The Psychology of Sharing: Brands and Consumers Just Want to be Cool

Content has quickly become one of the most common words tossed around in strategy meetings, on social media, during conversations, throughout blog posts—this one included—and within job titles (like my own: “Content Marketer”). It’s like one of those words that you repeat so many times that it starts to lose its meaning. Content. Content. Content. Content. Content.

Has it lost its meaning yet? Good. Forget what you ever knew about content because frankly, it’s often misunderstood, and consequently, misused.

Without sounding too contradictory, content should never lose meaning, as it is the heart of engagement. There’s no argument against the fact that content is the primary vehicle behind consumer interaction; however, simply having great content isn’t enough.

Why? Well, since content is the heart and the vehicle, picture your car. Content is the engine and the frame that shelters all of the parts that give it the ability to run. If you’re the proud owner of a high-quality ride, then—just like with good content—the car will evoke feelings of admiration, envy, desire, and appreciation. But right now, your car is sitting in your garage. In order to show it off to the world, in order for it to take you where you want to go, you need two things: the keys, and a driver.

The same goes for content. Despite how trusted or innovative the content is, it won’t go anywhere without the technology and means to get it started, and the right people to guide and manage how the information is shared. Until cars that drive themselves make the giant leap from rumors to reality, the person behind the wheel will always be in control. Under that same principle, content doesn’t control people; people control content. If that’s the case, then how can understanding human behavior enable content creators to get their message out to as many people as possible?

It’s not as simple as popping open the hood of a car and taking a look inside. In order to determine what makes content go viral, we have to dig a little deeper into the backstory of viral videos; we have to tap into the brains of its sharers.

Let’s try a little experiment. Ask the next ten people you see two simple questions: 1) Do you use social media? 2) If so, why?

If you didn’t do it yourself, then I’ll tell you the most common response I received: so I can interact with other people. Engaging with a brand is usually absent from the thought-process. If most people aren’t concerned with brands, then how did this video from Dollar Shave Club go viral?

The simple answer: for consumers, sharing content isn’t about branding; it’s about relationships. However, The New York Times Customer Insight Group’s study, The Psychology of Sharing, reveals that the motivation behind sharing is a form of branding after all—self-branding.

Trying to comprehend the psychology behind sharing is a bit like opening Pandora’s box. But there’s one key takeaway that all marketers should understand: in order for ANY kind of content to go viral, it must appeal to consumers’ motivation to connect with each other—not just your brand.

When in doubt, think of the last video you shared. What was the reasoning behind it? Chances are, it was one (or more) of the following:

It is absolutely hilarious

It is incredible or unbelievable

It is deeply emotional

It agrees with our worldview

It makes us stop and think

It isn’t covered by mainstream media

It will make someone smile

It’s dramatic

It’s embarrassing

It’s provocative (but safe for work)

In a time where social media is the new social capital, viral videos are becoming the monetary language through which brands and consumers increase their value.

About Kaitlyn Smith

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