these there are different levels of inertia. Reducing the friction to sharing is still perhaps the number one hack to getting your content shared more often. Even without understanding the why, if you can shorten the distance between intent and action you’re going to be rewarded.

    • RootsWebSol says:

      Thanks for dropping by AJ, definitely with you on making it head smackingly easy for people to share your content.

  5. Durant Imboden says:

    Never mind Twitter, Facebook, and their peers: A lot of sharing is done the old-fashioned way, with links. What’s more, those links are usually “evergreen,” which means that a share in a blog, a forum, etc. can send traffic for months or even years.

    Our own travel-planning site gets far more shares on forums at TripAdvisor, Cruise Critic, etc. than on purely social networks like Facebook and Twitter. John Doe asks, “Can anyone tell me how to get from Widgetberg Airport to the city center?,” and the forum moderator or member who replies may include a link to our detailed article on that topic. Such shares are being done for the same reason that people were linking in the early 1990s: to point readers toward resources that have additional information on the topic at hand. Whether the person sharing the URL “likes” the target page or finds it inspiring, entertaining, provocative, infuriating, etc. is beside the point.

    • RootsWebSol says:

      Thanks Durant, yes the good old link is still a powerful sharing medium however I couldn’t find any studies that could be included in this post, where as there is a lot of information available around Social media and emails, which I guess can be included.

      I think the reasons people will link probably has a lot more to do with adding value and reference sources to back up claims and comes with a lot more consideration than the simple Retweet…

  6. Jason Isaac says:

    Does anyone have any statistics about what users are trying to achieve when posting content on social media?

    We are looking for the % that wants their content to go viral and reach as many users as possible when posting to instagram, twitter, Facebook, etc..

    Studies that could help could show the % of people that use hashtags on instagram, twitter so their content gets found.

    Any statistics that prove that users want their content to go viral would be helpful.


  7. Ashok Sharma says:

    Yes, AJ Kohn is absolutely right, The content sharing used to a back hole kind of domain before this article. The intricacies of public mind is clearly evolved here, like a real time research. Hope me and others thinking in same line to enhance, elaborated and make further it in scholarly fashion in online world. The Internet Existence of text and person is my main concern and your explanation sure will help me to work on further systematically.

  8. Amzranked says:

    Great post.. i really appreciate your point of views.

  9. Truly Life says:

    Quite an informative read on why & when people share content…

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