New York Times Study: «The Psychology of Sharing. Why Do People Share Online?»

The recently published results of a study conducted by The New York Times Customer Insight Group shed some light on the motivations and intentions to share online content: The Psychology of Sharing. Why Do People Share Online? Content marketeers, Web writers and copywriters are constantly trying to produce «shareable» and noteworthy content.

This is the first study I came across to report results on the motivations of sharing which are based on quantitative as well as qualitative research with a relatively mainstream audience.


The NYT CIG set out to research why readers share content online. They conducted ethnographic interviews, user behaviour research and a survey of 2,500 active sharers of content online to uncover the motivation and intention. In addition, they discerned different sharing personas, i.e. different types of sharers.

Context: It’s evolution, not revolution.

Unsurprisingly, the report states that sharing noteworthy information is nothing new. Sharing noteworthy information is an innate aspect of the human condition. The key here: relevant information is shared with friends, family and people we know who might be interested in this particular piece of information.

Sharing online is, however, facilitated by technologies of the Information Age. Sharing Web content online is faster, more immediate, more visible, and disseminated in a more effective and efficient manner. Sharing information online is effortless compared to cutting out paper clippings from a newspaper and posting it to a friend via snail mail. Therefore, online content is more accessible to sharers and gets shared more frequently and in larger quantities.

☛ Nota Bene

It is always good to know the constraints or particular context of such research in order to put the results into perspective. This is not to say that the results are skewed or wrong. But with every scientific approach, one has to be fairly specific in order to get sound results for the scenario that is researched.

I want to stress that the New York Times Customer Insight Group was interested in why people choose to share content and what this means. Consequently, they looked into the behaviour and reasoning of exactly the user groups they were interested in, i.e. the «medium/heavy sharers».

On Web sites which allow user participation the audience will break into user groups with different levels of engagement. The Pareto principle («80/20 rule») and the 90–9–1 rule about participation inequality between audience, editors and creators will apply in those environments. The community around those Web sites is known to divide into Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers (Bradley Horowitz).

The findings will apply in some degree to the online audience at large. However, certain aspects may apply to different user groups in varying degrees. It would be interesting to find out whether the general audience also falls into the typology suggested by this study. It seems likely that there will be additional or different sharing personas amongst the general readership. Or, that there may be a different distribution of users amongst these categories. But this is for another study to find.


Sharing acts as «information management» & supports the processing and understanding of content.

As expected, sharing an article online often leads to an intensified engagement with the information. For instance, you might add a short description framing the content before you send the link as FYI to a friend or share it on Facebook. This step of reframing or contextualising the content makes you think harder about the presented information than you would by merely reading it (and immediately moving on by clicking on the next best headline).

Motivations for Sharing

It doesn’t come as a surprise either that sharing content online is, as with most social media, about people connecting to other people. There are humans behind the screens, clicks and Likes who are sharing information in order to build, strengthen and support relationships. The study reports five main objectives for sharing Web content:

  • to delight others with valuable & entertaining content,
  • to identify and present ourselves to others,
  • to foster relationships,
  • for self-fulfillment,
  • for spreading the word about issues, products & brands.

Bringing valuable & entertaining content to others

People like to share delight and value. Nearly half the surveyed participants (49%) report sharing enables them «to inform others of products they care about and potentially change opinions or encourage action». A large majority, i.e. 94%, state that they «carefully consider how the information they share will be useful to the recipient».

Defining ourselves to others

Sharing content online provides an opportunity to self-identify with issues and it is used to build a reputation and to influence how we are perceived online. In short, it is an outlet to present ourselves as the person we want to be (in the perception of others).

Growing and nourishing our relationships

Again, it's all about the social in media: we want to maintain our relationships with the people we care about. People share in order to (re-)connect with others over common interests. I was surprised by the number of people who report that sharing online content helps them to «stay connected to people they may not otherwise stay in touch with». About 78% of the people state this as a motivation.

This was news to me because I did not really consider information-sharing as an activity to maintain weak ties in a social network. However, thinking about it now, this obviously applies. Whenever experts or authorities start blogging, they often state connecting with their peers or their audiences, and this is one motivating factor. Blogging can be seen as sharing content online on a semi-regular basis, in a more structured environment than «mere sharing» via e-mail, Facebook etc. In this light, disseminating content via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter on a topic-specific basis, becomes the natural first step in sharing information.


Receiving feedback on shared content and contributing to a discussion makes people feel engaged, «valuable» and «more involved in the world».

To get the word out about causes and brands

A staggering 84% of the study participants use sharing as a means «to support causes or issues they care about». This means the tools to share online content enable people to speak out about issues and products, and empower users to contribute to the public debate.

An infographic by Column Five for Get Satisfaction puts this information into a marketing perspective: What Makes People Want to Follow a Brand?

How many brands do they follow on Facebook?

  • 12.01% follow 1 brand,
  • 53.47% follow 2–5 brands,
  • 21.2% follow 5–10 brands,
  • 13.32% follow 10 brands or more.

Typology of online sharers

The study also identified six personae of sharers, i.e. different types of online sharers, based on their

  • Emotional motivations
  • Desired presentation of self
  • Role of sharing in life
  • Value of being the first to share

Marisa Peacock summarises the six types for CMSWire: The Psychology of Sharing Reveals Motivations, Personas

  • altruists — mostly female, attached to causes
  • careerists — focused on job-related information
  • hipsters — younger altruists and careerists
  • boomerangs — people who share simply to stir up controversy
  • connectors — related to careerists
  • selectives — related to altruists

What this means for your Web content.

The report provides seven concluding suggestions to influence content consumers to share online content:

  1. Appeal to consumers’ motivation to connect with each other — not just with your brand.
  2. Trust is the cost of entry for getting shared.
  3. Keep it simple… and it will get shared… and it won’t get muddled.
  4. Appeal to their sense of humor.
  5. Embrace a sense of urgency.
  6. Getting content shared is just the beginning.
  7. E-mail is still the number one medium used to share online content.

It is evident that content sharing starts with being a trusted source. Becoming a trusted source of information and building a reputation online does not happen overnight. Building trust, a relationship with an audience and a reputation is a resource-intensive undertaking which needs strategic development.

Sharing is facilitated by allowing content to be shared easily (reduce the friction and steps between reading and sharing). This could be accomplished by providing convenient social media and e-mail sharing options with the content.

Finally, the report emphasises the need to take the online conversation seriously: sharing leads to a feedback loop which requires an open and responsive attitude toward your audience.


This substantial research into the «Psychology of Sharing» validates what Web professionals already tell their clients and confirms the underlying assumptions and mental models. However, it is always good to be able to refer to data when making the case for a certain approach.

The role of real human relationships influencing our behaviour online cannot be overstated. The crucial moment of providing relevant content is the cliffhanger for every click we, as the users of Web content, make.

As content producers we are in a position to encourage the audience to share our most valuable asset, i.e. the content we create. If we want people to share our content, we have to make the right thing the easy thing: make it easy to fit a headline in a tweet; provide short URLs and stable permalinks; facilitate proper attribution by clearly displaying the author(s) of a piece, provide context information such as the publishing date, revisions of and updates to an article.

Last but not least, take your audience seriously. If you solicit engagement through share buttons and comment forms, follow through. Read and listen. Respond to feedback and treat your audience as the vital contributor to your success it is.



The New York Times Customer Insight Group (2011) — The Psychology of Sharing. Why Do People Share Online?

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Mon, 18/07/2011 - 14:03