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The Psychology of Social Sharing: What Makes People Engage with Your Social Media Content?

By Diana Prodan on November 2, 2018

Marketers frequently laud social media as the "holy grail" of audience engagement. But the more brands take advantage of social platforms to interact with customers, the more content is competing for user attention on a daily basis.

While companies increase their posting frequencies to maintain a visible presence in their followers' feeds, social networks are constantly altering their algorithms. One of the most prominent algorithm upsets occurred earlier this year when Facebook shifted the rankings of branded content to "make [its] News Feed more about connecting with people and less about consuming media in isolation." These changes meant that content marketing teams now have to work even harder to cut through the noise and engage with social media followers.

The Elusive Algorithm

The first social media algorithms were pretty basic-posts were displayed in chronological order or prioritized based on what a person "liked" or removed from their feed. In 2009, we began to see major changes in the complexity of the algorithms. Facebook began showing posts based on popularity instead of chronologically, and Instagram quickly followed.

Social media algorithms became more complicated as the networks took on issues such as click-bait, spam, and false reporting. The calculations now included thousands of different factors before selecting what content comes up in feeds, taking into consideration information like the average time spent reading an article and specific trigger words indicating important events. Today, algorithms are constantly adjusted in order to encourage more person-to-person content.

What Does That Mean for Business Pages?

Businesses with a well-established social media presence know that the most recent algorithm changes have sharply declined the reach of public content. In early 2018, Mark Zuckerberg posted that while he realized that the new algorithm would decrease engagement, he also expected that the engagement that does occur will be more valuable to both brands and audiences.

woman interacting with smartphone

Image attribution: Kevin Laminto

So what can businesses do to up their organic engagement? According to a private Facebook webinar, Facebook considers content valuable if it encourages "meaningful interactions." Content that is shared over Facebook Messenger, that earns significant likes and comments, or that is shared between different timelines is prioritized.

Understanding how content is ranked is useful when putting together a social media content strategy, but even more important is the content itself. What kind of content should businesses create to encourage engagement and sharing?

Understanding Why and How People Share

So why do people choose to share one piece of content over another? Long before Facebook, people have sought to understand what compels people to spread information. A 1966 study by psychologist Ernest Dichter identified four reasons why people share brands with others through word of mouth:

  • Product Involvement: They had such a great experience that they had to share it with someone.
  • Self-Involvement: They share with someone to make themselves look better, whether to gain attention or to show that they are more informed.
  • Other Involvement: They want to share with others to help them learn something useful and show they care.
  • Message Involvement: They share because they think it's an important or entertaining message.

These motivations speak volumes to how information is shared on social media in the present as well. In simple terms, posts need to be entertaining, valuable, helpful, or impactful for people to share them. Most importantly, posts need to be distinct from other content on social media networks to be truly shareable.

Forty-five years after Dichter's study, the New York Times' Customer Insights Group conducted a new study focusing specifically on online sharing habits. It turns out, many of the fundamental reasons people share haven't changed much. What has changed is how and where they share it.

The researchers created snapshots of six personas of online sharers defined by their emotional motivators, desired presentation of themselves, the role of sharing in their lives, the value they put on being the first to share, and what network they are most likely to use to get their word out.

social media success

Image attribution: Kendra Kamp

  • Altruists: They share content to be helpful. They are reliable, thoughtful, and value connections to other people. They're most likely to email.
  • Careerists: They share content to build their professional reputation. They are intelligent and like to share valuable content that is related to their industry or career. They value their networks. They're most likely to share on LinkedIn.
  • Hipsters: They share content that is creative and cutting-edge. They are building an identity and value popularity. They're not likely to email and are sharing on the newest, freshest social network.
  • Boomerangs: They share content to get a reaction from people. They're seeking validation from their audience, and social media empowers them to find it. They're most likely to be share on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Connectors: They share content to stay connected with others. They are creative, thoughtful, and love to take charge of group plans. They use email and Facebook to stay connected.
  • Selectives: They are very particular about what content they share and whom they share it with. They are thoughtful, informative, and careful. They're most likely to use email to share.

Psych Out Your Audience

They say knowledge is power, and knowing the psychology behind why and how people share will help inform your strategy, and get your message out to your audience.


You have to know who you are targeting on your social networks before you can engage them. Keep in mind the personas of online sharers and how these categories can inform the way you create content for your specific audiences. Personalize it, and play on customer emotions.

Bring Value to the Table

Make your content valuable to your audience. Every business is out there promoting their own purpose. Every sharer persona is looking for something valuable to share, no matter their motivation. When creating your social media strategy, take a step back and make sure that the content you are creating will be valuable to someone, not just promotional for your company.

Gain Trust

Social media networks have lost a lot of trust recently from the public, but the good news is that with some effort, brands can gain that trust back from their audiences. Being authentic and transparent is a given for gaining trust, but the most engaged brands are the ones that actively listen and respond to their audiences. When people are engaged, they feel valuable, which encourages loyalty.

Blaze a Trail

When you're creating shareable content, it's important to be unique, so your content stands out from the crowd. By creating something that is diversified and different, audiences will be compelled to share your content because there is nothing else like it. You're not fighting against any competing content or a market that's drowning in the same articles with different titles. Experiment and try new ways of doing things, whether it's with the content itself, the presentation of it, or the channel you're using to amplify it. Think outside the box. Your audience (and your social media analytics) will thank you.

While algorithms, network popularity, and influencers change quickly and regularly, what doesn't change is people's need to stay connected and share with each other. Understanding who your audience is, along with their social sharing habits and motivations, will be the most powerful piece of your social media strategy.

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Featured image attribution: Ali Yahya


Diana Prodan

Diana's marketing skills live at the intersection of branding, marketing, audience development, and lead generation. She specializes in creating integrated digital marketing strategies that engage audiences and deliver measurable results. Her passion is learning what makes people tick, and her goal is to build relationships with her audiences and continuously learn about what drives their decisions. In her spare time, she loves to nerd out about the latest marketing trends and share them with others through blogs and articles.