Something to share? Ways to approach “sociable” content

Posted on 03/04/2013


Two cats fighting over food

Whether you’re an artist, marketer, musician or scientist, if you want to raise your profile you can do it by sharing online. This happens in one of three ways: you share it yourself, you pay someone to do it, or people willingly do this for you.

The third option is by far the most sought-after and, unsurprisingly, the most difficult. What you want them to share is probably not what most people want to send to their friends (“drink Coca Cola” being a pretty obvious example). Somehow, you have to create something they’ll enjoy & derive enough benefit from to pass on.

Which is why I’ve put together ideas on how to approach sociable content.

Why not viral?

This is not about virals. Well, sort of: they’re the same thing but I prefer to use the term “sociable content”. Something which spreads its way through a population simply on its own awesomeness. To me “viral” is a description and not a thing. Until you’ve hit 1 million or more views in a week, you can really call your work viral. It’s like an honorary title: something that’s earned and not automatic.

Viral is also unfair on the people who give it that status (the “sharers”). It assumes that, like a virus, the people transferring it are mere vessels, manipulated by the virus to duplicate and spread its viral goodness. Far from it – viewers and spreaders are far more involved in the spreading process, shaping, contextualizing and even reproducing the content in their own way (see the three Harlem Shake Videos below. Would this have been anywhere near as popular if people hadn’t remixed it)?

Washing Machine Shake

St Catz College Oxford

Norwegian Army Harlem Shake

When people can put their stamp on something, whether through a snarky comment, a mashup or a full on remake then it’s something people can own a part of. With viruses, the host cell merely passes the viral information on. With sociable content, people shape the progression and transmission of the content.

I digress with good reason: there’s more to sociable content than a catchy song/ stunning video. So onto the useful stuff:

How can we make content more sociable?

There really is no silver bullet (sigh), but these three approaches can help. By looking at what makes information sociable, by understanding what people do with it and by understanding what driver people to share, you’ll get better at coming up with sociable ideas. And the more ideas you try, the more you learn and (yep) the more you’ll succeed.

  1. Social Mania card game (by Erin Malone & Christian Crumlish)
  2. Comments Blitz Challenge (my own)
  3. Sociable checklist (“curated” from multiple sources)

Suggestion 1: the Social Mania card game

A great way to practice making social ideas.

card-shuffle gif

The Social Mania card game encourages players to toy with the elements of a great social idea and discover what make something entertaining, and not just a gimmick. For the full rules, take a look at the Designing Social Interfaces website, but here’s the gist.

It works a bit like Rummy, the card game. In teams of 3-5, the aim is to swap cards with other players until you have a winning social product (aka a complete set of cards). The aim is build as many high scoring social products as possible. You do this by matching a “family” of features, with the right audience, channel and initiative (the creators call these the demographic, delivery and object, but they’re essentially the same things).

Over a few rounds you’ll get a feel for the different elements and what goes well together. The aim is to build the best social product you can with the cards available so you’ll soon work out when you’ve overloaded an idea with features, and the right “object” for a chosen audience.

Suggestion 2: the Comment Blitz Challenge

A way to check you’re actually starting and extending conversations.

What can I say, add or change about this sociable idea?

Plastic ideas work best. The reason mashups, parodies and memes are so popular is they can be endlessly tweaked and added to, extending their life well beyond their first appearance. If the idea’s particularly malleable, it will allow people to express themselves (e.g. London lies for tourists, or the unintentional #safetyadviceforgirls). But if there’s nothing interesting to say or add, your idea will be stuck like an awkward party guest, only able to talk about themselves. If you can’t follow the conversation, you won’t be a part of the conversation.

The next time someone chips in with “let’s just add a share button”, force them to prove the sociability of the idea first, by playing the Comment Blitz Challenge:


  • one shared computer/ screen
  • each person takes a turn on the computer
  • you have 15 seconds to type a) who you’d share it with b) where/ how (which network) c) what you would write in your post, status update or tweet

The game lasts for three minutes by which point you should have at least 12 diverse, possibly funny, comments and shares.

Now review the comments. You’re looking for as many branches/angles that can be talked about (not just “hey, look, this is cool”). If the comments all look the same, the idea’s not good enough in the first place.

Finally, have a vote amongst the team. Do most people still feel the content is worth sharing? If it is, go for it. If not, stop bothering – good idea aren’t static, and if it can spark off multiple conversations now, it never will.

Suggestion 3: the social checklist

You don’t want to spend ages making something that nobody will use.

Faced with a creating a social product that people will enjoy, here are the 5 steps I run through to make sure I’ve considered every angle:

  1. What’s good about it?
  2. Why would anyone share this?
  3. Is it part of something bigger?
  4. If I share this how will it make me look?

1) What’s good about it?
(Largely inspired by chats with Rubber Republic and their TubeRank site)
Like advertising, any sociable idea has a USP. “Quite humorous” is not going to cut it- it has to be “extremely…”:

  • funny
  • cute
  • impressive
  • shocking
  • culturally referenced

You’ll instinctively know if it’s one of these. If it is, you know you’re onto a good idea. If not, don’t give up hope yet- you’ll just have to tick all the rest of the boxes.

2) Why would anyone share this?

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who will watch/read/interact with this. Now be honest: can you actually find an emotional argument for why you’d go to the effort of sharing this?

I’m obsessed with cats so I will share this cat video with all my friends” is plausible, but doesn’t really suggest that anyone beyond cat obsessives will pay attention.

Do you really want to such limited “sociability”? If you’re after truly sociable content, you’ll need more of an emotional spark. Aim for a deeper response, not something mindlessly affiliated.

3) Is this part of a bigger picture?
We might all be under the pretence that we’re individuals, but deep down we’re herd animals. We seek social opportunities and we strive to be part of a larger group/friendship circle.

If your idea is inherently sociable, it will have a group element to it. Even better, it will become a badge of identity to it- something people can use to express themselves but also show that they belong to a larger group.

I’m talking in vague terms here, so here are a few example to show what I mean:


Being a part of a bigger idea is a powerful social motivator. Don’t leave it out of yours.

4) If I share this, how will it make me look?
As I mentioned in my last post, people are aware that sharing is a way of curating their online identity (in the same way people buy certain clothes to look a certain way). Will they look good? Or funny? Or smart? As Callie Schweitzer puts it:

” Sharing used to be an exchange; now it’s a declaration”

Of course, what you’re sharing needs to add something to the wider conversation, but it should be one you want to be associated with. You might love Twilight, but if admitting this jars with your metalhead identity then you’re not going to share it. Who’d want to be associated with a mediocre joke or out-of-date news? This is always my last consideration before sharing anything: will my friends be interested in it? If not, it’d just make me look stupid. No one wants to look stupid by accident.

Last lines

There you have it. None of these approaches are scientific, but I see that as a good thing. Communication is half art and half science, but when it comes to “sociable”content, it’s the art that really counts. Anything else to add? Drop a note below.