Skip to navigation Skip to main content Skip to footer

The Science of Sharing on Social Media

Back to news

The Science of Sharing on Social Media

By Rita Mogilanski, Director of Strategy, The Marketing Arm


Yanny or Laurel. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino. Straight Outta Compton.


Once and for all, was it a blue or gold dress, and what do these viral campaigns all have in common? The answer: Consumers were in the driver’s seat.


Social media is defined as: forms of electronic communication through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content.


Somewhere along the way, between YouTube pre-roll and Facebook carousel ads, marketers lost sight of what was truly important when trying to engage consumers on social media. We’ve been chasing platform updates instead of using social media to drive consumer connection and communication.


Brands are also facing a time where trust is at an all-time low, and consumers trust peers and influencers more than brands. One-third of digital ads in the US are actually fraudulent, and more than 30% of people are using adblockers. Seventy-four percent of people aged 16-29 dislike being targeted by brands in feed with ads, and 92% of consumers trust an influencer more than an advertisement.


With the internet in this state, we must focus on getting consumers to do the talking, sharing, and engaging on social media on our brands’ behalf to continue to drive reach, awareness, and brand trust.


So, how do we get consumers to participate?

To understand what drives consumers, we must go back to the very beginning. Humans are a social species. We evolved in groups, with the purpose of helping each other find food and build shelter. We also evolved to care about our reputation and how the other humans perceived us, because if we’re well liked, our peers would be more likely to share their resources with us. Because of this, our brains are wired to release dopamine (the “feel good” chemical or “reward molecule”) in the brain if we receive positive reinforcement. This “reward circuit” in the brain causes us to remember what felt good and drives us to want to do it again and again.


Humans are wired to like social media because it is a platform that allows us to receive positive reinforcement from our peers more quickly and easily than ever before. Social media is also unique in that we are able to completely control what people see, allowing us to show content that is most likely to receive that positive feedback we so strongly desire. This is why we’ve become so addicted to social media. Getting a ‘like’ on Instagram releases dopamine in the same way that eating your favorite food or going on a date does.


We are pretty careful about what we show on social media, considering we only want to show the best content that is guaranteed to make us look good. If brands want to be a part of what consumers display on their channels, they have to consider how the consumer will benefit from it.


Consumers must perceive branded content as content that, if shared, will provide them with positive feedback from their followers, and therefore trigger the release of dopamine in the brain.

Just the anticipation of positive feedback is enough to get consumers to take action.


There are many social and behavioral experiences that are potent triggers for the reward circuit that brands can incorporate into their content strategy. For example, we’re triggered by finding others that are like-minded and show a similar understanding to our thoughts and experiences. This presents itself on social media with how consumers love memes that show experiences or feelings they’re familiar with, as well as why they tag their friends to continue to bond with people who have a shared understanding.


Another social interaction that triggers us is talking about ourselves. While only 30-40% of face-to-face conversations involve communicating our own experiences, about 80% of online conversations are about ourselves. The rise of selfies and the popularity of viral content like The Dress and Yanny and Laurel is a great example of this.


With Yanny and Laurel, consumers felt compelled to share their own perspective with what they were hearing, despite thousands of the same responses already existing online.


When we think back to the examples listed upfront, their virality can be attributed to consumers driving the activity. Consumers were tweeting, posting on Instagram, sharing other’s content, and creating their own content. The motivation to participate in the conversation was driven by triggering the reward circuit.


With the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, consumers were tagging their friends to participate. Not wanting to feel left out or ignore a request from a friend, we all obliged. The marketing behind Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino was completely driven by consumers and influencers. There was no branded promotion behind it. Consumers knew an image of the photogenic drink on their social media channels would yield a positive response from their friends. Lastly, Beats promoted Straight Outta Compton by creating a meme generator where consumers could show where they came from using the movie’s template.


Despite consumers getting savvier about avoiding intrusive ads, brands can still get consumers to want to participate with them on social. Brands need to find an approach that will benefit the consumer and therefore get them to share, talk, and post on the brand’s behalf, and create the viral campaigns we are all searching for.