This guest post is by Dan Zarrella of danzarrella.com.
In my research into sharing, I realized I needed to develop a framework that would serve as a model for the decision-making process that takes place before someone spreads an idea.
This framework describes the three criteria that must be met before someone will spread an idea in any format:
- The person must be exposed to your content. This means that the person has to be following you on Twitter, be a fan of your page on Facebook, subscribe to your email list, and so on.
- The person must become aware of your specific piece of content (the idea you want to spread). S/he has to read your tweet or open your email message.
- The person must be motivated by something (generally in the content itself) in order to want to share the idea with his or her contacts.
Every piece of content, social network, and campaign has a vastly different conversion rate at each step of this process. For you to understand the scales involved, it helps to visualize a hypothetical set of percentages. If you email 900 people, and 20% of them notice and open the message, and then 10% of those readers forward it to a friend, your email message was shared 18 times.
At each step, you can change the numbers in your favor:
- Increase the number of people exposed to your content. Get more email-list subscribers or Twitter followers.
- Create attention-grabbing content. Do lots of testing on your subject lines to increase open rates.
- Include powerful calls to action.
The keys to real science are data and experimentation. I’ve spent nearly five years conducting research into the why, how, and what of contagious ideas. In the three middle chapters of Zarrella’sHierarchyofContagiousness (“Exposure,” “Attention,” and “Motivation”), I present some of my most important findings and describe how you can use them to optimize your ideas for maximum spread at each step of my hierarchy. This is an excerpt from the chapter “Motivation.”
The bottom level of my hierarchy of contagiousness is motivation, and it’s the trickiest to achieve. Once someone is exposed to your idea and it catches her attention, she has to be motivated by it to want to share it. This is where you can find the most superstitious advice.
People claim that they spread ideas only when those ideas are good, are funny, benefit the world, or conform to some other nebulous standard. So how do we really motivate people to share our ideas? That question is best answered in two parts: Why do people share ideas? And what kinds of ideas do they share the most?
What do people share?
Now that we’ve got an understanding of the real reasons people spread ideas, let’s talk about what kinds of ideas they share the most.
Uncomplicated language is contagious
Readability tests are designed to measure the reading grade level required to understand a specific piece of content. The higher the score, the more complex the language is. The most popular readability test is called the Flesch-Kincaid test and is built into Microsoft Word.
While studying Facebook sharing, I gathered a database of stories published in a variety of popular news sources, including geeky places, like Mashable and TechCrunch, and mainstream outlets, such as CNN and The New York Times. I measured how readable each story was and how many times it was shared on Facebook. I found an inverse correlation between the complexity of the articles and the number of times they were shared. As stories became more challenging to read, they were posted to Facebook less often.
I also explored the parts of speech in the titles of those same articles. I determined that the use of flowery, adverb- and adjective-laden language was related to lower sharing rates. As Strunk and White told us decades ago in their book, Elements of Style:
“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place… it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.”
The most and least retweetable words
Perhaps my favorite data set is my giant MySQL table of 100 million retweets. A while ago, I pulled out of that table a list of the most “retweetable” words and phrases. I found twenty words that occurred more often in retweets than they did in non-contagious tweets. I also pulled out the least retweetable words, or what I call “viral kryptonite.”
I’ve presented these lists at events probably a hundred times, and at nearly every event, someone will come up to me afterwards with his phone out and show me how cleverly he smooshed all the words together to make the world’s most (or least) retweetable tweet. It is invariably meaningless. The funny part is that when I tell the person to check his mentions, he often finds that he has actually gotten retweeted.
The list of the most retweetable words is topped by the word “you.” People don’t want to hear about you; they want to hear you talk about them. Tweets that tell people how they can do things and learn things do very well. The list also contains phrases like “how to” and “top 10.” These phrases indicate that the content they point to is broken up into manageable chunks rather than being huge blocks of intimidating text.
The best phrase on the list, however, is “please retweet.” You should see the unicorn folks freak out about this one. They tell me that it sounds too desperate, demanding, and downright wrong. But it works. Try it out right now. Irving Kirsch, a researcher at the University of Connecticut backed me up in a recent experiment. He gave some subjects hypnotic instructions to mail thirty postcards, once a day. And just nicely asked another group to do so. “Please mail these.” The second group complied with the request more often. Social requests are just as powerful as full-on hypnotic trances.
On the flip side of the coin are the least retweetable words. Drivel like “tired,” “bored,” “watching,” and “game.” Words that indicate people narrating particularly boring parts of their lives. Of course I’m not going to retweet those.
The most and least shareable words
To come up with similar lists for Facebook, I looked at words in articles shared on Facebook and found the words that correlated most strongly with those articles being shared more often or less often. There are some significant differences between these lists and the Twitter word lists because the Facebook audience is a much more mainstream one.
The list of most shareable words is headed by the word “Facebook.” Yep, Facebookers love talking about Facebook. The rest of the list was mostly stuff you’d hear on the nightly news. Political words and phrases like “Obama” and “health care.” Most interesting, the words “why” and “how” do very well. Online, people want to get deeper into stories than they can with the thirty-second sound bite they heard on TV.
The list of least shareable words is full of social media dork words. Stuff like “apps,” “social,” and “Twitter.” Everyone is on Facebook. Both your mom and your college roommate are, and most Facebook users aren’t into every bleeding-edge new media website like you are.
This is an excerpt from Dan Zarrella’s latest book, to read it in it’s entirety, buyZarrella’sHierarchyofContagiousnessonAmazon. It’s less than $10 for the Kindle version (which will work on any computer or device).