The Simple Secret of Why People Share Your Content (or don't share it)

by Angus Nelson on Nov 19, 2012
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I don’t remember having to look for which social stream button to click the first time I saw Charlie Bit My Finger.

I just shared the link instinctively.

Yet brands, desperate to make a connection, strategically research and place these icons where they deem most effective.

Exactly how many places on my website landscape are there to place social media sharing buttons?

Should we place icon links in the right column, the left column, above the post, after the post, header, footer, or within the post itself?

If the content is crap it makes no difference where a share button is located.

I won’t follow, friend, or share.

But, if the content is unbelievably magical (or awesome) and it connects to me on some level — BAM, I’ll scramble, scrounge and search for a button to push.


Because I want to promote your page? no.

Because I hope to get others to follow your brand? uh, nope.

Because there’s great value and wisdom in this post for everyone? you’d think, huh?

Still not it.

People share great content because it makes them look ______ (fill in the blank)

  • good
  • smart
  • controversial
  • connected
  • funny
  • insightful
  • a go-to resource
  • or whatever

That’s it. That’s the special sauce.

In fact, readers will only share this Social Fresh post if I, in some way, help them and make them look like a genius. Which, of course, I’m trying to do here.

This is nothing new. In fact, back in 1966 Ernest Dichter’s study on Word of Mouth reveals 64% of sharing is about the sharer, themselves, desiring to:

  • gain attention
  • show they have inside info
  • help
  • reach out
  • show friendship
  • show humor
  • provide information

Only 33% has anything to do with the actual product or brand experience.

In addition, a study at the University of Pennsylvania surmises that sharing creates an emotional communion.

You and I share primarily out of our own self interest.

So if every viral video, whitepaper, slideshare, or review is shared because, on some level, it says something about the individual, than it’s on me to create content that effectively causes my audience to appear favorable in the eyes of both themselves and their peers.

My strategy should not be about my brand, or my widget, or even me.

The goal is to cause followers to feel powerful… about themselves.

And as I make others look good – my brand, widget, and I all look very good too.

Yes, we all love watching Charlie getting his finger bit. But, in truth, someone first shared this video with me because they wanted me to appreciate their sense of humor; or relate to them as a parent, knowing I’m a parent; or at least they wanted to make me aware of this particular video going viral. Upon which, I then went on to share Charlie with my network for my own personal motivations too.

Obviously Charlie’s not the most direct example of your brand’s efforts to gain social traction. However, the point of empowering an audience with content they feel inspired to share is. Does your content spark curiosity? Can your brand be funny? Will your blog post inspire? Is your tweet educating?

Is your content valuable to the audience you desire?

On one level, this may seem like you’re feeding people’s narcissism. However, on another level, your brand has an incredible opportunity to generously serve and help others. And it’s this very perspective that makes all the difference in how your content is perceived.

If you connect often enough your content creates trust, loyalty, purchasing power, and ongoing evangelism.

And should this theory stand true, cheeky as it may be, you may desire to share this new-found revelation out of your own generosity, inspiring others while revealing your own brilliance… if so, there should be a share button around here somewhere.

Post Author

@angusnelson is the Community Manager for and you can join him over at LinkedIn. He's a social business strategist, an author of Love's Compass, and speaker on issues regarding relationships and manhood. On a personal...

  • ShortOrderDad

    Very good, Angus.

  • Angus, I love how you told me I will only share your link if it makes me look {something I want to look}. And even as you were looking me straight in the face and telling me that, I…shared…your…link. I couldn’t stop myself. It was just too good at making me look {something I want to look}. Thanks for giving me the out that my motive was not total selfishness by the way. That softened the blow bit. But I was already looking for a share button before I read that far. Oh well. Of course, I like to help people and this post is gigantically helpful to anyone who is trying to get their voice out there. I suppose I can take solace in having done a good deal in spite of myself. ;-)

  • Very clever Kenneth… you have done good in spite of yourself. A very fitting comment! :)

  • Thanks Rob!

  • Well said! Appreciate honest, fun, and straight forward articles. I shared it because it made me feel all of the above :)

  • Andrew Spoeth

    This post really resonated. It gets to the heart of what matters in ‘social’ media.

    BTW, I went ahead and stole ‘People share great content because it makes them look ______ (fill in the blank)’ for a Twitter post. It was simply too good to pass up. Curious how my followers will respond.

  • Excellent post here. You articulated perfectly why people share. #insightful

  • kind of like “how do I look in this tweet?”

  • Thanks Kathy, mission accomplished! :)

  • Good call Andrew. I’m curious too.

  • Perfect, just what I was shootin’ for! Thank you Maria.

  • Exactly Jay… how do you look? :)

  • Aanel

    I think that’s very true but *occasionally* there is altruism involved. Sometimes people tweet/share something merely to be helpful (and not to be seen as a helpful person or go-to resource). It’s not ALL self-interest, all the time. Of course if it’s helpful yet boring it likely won’t be shared.

  • Tim Schreier

    I agree on “Altruism” but will take it one step further, people connect with Altruistic content not only on issues that they care about but also they use this content to “define themselves to others”. As if to say, “look, here is an article on fresh water drilling in Africa, I care about this issue, it is part of who I am”. Call it “Self Defined Altruism”???
    Tim Schreier
    New York, NY

  • If you want people to share your content – and most of the time we do – then I often talk about empathy. Think about how the (possible) sharer would look to his or her audience. Will it make them look like any of the positive things Angus mentions above?

    And it’s sooo not about buttons. 82% of shares are still cut and paste (as per this from eMarketer )

    Nice post Angus.

  • I wonder if our sharing habits/reasons vary based on the originator. Would a person be more likely so share not-so-great information if they are passionate about the cause? For example, am I more likely to share this type of information from a non-profit if I am passionate about their overall mission? And if I do share is it because I share their values or do I more readily share because of how I look sharing information about the cause–much like what Tony Hallett said. More questions…

  • Nicely done, Angus! Sharing, of course. Love the layout of information – very effective. I so totally agree with your analysis.

  • I’m clicking the share button!

  • its a good point. they like to be seen as little geniuses.

  • Andrew Stivelman

    Really hit the nail on the head. Too much is just too much!

  • Thank you Lorenzo.

  • Thanks Andrew.

  • …and don’t we all? :)

  • Appreciate you Sheila.

  • You’re absolutely correct Tim. It’s still about the sharer – though they may be committed to a cause. There’s a degree of identity and validation to it all. Good catch.

  • I would say that the “occasional” share may require a ‘relationship’ of some sort. Whether a person, cause, or organization, people want to identify with their “team”. So, in small part, it’s still a remnant of self-interest even if it’s a worthy endeavor.

  • Great post! Thanks for the refresher of what truly makes social media work.

  • Thank you very much.

  • Eva Ulian

    Is that the reason we post comments too?

  • Thank you Tony… and good perspective.

  • Hey Jeff, even if it’s about the cause, it’s about ‘me’. Despite being a great mission, I find validation or identity in the non-profit. That doesn’t make it any less important, just trying to be real about it. That’s why telling great stories, non-profit or for-profit alike, is so powerful in gaining people’s interest in sharing your content – identity and validation. If you connect people to your story, you create an army of sharers.

  • Good question Eva, but I’m not sure the two are related. Though there’s some similarities, many people are just not that chatty. I’m not sure why, I just know that it is. Commenting seems to be even more intentional – you have to look smart asking good questions on your own. You can’t simply rely on the caliber of a post itself… I have opinions on it, but no concrete insight. Maybe that’ll be one of my next articles. You got me thinking now…

  • CaptCrunch

    We are running a social sharing program right now and it’s like throwing chum in a shark tank. The product is absolutely fantastic but the fun is watching the super connectors up one another through their posts, tweets and pics. You nailed it Angus!

  • Angus, I’d love to read that article when you write it. Who doesn’t have problems getting readers to comment! ;)

  • Jeuce

    Interesting article, thank you for sharing. So to speak. I hope you have edit capabilities once posted, as you have a couple of typos. (Sorry, the copyeditor in me insists I tell you.) “Is your content valuable to the audience your desire?” you desire* and “On one level, this may seem like your feeding people’s narcissism” you’re feeding*.

  • Done. It’s the little things in writing and both of those errors are personal pet-peeves of mine (ouch)… Of course, that’s why I had a really good editor for my first book, to catch the little things. :) Thanks Jeuce and cheers!

  • I absolutely share what I do share because I truly believe that someone, somewhere, might benefit, enjoy, laugh, agree, disagree… AND, admittedly, out of self interest :)

    Maybe they are the same(ish)? — when you are passionate about something you DO want others to see, or validate or just have a discussion.

    My head explodes when I really think about it. I know that so much is just timing… I’ve seen people write something that is so much like something I’ve written about. There’s has gone viral, while mine falls flat. I don’t know the answer there… Other than that it’s all who you know.

  • The “who you know” is a significant portion to all of this. Isn’t that what makes social media ‘social’? It takes time, perseverance, generosity, patience, and kindness. Which is what makes this time in history really unique by the speed of information – a really good idea with a well developed network can grow incredibly fast… and that’s just crazy.

    Also, to your point, when you share something you’re passionate about (ie. not washing your hair with chemicals) you are more likely to reach/attract a like-minded audience. They, in turn, validate your great ideas about the passion. Make sense?

    Happy to see your little icon pop up on the screen – have a great Thanksgiving!

  • Thanks CaptCrunch!

  • That’s the truth. :)

  • Yep, you finally summed what peeps have been hinting at. >Psych 101. Thanks!

  • So, so true! Thanks for a great article.

  • Great post Angus, you really get to the heart of what ‘social’ is about. It’s about people. Thanks for the article.

  • My pleasure Si.

  • You bet Carrie!

  • Absolutely.. your very welcome Robin.

  • Marie-Louise Collard

    you’re right “not new” but very refreshing and very well written – valuable post!

  • kerryh

    I really appreciate this. As an admittedly reluctant newbie to the world of social media, I find this information to be solid gold. Thanks for a great post.

  • sebastian

    Great article, it’s about time someone addressed this issue of sharing. Social media itself has become a powerful entity on its own and it’s what we do with it that really defines the limit. After reading the post, I felt somewhat compelled to share this tool that helps marketers monitor their social media, I hope you find it as awesome as I do.
    My Viral

  • You’re welcome Kerry. :)

  • sure we do buddy;;:)

  • I came back from a link from Disqus! They are doing some great things. Glad to review the material again after a few months because our brains are overloaded so repetition, repetition repetition.

  • also, i followed u on twit

  • Well, Andrew. What happened?

  • I agree that comments are less important than the real publishing part aka, the article. I mean who has time to be perfect if they are motoring around answering all these posts? Plus, spell-check in chrome helps. I use comments to convey my personality and humor.

  • Michael S.

    Good article. I would say make the link to charlie open in a new tab though, I almost didn’t finish reading because of that.

  • I’ve never thought of it that way, but it’s true. What I share does say something about me and what I value,or find helpful or funny,

  • Exactly. We also kind of share stuff that makes us look smart or funny or cool. =)

  • Anonymous coward

    Very clever ‘call to action’ my sir, along with a interesting read, I literally can’t walk away without sharing this! lol

  • Extremely right ! Thanks Angus for this article

  • Daniel Fortes

    Plenty of good reasons to share and I love the part about ongoing evangelism! Cool stuff thanks Angus