Do You Have Social Sharing All Wrong?

on under Social Media Marketing.

If you can get your content shared, you'll make money, right? That's a fundamental assumption that drives countless digital marketing strategies. But is there any truth to it, and is there a better way?

Anybody with some background in SEO already knows that "sharing" in the form of a link drives traffic, and that this drives sales (when leveraged properly). I'm not even going to bother questioning this premise.

But there's another premise: the idea of "viral marketing." This is the idea that social sharing can dramatically expand your reach as one person shares it with their friends, who go on to share it with their friends, and so on. It's an appealing idea, but things don't actually work that way.

The six degrees of separation are a myth. There's never been any conclusive evidence suggesting that social networks (in the traditional sense) actually work that way. People are fragmented, and largely share within their own isolated communities.

The digital marketing applications of this have been tested. After measuring YouTube and news links diffusing through Twitter, and various successful online business launches, Sharad Goel found no evidence that information disseminated in this way. Sharing stopped after "one generation" about 94 percent of the time.

The conclusion? If you're doing quite well, you can consistently get a 20 percent lift on the original audience you shared the content with. That's not what people think of as viral, but it's certainly significant. If you can capture and keep a decent portion of those new visitors, you can grow your audience by a certain percentage with each piece of content you produce. Done right, this can lead to exponential growth. But it's not going to be a one time thing.

And most crucially, you have to retain more audience members than you lose every time you do this.

Does that retained audience translate into sales? According to a scientific, university-conducted study I discussed a few weeks ago, they indisputably can. In that particular case, those who joined the Facebook page, on average, spent $22 more than those who didn't. But things don't quite work how you might expect. Content shared on social networks doesn't seem to impact sales directly. Only three kinds of communications contributed directly:

  • Direct conversations between the marketer and the consumer
  • Indirect communications between consumers
  • Direct communications between consumers

The more information the consumers gathered from these conversations (whether positive or negative), the more likely they were to open their wallets. Information richness in these conversations was the most important factor, and positive, indirect communications from other users had the largest impact. (As you can see, the real world is often very counter-intuitive.)

So, does this mean you shouldn't bother with content? Just get out there and start conversations? Not remotely. First off, the study dealt specifically with social networks, not referrals from them, not email subscribers, and not website conversions. (We also can't ignore the possibility that the marketer in the study just wasn't "good enough" to use content to generate sales on social network directly.)

Just as important, we can't ignore the crucial role that content plays in starting conversations.

And that brings me to the impetus of this article: a study by Edleman called Brandshare.

The study found a weak, but statistically significant correlation between six brand behaviors and a consumer's "willingness to recommend a brand." Those six dimensions were:

  1. Shared Dialogue
  2. Shared Experience
  3. Shared Goals
  4. Shared Values
  5. Shared Products (consumer involvement in idea generation)
  6. Shared History

In short, if you're trying to get consumers to share your content, you're missing the point. It's you who needs to do the sharing. The study found that consumers felt brands didn't share nearly enough in various ways, including:

  • Performance compared with competitors
  • Product sourcing and production
  • Asking about needs
  • Listening to consumers
  • Giving back to the community

Putting this together with the results of the university study mentioned above, we can draw a broad conclusion. Marketers who genuinely share with their community create a repeat audience. This audience then interacts with itself in a way that enhances lifetime value. (It also transforms them into inelastic commodities within that community, as the university study found).

Stop trying to "go viral," and start building an audience that can't stop coming back. This is how you enhance a business with social networks.

Image credit: Erica Britto

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