How can we improve our odds in the content game?

November 16, 2011

(Reposted from the Undercurrent Dispatch – Click here to sign up for the weekly email newsletter)

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Predicting what content will get shared is nearly impossible. And yet, we know that successful content can be highly valuable in earning attention, affecting perception, and connecting with consumers.

This past weekend I attended the Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT. The conference, now in its 5th year, brings together some of the brightest minds from the entertainment industry, academia, and marketing to discuss disruptive forces in content production, distribution, and commercialization.

One theme echoed repeatedly: it’s time to shift our focus from distribution to circulation.

Last week I visited the offices of Bitly, the wonderful url-shortener that is quietly becoming a circulation-monitoring superpower. I got a peek at the enterprise dashboard for a major news publisher. This Bitly-powered dashboard is teaching publishers that the things they think will spread are often not the same as the things their readers choose to spread. The articles chosen by the editorial staff to be featured on the homepage, for instance, are earning fewer clicks and shares than photo essays on the same topic buried in the opinion section. The dashboard provides editors with rich knowledge into just what is being circulated, helping them determine how best to react.

The best platforms and partnerships in the world won’t help if your content doesn’t inspire people to want to share it, but creating content that spreads doesn’t have to be a guessing game. The key is to remember that content doesn’t spread itself. People choose to spread content because of what it means to them and the people they share it with.

Research conducted by MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium [PDF], a team that included Undercurrent’s own Research Specialist Joshua Green, PhD., uncovered three fundamental motivations that fuel the spreading of content online.

1. To strengthen bonds

Content brings the sharer and the person(s) with whom she shares closer together. This usually applies to things that feel personal. Think, for instance, about how baby or marriage engagement announcements spread on Facebook.

2. To define a group identity

Content can signify belonging to, or participating in, a defined community. This is why so many things that spread online are often humorous – humor is an excellent way to express and reinforce the unique beliefs or values of a group. When someone tells a joke at a party, the people who laugh are ‘in,’ and those who don’t laugh, who don’t get the joke, are ‘out.’

3. To give me status

Sharing content can bestow prestige on the person doing the sharing. When someone gains access to exclusive information, for instance, and brings that information to a wider audience first, their social capital (status) can increase. This is readily on display as Apple fan-boys compete to break news about the design of the next iPhone before any of their friends (or fellow bloggers).

What can you do?

In order to improve the chances of your content catching on, you need to know your audience, and be able to answer these questions: What kind of content strengthens bonds? What kind of content defines their group identity? What kind of content gives people status?

Understanding the personal and relational motivations of the people you’re hoping to reach will give your content the edge it needs to catch on.

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