The Principles of Social Design How to Make Content Shareable

Follow these 7 Word-of-Mouth drivers if you want your content to be more shareworthy.


By now, hopefully, we can all agree that we have collectively debunked the myth of manufactured “virality.” Most brands understand they cannot create the magical piece of content that actually helps their business and sparks an avalanche of sharing like Harlem Shake, Justin Bieber, and the latest contraption choreography from OK-Go. If you want to create the most shareable content that remains relevant to your brand–kittens, dance routines, and kicking someone in the junk isn’t really for every business–then there are some clear principles to follow. These are born from behavioral economics, persuasion science, and plain old trial and error.


It’s All Word of Mouth

When a person tweets a link to Ford’s hilarious response on to Jeremy Irons’ inadvertent slight of the Ford Fiesta (he was actually dissing Downtown Abbey as the Ford Fiesta of Shakespeare), or when someone emails a link to the cool IBM infographic predicting via social data the rise of Steampunk posted in IBMblr, their Tumblr site, they are sharing by word of mouth. We look at stuff our friends send us. We pay attention when they recommend something. In a world where randomly relevant marketing constantly floods past us, this is often the only way to decide what to pay attention to.

Brand content that comes to us via a friend, a colleague at work, or someone we know online matters more. The question for us marketers is not just how do we create great content, but also how do we get people to share it across their social graph.

The answer lies more in psychology and behavior than in finding the magical recipe for a breakout video. The books and work of Robert Cialdini, Dan Ariely and, now, Jonah Berger all tell us why we do the things we do. The field of behavioral economics has blossomed over the past few years as researchers and geeks have found a willing audience amongst marketers hungry to put their results to work. The biggest problem applying these proven principles is that there are just so damn many of them. Many of them, like ”loss aversion”–the tendency for people to move more quickly to avoid losing something rather than to gain something of value–are more like a bolt of fine, durable cloth than a ready-made suit of clothes. You need to know which ones to stitch together to tackle a particular problem.

Here is a set of word-of-mouth drivers that, when applied routinely, help make any content or experience more shareworthy. While many are adopted from the body of behavioral economics–and all of them have been validated by experience.

Value Exchange

Is the content valuable to the end user in some way? Entertainment has value, but so does utility. In either case, you need to understand what your audience values rather than just assuming they have an innate fascination in your brand talking about itself.


Disruptive Ideas

We stop to notice ideas or concepts that challenge our understanding of the way the world works. The Museum of Memory and Tolerance in Mexico asked the question “what if tweets that discriminated against races and genders were bullets aimed at the heart of Mexico?” A social media fueled paint gun stained the word “Mexico” every time someone posted a discriminatory tweet. This social data-driven demo shocked citizens around the hate speech going on around them.

Great Story

So many of our decisions are based upon emotional drivers, not the rational features and benefits of the latest widget. Great stories are not only dramatic, they are also emotional. Our team in Amsterdam created a deeply emotional story—for funeral insurance, of all things—when they asked people to share what they would want to tell a loved one before they died. These stories are so emotionally touching, we want to pass them along and reach out to our own parents, favorite aunt, or close friend to tell them how important they are to us.

Fresh Interest

What is new or interesting about a topic? Finding that fresh area of interest when you are launching a product that’s not as sexy as the next Tesla Roadster is every marketer’s job. People want news they can share around the vending machine at work or via their Twitter handle.

Social Proof

When we see others doing something, we are often more apt to make that same choice ourselves. Why else do we have counters next to Tweet icons or Facebook tallies that tell us how many others have already thought that content valuable enough to share? The beauty of Facebook advertising is that the ads tell me which of my friends find a product interesting enough to “like” it.

Creative Participation

I wrote a chapter in the ebook Social@Scale. Since I participated and was able to be highly creative–those were my words and thoughts–I am now far more likely to pass that content along. Nutella has applied that principle to its product label as content. In Belgium and other countries, users can customize the iconic product label with their name in place of the logo and have that product delivered. Customers are invited to participate, and creatively so.


Simple Advocacy

When we make it simple and then actually ask people to share, they aremore likely to do so. Reducing the number of button clicks it takes to share a white paper is worth sweating bullets over. And don’t forget the ask.

Like most good suits, shareable content doesn’t come off the rack ready-made. But if you start weaving the fabrics of these principles together, trimming a little length here, broadening the shoulders over there, you can wind up looking like a million bucks.

John Bell, Global Managing Director of Social@Ogilvy, writes The Digital Influence Mapping Project. Follow him @jbell99.