Whether it’s a silly meme, breaking news, or a cooking video of a delicious recipe, people often feel compelled to Like, comment, and share social media posts.

This can work very well for brands. Not only does do they get free distribution of their content, but through sharing, brands are effectively endorsed by the ‘sharer‘.

But what is it about a post which makes someone want to share? And why are some shared more than others?

Looking through many social media posts, ones with high engagement have some themes in common and these characteristics are also backed up by research.

To highlight these themes, I’ve pulled a few Facebook posts from airlines in the Asia-Pacific region in the month of August 2016.

Then to illustrate that they have been shared to a great extent, I’ve used a ratio from SocialBakers Analytics tool, “Interactions per 1,000 Fans”.

The charts, as below, compare posts over a whole month using this ratio and show clearly which posts have been shared more than others.

1. The inspirational video

Cebu Pacific Air, the Philippine airline, has enjoyed relatively consistent sharing through the month of August, but one particular post stands out.

On August 16, the brand shared an inspirational video about two brothers who ‘live life to the fullest’, even though one was, tragically, diagnosed with cancer.

From the data we can see that this post outperformed all the others in the month and had 4.92 total interactions (Likes, shares, and comments) per 1,000 fans.

But why would an inspirational post outperform many of the others?

Research from the NY Times Customer Insight Group offers an interesting reason. In the group’s paper, The Psychology of Sharing, researchers document a survey of 2,500 social media users and discovered a number of reasons why they share.

One of the most popular answers, coming from over two-thirds (68%) of respondents, was that sharing on social media helps people define themselves to others.

That is, they share on social media “to give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about”.

The inspirational video, then, provided Cebu Pacific Air’s customers a message through which they could express compassion for the man with cancer as well as endorse the view that one should ‘live life to the fullest’.

Given this opportunity, the brand made its post more shareable and that, possibly, was the key to the post’s success.

2. The amazing deal

AirAsia, an airline headquartered in Malaysia, also has consistent engagement levels from its 3.4m fans.

One post in August, however, saw a massive spike in Likes, comments, and shares with over nine interactions per 1,000 fans, far more than their posts normally get.

The outstanding post offered a special deal for its customers, one way fares from RM20 (around US$5) for many popular destinations throughout South-East Asia.

A flurry of clicks and purchases for such an offer would be expected, but why did the post encourage so much sharing?

One answer is that posts about special offers give social media fans ‘social currency’.

According to Wharton professor Jonah Berger, in his book Contagious, “just as people use money to buy products or services, they use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues.”

Supporting this observation, researchers have found that consumers are more likely to share something which makes them look knowledgeable.

In a study by Vivaldi Partners, in association with MIT Sloan, social currency is defined as the extent to which people share the brand and/or information about the brand as part of their everyday social lives.

By giving customers “access to information and knowledge”, brands are giving their fans the tools and reason they need to share the brand message. Simply put, social currency makes the customers look good to their friends.

Additionally, social currency also provides the brand benefits beyond the redistribution of brand content, according to the study.

Companies who have developed credible social currency are “consistently the leading performers in [brand] equity, performance and loyalty”.

3. The big news story

On August 14, Singapore Airlines posted a picture of its staff presenting an award to Singapore’s 2016 gold medal-winner, Joseph Schooling.

The airline’s fans on social media went nuts. This single post had 28.3 interactions per 1,000 fans, far more than any other post the whole month.

The reason seems to be obvious. Singaporeans were very proud of their homegrown swimming hero and wanted to show their support through Likes, comments, and shares.

But these sorts of spikes happen for all sorts of current events, some which are tragic.

Why are people so keen to share news on social media, even when it is bad?

In their published research paper, News sharing in social media: The effect of gratifications and prior experience, Lee and Ma reported results from a study which indicate that there are psychological factors which motivate people to share news stories on social media.

The study found that top reasons provided for why people share current events on social media include:

  • I can interact with people when sharing news.
  • It helps me to gain status.
  • It helps me feel important.

This is consistent with other studies which show that people use social media to forge deeper social ties and achieve a sense of belonging.

They NY Times study mentioned above backs this up. According to the survey, 69% of respondents share information because it provides self-fulfillment and allows them to feel more involved in the world.

Sharing in this case, it seems, goes beyond a simple show of national pride.

The Likes, comments, and shares are one way that we connect with other people and then feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves.


What can brands do to encourage more sharing of their social media posts?

These short case studies, backed by research, show that it is likely that there are deep psychological forces at work when posts are shared on social media.

Posts can be shared because they:

  • Allow people to express who they are and what they care about.
  • Offer social currency which people use to gain status among friends and family.
  • Let people be a part of a current event, making them feel connected and important.

Brands whose posts provide these sorts of experiences to their fans on social media will likely enjoy more engagement and, according to the Vivaldi Partners study, could become “leading performers in [brand] equity, performance and loyalty.”