Why counting content shares doesn’t add up

Research suggests that publishers vastly underestimate where users are sharing their content – is it time for a drastic rethink?

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Many moons ago, I did an internship for a sports blogging network.

The format was not overly sophisticated. After a day of meet and greet in a dingy London conference room we were all jettisoned back to our various hometowns for a six-week course of content generation. We were tasked with creating three articles per day until our desire for such output waned and we found other jobs.

Part of the project was a weekly self-assessment document, in which we detailed how each piece – usually written over lunch at a call centre – had performed.

From there a league table of sorts was drawn up.

However, what was unusual about the report was the emphasis on the number of shares.

In 2019, there are an array of more nuanced analytics that feature in the lexicon of those tasked with analysing content performance. But in print-prominent 2011, all anyone wanted to talk about was whether or not a piece had attracted half a dozen shares.

Little else seemed to matter.

The Dark Social Rises

In many ways, the discussion around shares – from quality to context – has barely moved in the intervening seven years.

It was perhaps then no great surprise when The Drum released a study late in late 2017, claiming that as many as 87% of content shares go untracked. Essentially, publishers are struggling with the rise of WhatsApp as a medium for sharing content and, in the office environment, the renaissance of email as a social tool.

Analytics software often fails to pick up on these ‘dark’ social shares and as such a nuanced discussion around user journey, habits in the workplace and intelligent conversion goals has never really been had.

This loss of data is far bigger for mainstream B2C publishers, without question, but perhaps more tangibly significant for the B2B titles still hamstrung by arbitrary discussions around sharing.

Even if the 87% number proves a fair way smaller for B2B publications, any shortfall at all leaves a set of social metrics ripe for contamination.

Don’t be afraid of the dark

Let’s consider the case of a magazine catering, say, to washing machine manufacturers.

When publishing a particularly important piece from that month’s magazine, a member of the sales team sends an email to all staff asking that they share the piece on their social media platforms.

Most in the office do so without even clicking on the piece, and those that do so end up posting on their personal Facebook and Twitter feeds – away from relevant eyeballs.

The piece struggles to attract more than 100 page views, yet the total share count is a disproportionate 25. In that sort of example, it’s not hard to recognise how share numbers became disproportionately feted.

A better metric, perhaps, is a KPI based on the number of users coming to your property from a prescribed number of social and traditional referral sources.

If nothing else, a fresh number – one that is far more difficult to misrepresent – would push staff responsible for content amplification into a proper audit of what is and isn’t worthy of their limited time.

Has Twitter become such a cesspit of rancour and recrimination that the exposure associated with the ailing network is no longer worth the risk?

Is LinkedIn truly a higher quality share platform with constructive discussion held in an antagonism-free environment? Or is it actually a place that holds limited interest to anyone under the age of 35?

Simultaneously, can Instagram – shorn of any facility to store web links in posts – be seen as a time-effective tool for B2B traffic acquisition?

The truth is, almost unhelpfully, that there is no templated answer to each of these questions. If the uncertainty around ‘dark social’ has shone a light on anything, it is the need to have a more nuanced strategy and understanding for who your audience is and how you expect your content to reach them.

Cameron Sharpe, Head of Insight, Progressive Content