How to spot a drowning child and other sharing secrets

surf life savingShare Wars is poised to run another data collection period, a year after our first one bore fruit in the form of gigabytes of data.

The data collection comprises scraping the homepages of scores of news sites around the world, cataloguing the stories and asking social network APIs how those stories are sharing every few minutes.

The first collection period gave us insights such as our discovery that most sharing of new stories does not occur around warm fuzzy subjects (heartwarming and awe-inspiring stuff) but around interest-group material (gay rights, parenting, zombies). We assumed in looking at much of this interest-group material that the sharing of the story was less a transmission of information and more a statement of group identity. We called it “norming“.

A standout sharer from last month demonstrates the power of the intersection between genuinely useful information and one large interest group.

On June 4, Slate published a story titled “Drowning doesn’t look like drowning“. Sublime headline, it is both simple, understandable and unusual at the same time. The article is similarly focussed. Written by a former Coast Guard, the piece talks about how a drowning person looks while they drown. That is, not at all like they look on television, with no noise, little splashing, and within 60 seconds.

The article is surprising, contains useful information and is emotionally arousing. We know that the last element here, arousal, is often the attribute that seals the deal in terms of people hitting the share button on a story or cutting and pasting it into an email. Stories can be interesting, topical and go unshared if they leave the audience in a funk or pleasantly content. You need to get the blood moving.

Why is this material in “Drowning” so emotionally potent? Because half of children who drown do so within 25 metres of their parents. Because these tragedies happen silently. Because every parent lives in fear that one day it will happen to them.

Millions of people read the article and a fair percentage of them engaged in sharing behaviour. The numbers are phenomenal, with a total sharecount of 685,000 according to the Facebook API. The piece was actually a reprint of an article on the Coast Guard Mario Vittone’s blog, which was equally well shared.

That puts this story in the stratosphere of our sharing planet – this is one of the most shared stories of all time. The average (mean) share count for a published story in our first data collection period was 110 shares. The Slate reprint was syndicated, paraphrased and copied around the world.

As well as demonstrating the power of utility + interest group + arousal, the article is an interesting model for social-era content distribution. It went from an obscure blog to mainstream digital publisher to social media, then was syndicated widely in other traditional digital media and emulated by a host of outlets, professional and amateur, hungry for content that hits the spot.

How would you replicate the success of “Drowning”? Look for material that is topical – Northern hemisphere summer means more children swimming – pertinent to a big interest group, useful and emotionally provocative. Then make sure that something in the piece is counterintuitive.

For example, in an Australian context: something relevant to the election (topical), useful to pet owners (utiliarian, interest group), about the destruction of animals (emotional),  by welfare groups (counterintuitive). There are any number of other possible combinations, but it doesn’t hurt to have a line of inquiry. That’s my editorial brief for the day.

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Hal Crawford

About Hal Crawford

Hal Crawford is ninemsn's Editor-in-Chief. He began his career at The West Australian newspaper and has taught journalism at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Twitter: @halcrawford

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