How can you get more people to share more of your blog posts, Tweets and Facebook posts? Ironically, the answer lies in a 50-year-old psychological study.

Fifty years before the iPhone and social media took over our lives, an Austrian-born psychologist and market researcher cracked the code on a marketing challenge every business faces today: How to encourage people to tell others about their products and services. Whether it’s called word-of-mouth or social sharing, getting consumers to share with others is the Holy Grail for any marketer.

In 1966, Ernest Dichter, who was trained by one of Sigmund Freud’s pupils, conducted research on what makes shoppers tick. His findings transformed the way the world looks at relationships between products and consumers. It was the first international and interdisciplinary study to reveal the hidden world of motivation research and insights into the way consumers think, feel and act. Since then, others (including The New York Times) have built on his findings.

What Dichter Discovered About Social Selling

Dichter discovered there are four motivations for consumer sharing, but they boil down to two primary reasons people share: You’ve blown them away with your product experience, or you’ve made them feel good in some way.

Dichter’s four motivations for social sharing include product involvement, self-involvement, other involvement and message involvement.

  1. Product Involvement. About 33 percent of sharing is based on a good product experience. The customer found the experience to be so delightful or fulfilling they had to tell their friends. This is why some companies’ Facebook pages are filled with happy consumers. Take Starbucks, for instance, where people share pictures of their daily cups of coffee.
  1. Self-Involvement. This comprises about 24 percent of shares. People share content that expresses their knowledge and opinions, and makes them feel smart—like breaking news and political issues.
  1. Other Involvement. About 20 percent of sharing fits here. People want to help a friend by sharing, for example, coupons or product reviews.
  1. Message Involvement. This makes up about 20 percent of shares. It’s triggered when someone finds a message so humorous or informative they want to share it. Cat videos and memes fall into this category.

Fast Forward to 2004

In 2004, results from a study conducted by four researchers, published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing, referenced Dichter’s research and others, and added an electronic component to the analysis. While the researchers found eight factors that contribute to word-of-mouth sharing, they all strongly correlate to Dichter’s original findings, with three new incentives for sharing—venting negative emotions, receiving a positive platform assistance and gaining economic incentives.

But what is most insightful about this study is the discovery of four primary segments of people who share online. This insight could be viewed as a precursor to today’s buyer persona creation.

  • Segment 1—Self-Interested Helpers. These content sharers appear to be strongly driven by both concern for others and economic incentives. This segment is the largest group, representing 34 percent of all sharers.
  • Segment 2—True Altruists. These consumers appear to be both strongly motivated by helping other consumers as well as helping companies, because all other motives are less important. This is the second largest segment, representing 27 percent of the sharers.
  • Segment 3—Multiple-Motive Consumers. They are motivated by all factors, except economic incentives. This segment includes 21 percent of all sharers.
  • Segment 4—Consumer Advocates. They seem to be motivated primarily by a concern for other consumers. It is the smallest segment at 17 percent of all sharers.

New York Times’ 2011 Study Findings

One of the most frequently shared recent studies on the topic of why people share content online is a report compiled by The New York Times. The Psychology of Sharing revealed people’s motivations for sharing, six sharing personas and best practices for encouraging consumers to share content.

Regarding sharing motivations, the study concluded that the primary reasons for sharing were linked to relationships—improving others’ lives, defining themselves to others, enriching relationships and gaining fulfillment. This aspect of the survey correlated strongly to Dichter’s original findings.

The study also cited several statistics on what inspires and motivates people to share links, videos, images and offers online, including:

  • 85 percent say reading other people’s responses helps them understand and process information and events
  • 84 percent share because it is a way to support causes or issues they care about
  • 78 percent share information online because it lets them stay connected to people they may not otherwise stay in touch with
  • 73 percent share information because it helps them connect with others who share their interests
  • 73 percent say they process information more deeply, thoroughly and thoughtfully when they share it
  • 69 percent share information because it allows them to feel more involved in the world
  • 68 percent share to give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about
  • 49 percent say sharing allows them to inform others of products they care about and potentially change opinions or encourage action

NYT Survey Breaks New Ground on Sharers

A groundbreaking aspect of the New York Times study was that researchers could determine which areas of the brain were triggered during the sharing process. From this insight, they formulated six online sharer personas defined by emotional motivations, desired presentation of self, and role of sharing in life. Along with two more sharer types than the 2004 study, this study also revealed more sharer insights.

  • Altruists. These sharers are helpful and reliable. They are motivated to share by being seen as thoughtful and connected. Their primary sharing vehicle is email.
  • Careerists. These sharers are valuable and networked. They are motivated to share by being seen as intelligent. Their primary sharing vehicle is LinkedIn.
  • Hipsters. These sharers are young and popular. They are motivated to share by being seen as cutting-edge and creative. You will find them using multiple social sharing vehicles, but not email.
  • Collectors. These sharers are relaxed, thoughtful and always making plans. They are motivated to share by being seen as creative. Their primary sharing vehicles are email and Facebook.
  • Selectors. These sharers are resourceful and careful. They are motivated to share by being seen as thoughtful and informative. Their preferred sharing vehicle is email.
  • Boomerangs. These sharers respond to reaction, validation and empowerment. Their primary sharing vehicles are Twitter and Facebook.

The New York Times study also detailed seven best practices that contribute to encouraging more customers to share more content.

  1. Sharing is how consumers connect with one another. Appeal to consumers’ motivation to connect with others, not just with your brand.
  1. Trust is the cost of entry for getting shared. If consumers don’t see you as an authority they can trust, they won’t share your content.
  1. Keep it simple. Publish content on a highly focused topic. This boosts your brand and helps you stand out in a crowded marketplace.
  1. Appeal to their sense of humor. A little personality and humor can make a big difference.
  1. Embrace a sense of urgency. If there’s an element of urgency in your content, it appears valuable. As a result, people are more likely to share it.
  1. Getting content shared is just the beginning. One share is not the endgame. You need to continue to support sharing, and even reach out and say thank you now and then.
  1. Email is still No. 1. In a world dominated by social media, don’t forget about email. It’s still the primary way people communicate. So consider making it easy for your readers to share your content via email with a click (unless they are hipsters, of course).

Don’t Forget About Quality Content

And finally, a study conducted by Ogilvy & Mather in 2014 condensed global insight on sharing into one primary takeaway—to encourage content sharing you must produce high-quality content.

The study also identified companies leading the way in producing shareable, quality content by country. In the United States, for example, companies taking the lead include: Huffington Post, Upworthy, Apple, NPR, Buzzfeed, The New York Times, Mother Jones, Humane Society, Amazon, Drudge Report, NPR, PBS, Kraft, ESPN and PETA.

While the world we live in today is very different than it was 50 years ago, a review of the research conducted since Dichter’s groundbreaking study shows that our motivations for sharing have stayed relatively the same. The biggest difference between the world then and now is in how much content is created every day, how much content is shared and how frequently it’s shared.

To stand out in this crowded social world requires a strategy that takes into consideration the insight shared by leading voices on the subject. Understanding the motivational forces behind the act of sharing—and working with them in mind—is the best way to help your company get more of your content shared more often by more people.