When Facebook spent $1 billion to acquire Instagram earlier this year, pundits were abuzz trying to figure out why a photosharing site was worth 10 figures. Things were a little quieter in April when LinkedIn said it would pay $119 million to buy business-focused SlideShare, which lets people post presentations and video. What do these two have in common? They both give people a platform to share content on the social web.
It’s no revelation that people like to share what interests them. Word of mouth, after all, has long been the currency of marketing. With the social web, people have access to more content, more often, that can be shared with more people more quickly. What’s different today is that companies are taking that information to assess consumer preferences, to find ways to differentiate (and charge more) for their content or to get real-time insights into their products and services.
The bottom line is that content sharing goes hand in hand with social influence. What individual consumers read, watch, recommend and purchase now influences greater numbers of people because it can be shared so quickly and easily.
Although Instagram is an anomaly and SlideShare is more about work than content, they speak to the increasing power of sharing. Emerging sites such as Buzzfeed, StumbleUpon and Pinterest have built their business models around sharing. And the power of content sharing now goes beyond the passive Facebook “like.” It’s about how consumers take an active approach to telling others what interests them. While viral content—like the 90 million people who viewed the video about Ugandan guerrilla Joseph Kony—gets most of the attention, most shares are microscopic in comparison. Still, aggregated together, they provide a window into user behavior and preferences that advertisers desire.
Sharing is caring
On the social web, sharing is the ultimate targeting. Brands are increasingly turning to consumer conversation to measure the impact of their marketing and to gauge brand lift. Shared content becomes a trusted recommendation that strongly influences user opinions on brands.
Consider the case of GE, which last December wanted to measure the impact of its content strategy on its brand. It posted videos from its GE Show site on Buzzfeed, the viral content site, and then measured for brand lift. Overall, those who had seen the videos had a more positive perception of GE as “creative” and “innovative.” Pretty standard stuff.
More importantly, users who found out about the content from friends on social media were 83 percent more likely to consider GE creative compared to those who found the content just through Buzzfeed. “People are appreciating these stories and enthusiastic about sharing them,” says Paul Marcum, director of global digital programming and marketing at GE. “We see social branded content as a great way to engage.”
“This campaign suggests that branded content shared socially can be a very effective way to build a variety of positive associations with a brand,” explains Dan Beltramo, CEO of Vizu, which conducted the GE analysis.
For branded content to succeed, many contend, the content itself has to speak to a consumer need, and the consumer has to feel good about the sharing. “People don’t want to think of themselves as shills,” says Robert Rose, lead strategist at the Content Marketing Institute, which consults with brands about content best practices. “They’re more reluctant to share because they feel that they’re pitching the product rather than sharing something that’s interesting.”
All this speaks to the trust people put in content recommendations from friends or other trusted sources. “When people share content, they are seeing it as something valuable for their friends to know,” says Kurt Abrahamson, CEO of ShareThis, which provides sharing tools for publishers. “The act of sharing is something people choose with thought. As important is when someone clicks on the link (that was shared). It’s not just sharing out, but coming back.”
The key is to monetize this sharing. To do this, ShareThis has created a way to measure the social quality of websites. Its Social Quality Index (SQI) takes a combined measure of a site’s outbound share and inbound clickback traffic and compares it to page views. The resulting figure can then be benchmarked against the broader measure of social quality based on sharing across the company’s network. The premise behind the SQI metric is simple: Content that is shared is more valuable because readers or viewers engage with it more deeply. This greater engagement should allow publishers to demand a higher dollar value from advertisers.
“We have seen with our research that when users are exposed to shared information, they’re more likely to engage,” says Abrahamson. “Therefore, high SQI sites have better click-through performance than low SQI sites.”
Bringing metrics and targeting consumer sharing behavior remains an enigma for marketers. But with social becoming a more important part of the conversion funnel, there’s a greater demand for analytics related to content sharing. The March update of Google analytics, for example, included a release of new social reports that includes trends related to social plug-in performance. This will show which articles are most commonly shared and recommended, and on which social networks they’re shared.
ShareThis would like SQI to become a sharing metric and is working with Starcom MediaVest, which is evaluating SQI across its network. The idea is to get beyond audience size, engagement and traffic, and take social sharing into account, according to Kate Sirkin, Starcom MediaVest’s EVP and global research director. “[SQI is] is an additional way to reach audiences in a more targeted fashion without losing the scale we’re accustomed to,” she says.
Publishers are also looking to turn consumers’ urge to share into a way for advertisers to piggyback on the content. Facebook’s Sponsored Stories depart from typical ad units by incorporating social endorsement prominently into the ad, ideally making them more relevant to the typical user. Buzzfeed works with advertisers on ad units that are positioned along with other social content. Microsoft’s People Powered Stories populate display ads with tweets and discussion board posts as well as product reviews.
As part of a back-to-school campaign for Windows 7, Microsoft ran advertising powered by authentic customer word-of-mouth reviews from real Windows 7 customers across several of its Web properties. The goal of the campaign: to make Windows 7 ads relevant by “adding the authenticity and believability of real people’s real stories,” according to Jennifer Creegan, general manager of Microsoft’s Display Advertising Experiences Business Group.
Bazaarvoice, which powers the customer conversation platform used in the ads, found that ad believability increased 20 points above the market norms for technology ads, and there was a 6.3 percent lift in purchase intent and a 13.5 percent lift in unaided brand awareness.
“When people share insights, it’s to share with other consumers and help them identify trusted products,” says Ian Greenleigh, manager of content and social strategy at Bazaarvoice. “Companies that understand that find that it is a goldmine of insight into their customers.”