Repeating success: creating the context and content to drive shares

Can content marketers find the common denominators that will ensure audiences will share their content? Ben McKay, Managing Director of MEC Organic Performance, thinks they can – and he’s ready to share the results of MEC’s Citation Audit to prove it

Ben McKay, Managing Director, MEC Organic Performance

There’s one area of content marketing that continues to fascinate the industry and that’s the ‘black box’ element of it. Put simply, it’s understanding why people share.

This organic component of marketing has dozens of variables, but with growing investments in content and marketers (quite rightfully) needing greater confidence in its success, this black box needs a light shining into it.

So rather than pretending the silver bullet to creating viral content can be known, we instead focus the analysis on common and linked attributes of popular content as part of what MEC calls a Citation Audit.

With the input of a PhD researcher, MEC created a robust research structure to collate and measure data around this (pretty subjective) topic. First, we identified the top 50 most shared pages for a range of sectors (entertainment, industrial B2B, travel, ecommerce, finance and insurance). Using a range of social/search tools along with manual review of content, MEC then analysed the pages by page type; on-page content formats; and motivations for sharing. We then analysed the correlations among the data-set.

Key questions the Citation Audit looked to answer

1. How did the content perform?

Social shares, linking sites to the content, interactions, time-on-site, comments…

2. How and where was the content hosted?

3. How was the content initially shared?

4. Who was the content shared with?

What are their interests and how do they spend their time?

5. What were the likely motivations for someone sharing that content?

6. What creative format(s) was the content delivered in?

7. What messages were used in the content?

What content is shared?

Unsurprisingly the most shared content is editorial (typically how-to content or guides), news and CSR or charitable content – all forms of content that typically serve a larger audience online and a particular need. This is key to many of the assertions content marketers make – e.g. developing an audience-first strategy.

It has been said that editorial content is making a revival and this could be a case in point. In the chart (below), 37% of content that was most shared featured editorial as the dominant format type. The shelf-life of this content is a major contributor towards this statistic, where much of the most shared content could be regarded as ‘evergreen’. It also raises the question as to whether brands are measuring this sort of ROI around their evergreen content investments.

Memes, infographics and photos feature among the most popular imagery and make up 33% of the most shared content, with video next at 25%. Video content tends to be linked to a broader-reaching digital campaigns. This prompts the question: why do people share such content?

Most-shared page type

Why do people share content?

Inspired by research referred to in Jonah Berger’s book Contagious, we have created buckets that implicitly explain why people have shared the content.

Notably, the most correlating factor for why content is shared is because it has practical value. Again, as with editorial, this typically tends to be because of the length of time the content has been live on the web.

After practical value, our research found that the next reason people share content is because it reflects well on their ‘personal brand’ (31%). That is, how you want to represent yourself online – funny, adventurous, smart, helpful, and so on. This feels like a very powerful area for brands to influence.

Most-shared content format

Content that is seeded to reflect the audience’s interests and mood of that moment comes third in the most shared rankings with high-profile content (i.e. content that you’re confident to share because it comes from a source you know to be popular and trusted).

Brand ‘stories’ feature lowest in this study. However, when looking more closely at other metrics, such as the number of websites that reference this content by linking back to it, we see that stories feature more prominently at 7%. Further analysis tells us that stories act as a sort of glue, giving you purpose to create content – it’s almost always there, but not always so easily identified in such research projects.

So what can we conclude?

Time and time again, MEC has seen that you can increase your chances of successfully earning reach for your content by undertaking observational studies to inform the content that brands produce and distribute – hence the reason we developed the Citation Audit as a pillar for informing content strategy. It does not remove the need for paid media to support content, but it can help draw more long-term value from a growing expense to the average business.

So taking the insight literally, would MEC suggest every brand should invest in developing every widget feasible and create loads of editorial which provides practical value to its audience? Not at all. We do believe, however, that a comprehensive Citation Audit should be applied to content planning decisions.

MEC uses insights like these to layer in to both performance and branded content campaigns. The phrase ‘layering’ is important here. Alone, it’s not the complete answer to a content strategy. Being too literal with just one pool of insight will never help win a marketing or content war. But if you can begin to understand that black box of why people share content, you can research and understand anything.

“People share content because it has a practical value… and because it reflects well on their personal brand. This is a powerful area for brands to influence”

Ben McKay, Managing Director, MEC Organic Performance
Why are people sharing this content?

Read next article