By David Benady

The huge success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge charity fundraiser underscores how weak most advertisers have been at creating shareable online content. Brands have largely struggled to discover the secrets of social media sharing.

According to findings from UM’s latest Wave survey, “The Language of Content”, this is in part because brands fail to understand the difference between creating content people like and content they want to share.

Wave’s survey of 50,000 people in 65 countries found that individuals want to share content to build their social status and enhance their online reputation – not, as many brands or agencies would have you believe, because they like the creative output.

As the report author and head of IPG Mediabrands Marketing Sciences G14, Glen Parker, says: “The value of content to people is how it helps them manage their online persona and online reputation. When we share content online, it is not just purely functional – we are emotionally connected to it, we are really looking for a response. We love it when someone comments on it, we hate it when it is ignored.”

The research shows the importance of this online validation, with 42 per cent of UK respondents saying they are happy when content they share receives comments. Parker adds that people will often delete content they share if it fails to attract any comments in order to protect their online image.

“In the UK, sharing something new clearly brings its own kudos,” he says. “Rather than trying to compete with the multibillion-pound budgets of the entertainment industry, brands should look to provide content that can help consumers put their own slant on a topic or trend.”

What people want

The survey shows that entertaining and fun content is best for making a brand seem desirable, while content that teaches consumers about the brand is best for encouraging trial. Parker says that Wave identifies five fundamental needs people are trying to meet online: learning, relationship-building, diversion, progression and recognition.

Meanwhile, Scott Holmes, the head of content division at UM Studios, points to work the agency did with Statoil, where they set up a LinkedIn group for energy stakeholders and posted content that triggered discussions. “The content is the excuse to get people talking,” he says. “Brands that think of the content as an end in itself tend to fall down.”

This is the eighth year of the annual Wave research, which examines the impact of social media. The survey highlights an interesting paradox, as people desire greater social fame and, at the same time, become increasingly concerned about their online privacy. Thirty-seven per cent of UK 16- to 24-year-olds admit that they would “love to become famous online”.

The study also confirms what many other consumption and adspend trends have pointed to: 2014 was a key year for smartphones. They have had the highest penetration of any communications device, with 84 per cent of respondents saying that they own one – a total that has nearly doubled in two years.

The number of people saying that smartphones are good for making purchases has risen to 43 per cent from 31 per cent last year. Tablets have achieved 52 per cent penetration but are outstripped by the “gravitational pull” of smartphones in terms of creating and sharing content.