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What Motivates Readers to Share?

Posted By Guest Blogger 13th of January 2012 Social Media 0 Comments

This guest post is by Dan Zarrella of danzarrella.com.

In my research into sharing, I realized I needed to develop a framework that would serve as a model for the decision-making process that takes place before someone spreads an idea.

This framework describes the three criteria that must be met before someone will spread an idea in any format:

  1. The person must be exposed to your content. This means that the person has to be following you on Twitter, be a fan of your page on Facebook, subscribe to your email list, and so on.
  2. The person must become aware of your specific piece of content (the idea you want to spread). S/he has to read your tweet or open your email message.
  3. The person must be motivated by something (generally in the content itself) in order to want to share the idea with his or her contacts.

Every piece of content, social network, and campaign has a vastly different conversion rate at each step of this process. For you to understand the scales involved, it helps to visualize a hypothetical set of percentages. If you email 900 people, and 20% of them notice and open the message, and then 10% of those readers forward it to a friend, your email message was shared 18 times.

At each step, you can change the numbers in your favor:

  1. Increase the number of people exposed to your content. Get more email-list subscribers or Twitter followers.
  2. Create attention-grabbing content. Do lots of testing on your subject lines to increase open rates.
  3. Include powerful calls to action.

The keys to real science are data and experimentation. I’ve spent nearly five years conducting research into the why, how, and what of contagious ideas. In the three middle chapters of ZarrellasHierarchyofContagiousness (“Exposure,” “Attention,” and “Motivation”), I present some of my most important findings and describe how you can use them to optimize your ideas for maximum spread at each step of my hierarchy. This is an excerpt from the chapter “Motivation.”

The bottom level of my hierarchy of contagiousness is motivation, and it’s the trickiest to achieve. Once someone is exposed to your idea and it catches her attention, she has to be motivated by it to want to share it. This is where you can find the most superstitious advice.

People claim that they spread ideas only when those ideas are good, are funny, benefit the world, or conform to some other nebulous standard. So how do we really motivate people to share our ideas? That question is best answered in two parts: Why do people share ideas? And what kinds of ideas do they share the most?

What do people share?

Now that we’ve got an understanding of the real reasons people spread ideas, let’s talk about what kinds of ideas they share the most.

Uncomplicated language is contagious

Readability tests are designed to measure the reading grade level required to understand a specific piece of content. The higher the score, the more complex the language is. The most popular readability test is called the Flesch-Kincaid test and is built into Microsoft Word.

While studying Facebook sharing, I gathered a database of stories published in a variety of popular news sources, including geeky places, like Mashable and TechCrunch, and mainstream outlets, such as CNN and The New York Times. I measured how readable each story was and how many times it was shared on Facebook. I found an inverse correlation between the complexity of the articles and the number of times they were shared. As stories became more challenging to read, they were posted to Facebook less often.

What Motivates Readers to Share?

I also explored the parts of speech in the titles of those same articles. I determined that the use of flowery, adverb- and adjective-laden language was related to lower sharing rates. As Strunk and White told us decades ago in their book, Elements of Style:

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place… it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.”

What Motivates Readers to Share?

The most and least retweetable words

Perhaps my favorite data set is my giant MySQL table of 100 million retweets. A while ago, I pulled out of that table a list of the most “retweetable” words and phrases. I found twenty words that occurred more often in retweets than they did in non-contagious tweets. I also pulled out the least retweetable words, or what I call “viral kryptonite.”

I’ve presented these lists at events probably a hundred times, and at nearly every event, someone will come up to me afterwards with his phone out and show me how cleverly he smooshed all the words together to make the world’s most (or least) retweetable tweet. It is invariably meaningless. The funny part is that when I tell the person to check his mentions, he often finds that he has actually gotten retweeted.

The list of the most retweetable words is topped by the word “you.” People don’t want to hear about you; they want to hear you talk about them. Tweets that tell people how they can do things and learn things do very well. The list also contains phrases like “how to” and “top 10.” These phrases indicate that the content they point to is broken up into manageable chunks rather than being huge blocks of intimidating text.

The best phrase on the list, however, is “please retweet.” You should see the unicorn folks freak out about this one. They tell me that it sounds too desperate, demanding, and downright wrong. But it works. Try it out right now. Irving Kirsch, a researcher at the University of Connecticut backed me up in a recent experiment. He gave some subjects hypnotic instructions to mail thirty postcards, once a day. And just nicely asked another group to do so. “Please mail these.” The second group complied with the request more often. Social requests are just as powerful as full-on hypnotic trances.

On the flip side of the coin are the least retweetable words. Drivel like “tired,” “bored,” “watching,” and “game.” Words that indicate people narrating particularly boring parts of their lives. Of course I’m not going to retweet those.

What Motivates Readers to Share?

The most and least shareable words

To come up with similar lists for Facebook, I looked at words in articles shared on Facebook and found the words that correlated most strongly with those articles being shared more often or less often. There are some significant differences between these lists and the Twitter word lists because the Facebook audience is a much more mainstream one.

The list of most shareable words is headed by the word “Facebook.” Yep, Facebookers love talking about Facebook. The rest of the list was mostly stuff you’d hear on the nightly news. Political words and phrases like “Obama” and “health care.” Most interesting, the words “why” and “how” do very well. Online, people want to get deeper into stories than they can with the thirty-second sound bite they heard on TV.

The list of least shareable words is full of social media dork words. Stuff like “apps,” “social,” and “Twitter.” Everyone is on Facebook. Both your mom and your college roommate are, and most Facebook users aren’t into every bleeding-edge new media website like you are.

What Motivates Readers to Share?

This is an excerpt from Dan Zarrella’s latest book, to read it in it’s entirety, buyZarrellasHierarchyofContagiousnessonAmazon. It’s less than $10 for the Kindle version (which will work on any computer or device).

About Guest Blogger
This post was written by a guest contributor. Please see their details in the post above.
  1. Heh, you’re really pounding the pavement today. I saw your posts on Brian Solis’ blog and on Hubspot too.

  2. Thanks for sharing this list of words for Facebook. Since I work primarily with Baby Boomers, I favor Facebook over Twitter and Linked-In. I have my blog linked to update all 3 but spend most of my time on FB. I am looking to build my number of “Likes” in the Houston area. I need to revisit my headlines to make certain that at least one of these words are there when it makes sense. It couldn’t hurt me much to do some experimenting now while I am still a novice at internet marketing.

    • More and more people started to give importance to social media sites instead of SEO and search engine.

      For novice people like you, its easy to handle social media and facebook kind of stuff, because you enjoy it as well.

  3. Hmmm… a lot to take in here, especially the most retweetable words. My major problem is creating strong calls to action. Somehow I struggle with that. But I aim to make the content on my blog share-able and when it comes to the other two, I’m not doing too badly.
    Thank you for sharing this information…definitely share-worthy :)

  4. I used to think just having great content that is worthy of sharing was enough but I was wrong. People have to be able to see your content and it there must be a reason to share it and the tips you’ve given here will hopefully make it much easier to write that share-worthy content. I hope the book is filled with more gems like these. Thnx, Dan.

  5. I like the information you’ve presented. It serves as a good reminder for us to focus on keeping things simple and figuring out what helps our readers to share more with their followers or other individuals. This can be something that helps us out tremendously when trying to make a higher profile blog. It serves to do the research as well to ensure that everything is done to figure out why certain readers are sharing more than others.

  6. Hey Dan
    Fascinating and very helpful. A veritable (too flowery?) swipe file for social media. That’s what I’m going to take away for an executable. Nice research.

    I’ve never asked in a comment before, but I’d love your opinion on how sharable you think my latest post is. I ask because of how proud I am of it.


  7. I’m really surprised that “Please Retweet” inspired more sharing. I had always been on the other side of the fence, assuming that it came off desperate (like you said) and had the reverse effect. I’ll have to give it a try, but in moderation because I feel it would probably end up backfiring if followers noticed that it was in every post.

    Thank you for the really great insight on social sharing!

  8. Thanks for this guest post! I just got the book on Kindle and am looking forward to reading more about strategies I can use for my own blogs and social media presence!


  9. Well, this is quite interesting. I would love to see more tweet words. IS there any way you will suggest we can use these word set as our tweet keywords to get more exposure?

    I’m kinda interested. And how much we can get feedback from tweeting an retweeting? Most people just tseet whatever they see on the way and some are engaging. So, gaining tweet is not the main thing for us, but i would love to gain some conversion from the tweet also.

    Anyway, It’s nice to read the informative one.

  10. Based on the post, people like to share relevant, but not banal, content. ‘How to’ articles are especially useful for people who need to get something done, hence their popularity.

  11. It’s interesting trying to figure out what makes readers share our content. I would hope it is because it’s useful info or interesting enough to be shared.

  12. Hello Dan, I found your post very helpful and interesting to read. I like the way that you presented the lists. I am going to study them some more as well as check my parts-of-speech. Thank you for sharing your research.

  13. There is one more thing that encourages people to share the posts and that is the placement of the SHARE buttons. keep them small, hidden somewhere in the blog and you won’t get shares. Make them easily available and near to the article and see the difference

  14. I wounder why Justin Bieber is not on the list… :)

  15. Hi Dan,

    Great stuff!

    The please RT note kills some convention. Funny, how what annoys many, works well.

    What we resist is something that usually works but our ego is too prideful to acknowledge. Guess who’s heading into socialoomph now to change up some tweets?

    As for You, I have seen this quite a bit. Who is your audience? The guys and Gals on the other side of You. So speak to them. And refrain from I-itis. Move away from talking about yourself, because “I” does not read your posts or buy your product or join your team. You’s do that.

    Keep it personal and direct.

    Excellent stats as always Dan. Thanks for taking guesswork out of the equation and reminding me to do the same.


  16. Killer title is always the important thing in this social meddia world. This will certainly helps to spread your post like wild fire.

  17. Wow, it really worked, used “please retweet” and many more did retweet @RealJStreets ! Thanks never thought to just ask.

  18. People also like to share the ’10 Most…’ lists. If they’re the ’10 worst …’ I find that people view and share these more than the ’10 best…’

    I wonder why? Can Darren share some light on this, please?

  19. Dont’ forget people sharing because the content is ridiculously useful — which is exactly what I’m sharing this right now!

  20. My favorite part of your post is when you said the flowery, adjective filled headlines don’t get shared as much as noun filled headlines. That’s something to think about.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  21. But you don’t want your writing to be so simple that people think you’re a moron.

  22. raghavendra says: 01/14/2012 at 2:54 am

    People share when they have not seen the content anywhere
    creating a illusion to others that he knows a lot


  23. Congratulations. “Viral Kryptonite” is now stuck in my head. I’ll remember.

  24. Dan,

    Great article about what and why people share. I’ve been in the content syndication game for a little over two years. And as I’ve helped many bloggers find their voice and get their blogs set up I’ve noticed a couple of trends when it comes to sharing content.

    Like when you mentioned the most shared or Tweeted words. That is a great start. Knowing your audience is primary. The first trigger is in the title. So titles that ask a question or push the pain or pleasure buttons are often clicked on most. Also it seems the titles that have a # in them. Like “10 Most Re-Tweeted Words” (Bamm…I think I have a new post coming out now)

    Anyway, I appreciate you putting these list together.

    Ken Pickard
    The Network Dad

  25. One of the factor along with quality content is the presentation… If your article is visually appealing..it automatically attract users to share…One key is use right image….

  26. Hey Dan,

    Very informative and quite interesting indeed about the use of please retweet. Quite a bit to digest but in both of my blogs I’m definitely going to experiment with you information.

  27. Great post. I’m starting to blog more on my website and I really do need to add these sharing options. Thank you for including the tip to actually ask people to share it. Sometimes the answer is so obvious we overlook it.

    Yesta Desamba

  28. Cotent quality always matter much to get good readership. Even if one keeps on posting articles in huge quantity it is only the quality that is very important to motivate the readers.

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