By Alex Brownsell, London

Brands are failing to understand the reasons why consumers view and share online content, meaning they are missing opportunities to build vital relationships with new customers, according to new research.

UM’s Wave 8 report, entitled ‘The Language of Content’, is the agency’s eighth annual study tracking global social media trends, with 50,000 people surveyed in 65 countries across the world.

This year’s report explores the motivations behind users’ increasing consumption and sharing of content, and how brands can join the conversation.

It revealed that consumers are using content to construct an idealised online version of themselves, meaning brands must move away from simply creating something “fun” or “entertaining”, and help consumers to share a point of view.

Content ‘buzzword’

Thanks largely the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, more content is being viewed and shared with each passing month. The phenomenon crosses generations, too: while those aged 25 to 34 years old were most likely to share something they had seen on TV, some 68% of over-45s globally share a photo or video at least once a month.

The author of the report, Glen Parker, head of IPG Mediabrands Marketing Sciences G14, told M&M Global he was motivated to discover the truth behind the rising tide of online content sharing.

“Everyone thinks they should be producing content, because everyone else is. It’s become a buzzword, much in the way social media has been,” says Parker. “Content has become a natural part of our language, and the way we communicate with one another.”

“But rather than think about what content people like and share, we tried to understand what their motivation is and what drives that behaviour.”

Generation narcissist

One of the primary drivers of this sharing frenzy, claims Parker, is a narcissistic desire for online recognition, especially among the young. Nearly half (45%) of all global respondents agree that they share more photos of themselves online than they do of other people, while 45% of 16 to 24 year-olds say they would “love to be famous online”.

The allure of celebrity clashes directly with a growing concern around data privacy. The number of active internet users worried by the amount of personal data online this year reached 69%, up from 67% in 2013 and 61% five years ago. Strangely, 47% of those who want to remain anonymous also agree they would like to be famous online.

“We’re all narcissistic, to be honest. The difference is the ability to be narcissistic, and express those things we probably always wanted to express as a 16-year-old,” says Parker. “[Young people’s] relationship with online has fundamentally changed their ability to do those things.”

Parker believes the younger generation can gain “huge personal benefits” from online recognition, and that content plays a key role in forging that digital reputation: “It’s not what the content says to us; it’s what the content we share says about us.

“When we think about our online personas being the best possible view of who we can be, the motivation behind us trying to create that persona is real. If someone wants to look like they have lots of friends, it’s because that have underlying needs. We are more mature, more studied and even professional in the way we use social media to meet our goals in life.”

Ice bucket success

The report recommends a number of ways advertisers can use this understanding of content sharing impulses to drive engagement with their brands. On a basic level, it suggests that entertaining content is best for making a brand seem desirable, while more educationally-minded content, which tries to teach consumers about the brand, is best for encouraging a trial.

Luxury consumers want to see inspiring content from their brands, according to the report, while in the FMCG category practical content is most highly valued. A quarter of consumers want video games brands to share content which sets them challenge; top company executives, meanwhile, seek content to help them explore their passions.

Parker cites the tremendous success of the ALS ‘ice bucket challenge’ as an example of engaging content which also achieves the crucial marker of allowing consumers to both promote themselves and shape their online reputation.

“If you think about the ice bucket challenge, it’s about promoting a charity, but everyone who does a video is actually promoting themselves. Here’s me helping out a charity, being fun, dynamic and inspiring. Consumers not only want to help; they want the recognition that they are helping,” says Parker.

Brands’ traditional online content model – by launching a raft of content on sites such as YouTube and Facebook, and promoting it with a 30-second TV ad – fails to take into account the reasons why a consumer would want to share with their peers.

“Content is part of the conversation – the challenge for us it how we get brands’ content to be part of that conversation. It’s not by saying, ‘Here’s our challenge, driving a new car across Africa, here’s 20 seconds of the footage on a TV ad, now see the rest of Facebook.’ That’s the antithesis of the opportunity,” he says.

“What is more interesting is when you create content which not only entertains consumers, but also allows them to share a point of view. They then become much more emotionally involved.

Emotional investment

It has long been assumed that content which is consumed and content which is shared enjoys equal status in consumers’ eyes, but the report suggests this is not the case. Only 11% of respondents consider “something that expresses their point of view” as valuable content, but twice as many say they would share this content with other people.

“When we share something, we become emotionally invested in it. It says something about us, so has so much more value to us, and the brand involved gets a much a bigger benefit,” says Parker.

In the brand-consumer relationship, sharing means caring. Brands must identify why a consumer would want to share their content, and what it would say about that consumer’s identity, rather than expecting them to simply approve of content based on production values or marketing budgets. Get that right, and the rewards could be significant.