Word of mouth on steroids – understanding the motives for sharing content

Facebook users only share content with a perceived social benefit. A new RMIT study has resulted in a scale which can be used to predict whether something will be shareable. By Aaron Lane.

Consumers love social media, with many regularly checking their various accounts throughout the day. Facebook, for example, now has 1.32 billion daily active users on average. It’s no surprise that these platforms have become a vital ingredient in the marketing mix. Social media platforms have radically changed word of mouth (WoM)’s potential.

It’s WoM on steroids.

Social media has made it easier than ever before for users to share their thoughts and experiences throughout their networks.

But what are the factors that drive someone to share content with their Facebook network?

That’s the question a team of researchers at RMIT University set out to investigate.

“Our research focuses on the perceived social benefits of sharing,” says lead author and marketing PhD candidate Ashleigh Powell.

“Previous research has shown that people are more likely to share something with their online networks, so long as that sharing will cast them in a positive light.”

“There is a risk involved with sharing, like disapproval or embarrassment. Sharing content online is more risky because it is seen by more people and there’s a permanent record of it. But despite these risks, we know that users still share content online. This suggests that the increased perceived social risk incurred by online contexts may be offset by the potential social benefit associated with sharing. These benefits are more subtle, and harder to observe.”

“Our research project sought to develop a scale to better understand what drives people to share, and to measure the perceived social benefits of sharing,” Powell explains.

The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, involved 100 North American participants, all with active Facebook accounts. The participants were given a fictional online news story about an organic dog food company’s partnership with an animal shelter.

“It was a shareable story designed to elicit happiness in the reader, which was important because we are trying to test a positive shareability rather than something neutral or negative,” says Associate Professor Angela Dobele, one of the study’s co-authors and WOM marketing expert.

The study resulted in the development of the Perceived Social Benefit of Sharing Scale (PSBSS), which can now be used to predict whether something will be shareable. The factors in the PSBSS – listed below – encompass the benefits relating to impression management and approval, and benefits relating to relationships, social status and feelings of belonging.

There are a number of ways that content can be shared over Facebook – publicly, on a friend’s timeline, through a Facebook group or page, or privately through Facebook messenger. One of the great things about the PSBSS is that it predicts the likelihood of sharing regardless of context.

 

Perceived social benefit of sharing scale

  • sharing the story would improve my social status,
  • sharing the story would help me fit in,
  • sharing the story would benefit my relationships with others,
  • sharing the story would help me define myself,
  • I feel will gain approval if I share the story,
  • I feel that sharing the story would benefit me,
  • sharing the story will make me look good,
  • sharing the story would help me communicate my self-identity, and
  • sharing the story would make me part of a community.

 

The research has a number of practical implications for social media marketing.

“The key takeaway is that perceived social benefits facilitate sharing. Marketing professionals should focus on creating and facilitating messages that benefit the audience by improving how people see them, showing people who they are, and benefiting their relationships with others in their social network” says Associate Professor Dobele.

“The research also provides a framework to analyse past campaigns to gain an understanding as to why a campaign did or did not achieve the targeted engagement metrics, and what can be done differently for next time around,” adds Powell.

Of course, we don’t yet have the full picture. For instance, what happens if both social risk and social benefit are high? Are there differences in the likelihood of sharing for different types of brand content such as news articles compared to advertisements? There is more research to be done in this area, and the study’s authors are now using the PSBSS to conduct a number of further experiments.

This research highlights the importance of the social benefits of sharing, and its potential to enhance engagement and reach in campaigns. It will only become more important as digital teams try to maximise the value of every dollar of their social media spend – and as a way to measure success.

Understanding the social benefits of sharing is critical for practitioners attempting to build an online community. And building online communities are an important part of any marketing strategy – a community loyal and passionate about the brand, and feel a sense of belonging. Ideally, marketers want to convert community members into evangelists, eager to share the brand. This is particularly the case with campaigns relying on co-creation to go viral.

We know that the workforce of dedicated social media marketers is growing, as is the proportion of marketing budgets spent on social. However, showing a return on investment for this investment is an issue. In fact, Simply Measured’s ‘The State of Social Marketing 2017’ report named this the number one challenge facing social marketers as they grapple with how their function contributes to the bottom line of the business.

Part of the solution requires developing new measures of engagement on social media platforms, and methods of driving authentic community engagement.

Facebook is easily the largest social media platform, and authentic posts are important because they will rank more highly on Facebook users’ newsfeed. Facebook constantly tweaks its algorithm, but gone are the days where brands can manipulate engagement by posting clickbait or by asking followers to ‘like, share, or comment’ on a post. Instead, marketers need to better understand the motivations behind users authentically sharing content – making the PSBSS a good place to start.

 

Aaron Lane is a freelance business writer.

RMIT University research referred to in this article has been published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, ‘Ashleigh Ellen Powell, Adrian R. Camilleri, Angela R. Dobele and Constantino Stavros (2017), Developing a scale for the perceived social benefits of sharing’.

 

 

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