The Psychology of Sharing: 5 Lessons for Marketers

28 September 2016

I check my phone while having breakfast.

No new WhatsApp messages, but three Facebook notifications. I open the app and see that my best friend has shared a post on my wall the evening before:

FB Post

I am delighted – what a great idea! – and like (or Wow) the post.

Why do people share online, even if they can communicate through so many different channels?

I am meeting my friend later today; he could have easily told me about this website over coffee.

Social sharing has become part of our daily live. Instead of having to explain what you’ve seen or read somewhere, you can just forward this information to someone or share it on social media. This trend might be seen convenient by some and alarming by others – whatever position you decide to take: you have to admit that digital communication channels have gained a significant role in our society.

Understanding the meaning of social sharing

Companies have already realised the power of social media long ago.

Inbound marketing is gaining popularity and significance as it has been proven to be extremely effective in many sectors. Customer preferences have changed, and reaching out to them in a non-intrusive way with content that adds actual value to the live of your followers has become priority for marketers.

Word of Mouth is, as we all know, the best marketing possible. Social Media is offering us the opportunity to spread the word about a cause we care about in new dimensions – if only people actually shared our content!

It is, therefore, important to understand why people decide to share something on social media to then be able to create content that will resonate well with our audience and their motives to advocate our cause.

Sharing is all about relationships

say the New York Times in their study “The Psychology of Sharing”.

They have identified five main reasons for people to share online:

Reasons for sharing

1. To bring valuable and entertaining content to others

49% of all participants stated that sharing allowed them to inform others of products they cared about and to potentially change opinions or encourage action. When sharing content, most people carefully select the information to make sure it is really relevant and useful to the recipient and hope to enrich the lives of people around them.

2. To define ourselves to others

Sharing is a lot about our identity: we like to present ourselves how we are, or more often, how we would like others to perceive ourselves.

The stunning profile picture of my friend standing on top of a mountain, making me fight sensations of vertigo, virtually shouts in my face how adventurous he is, climbing up that high and casually resting his arm on an ice axe.

Another friend often shares her online quiz scores, mostly related to current politics and geography – at the first glance advertising this “fun” quiz but eventually demonstrating her knowledge on these topics.

People almost build an identity online, and the topics they chose for communication usually resonate with the image they would like people to have about them.

3. To grow and nourish our relationships

Social media is exactly what its name suggests: social.

If it wasn’t for the people on these platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram, it would just be a sad, empty space with no updates other than changes in terms and conditions.

Social media gives us the option to stay connected with people we might otherwise not be in touch with – a friend we met on our high school year when we were 17, uncle Peter who lives on the other side of the country, or that nice group of people who were forming a running club on Wednesdays. Sharing information with people that have the same interests help form and nourish relationships and are easy ways to find connections.

4. Self-fulfilment

Almost 70% of all participants stated that they shared information because it allowed them to feel more involved with the world. The sensation of being helpful and inspirational to others and getting feedback can make us feel valuable.

5. To get the word out about causes or brands

This point is maybe closest to what marketers are used to tailor their messages on social media. A 84% of all respondents share because it is a way to support causes or issues they care about – this is probably one of the more altruistic motives for sharing.

This classification doesn’t mean that there is always one sole reason for people to decide to share content. One share can be motivated by various factors.

Taking the link my friend shared on my Facebook wall as an example, we could assume that he might have been motivated to do so to

  • share the information about a new service which will most likely be valuable for me
  • define himself as being open and excited about living in a van in a vagabond-esque lifestyle
  • to nourish our relationship as posting this link on my wall shows that he has thought of me and wanted to include me in this activity
  • to be the first to discover this exciting trend and let everyone know about it
  • support plaid zebra’s vision which he feels strongly connected to

It is most likely a combination of things that make people want to share content online, be it on social media, email, or messaging apps.

If marketers want to create content that’s shareable, they will have to address one or more motivational factors of their audience to succeed.

How can we create content beyond consumption?

The difference between a post that gets occasional clicks and one that causes interactions such as shares, forwards, retweets, and comments, is that one of them is made for consumption, and the other one for communication.

As I have outlined before, sharing is all about relationships. People communicate with others, and they will choose to do so through messages that hit the nail on the head.
So how can we create this content?

As Jonathan Perelman, Head of Digital Ventures at ICM Partners, pointed out, we have to create content that expresses something better than someone could do it themselves.

An image is worth a thousand words – just think about some emoji that simply can’t be expressed through words.


How often have you shared an article, gif, or picture because it expressed exactly what you were thinking at that very moment or summarised a point you’ve always wanted to make yourself? Because it reflected your sense of humour, interest, or made you identify with it?

5 Lessons for Marketers

Now that we understand why people share and what shareable content is, it is up to us to create it.

Drawn from these findings, here are five essential lessons for marketers to produce content with snowball-effect.

1. Know your buyer personas

Everything starts with knowing who you want to address.

Understanding the audience you want to engage with is the core of every successful marketing strategy. If you are not sure how to do it, check out this blog post on what buyer personas are and how you can create a profile.

Being abstract images of your ideal customers, buyer personas can help you identify topics your followers are likely to be interested in. They can also help you make assumptions about typical personality traits, pain points, communities they might be part of, as well as values they might represent.

The trick lies in combining this knowledge about your buyer personas with what your company or organisation stands for to create a connection with your audience.

2. Entertain and educate

People share posts that are entertaining and informative – so make sure you create content that covers both.

We can distinguish between hero and hygiene content:
Hero content is mostly inspirational or entertaining, while hygiene content is more rational and follows educational and convincing purposes.

The following content matrix by smartinsights can help you sketch out ideas for each section:

content matrix

3. Address communities

People share content to create communities.

After having determined communities your buyer personas could be part of, create content that helps them identify with. This can be humorous, inspirational, surprising, or informative – if it creates value for your buyer persona and expresses something about a community they are part of and feel strongly about, it is likely for them to share it with their peers.

4. Be there at the right time

The reason why I sent an email to my friend about that new petition they have to sign or that great deal in our favourite retail shop is because I stumbled over it while surfing the web – during my lunch break, before I go to bed, or while procrastinating. Make sure your content is visible to the right people at the right time at the right place.

This infographic gives useful information on the best times to post on social media.

5. Communicate the bigger cause

People don’t only share to express their identity of form communities – they also want to support ideas they care about.

And even if their motives aren’t as altruistic as suggested by the NY Times study, they might still want to be perceived as a person caring for that cause and share it nevertheless.

What’s your organisation’s vision? Why do you exist? How are you trying to make the world a better place? How are you adding value to your customers’ lives?

I will assume at this point that you have an inspirational vision – share it with your audience. Be authentic about it. Don’t make up something you don’t do. But if there is a bigger cause to your mission, be it saving the rainforest, creating sustainable energy, or spreading optimism, it is a great way of connecting with your audience as you might be sharing the same mission in life.

Nike Mission Statement

There is no recipe for content to go viral but keeping these tips in mind will help you create content that will most likely get shared among your target audience – the last ingredient is a little bit of luck.

Lead Generation Self Assessment Toolkit




Subscribe to Email Updates


We are a digital transformation consultancy. We help our clients succeed.

View Services