Share Wars

In the latest in our series of blog posts by CommsDirect speakers, Hal Crawford – editor-in-chief of ninemsn and co-founder of Share Wars– about the conception of Share Wars.

We started a project in 2011 to collect the world’s news and see what kind of stories do well on social networks and what bombs. That project is called Share Wars.

We have mountains of data. We collected 1.3 million articles from 118 news sources in the first three months alone. The project sits apart from ninemsn but informs my thoughts and actions as a news editor daily.

I’ve learned a lot. Never before have I had the opportunity to sit down with stories and study them like beetles under glass. When you have collected more than a million stories and you filter out everything but the most shared, what you are left with is a narrative residue so potent it has the power to suck you in for days at a time.

On the other hand, you also learn about what doesn’t have any pull on social media. All those stories sitting on zero shares, hundreds of thousands of them, unloved and unnoticed. We ran a simple analysis of headlines and found the most unshareable words in journalism. For Australian publishers these included such horrors as: “case”, “stocks”, “China”, “shares”, “plan” and “report”. I can feel their dullness leaching into the page. Coming out of the data is a bunch of other things we can say for sure about the types of stories that get shared a lot. Some of it is surprising. Here’s my advice:

Don’t use sex.

Sexual content doesn’t fly on social networks. We found that less than 2 percent of top shared stories contain sex, and even within those stories sex wasn’t the primary focus. The most ribald of the top shared stories in our collection period was a German guy who called the cops to save him from an actual sex maniac. “She is trying to kill me with sex” was the quote. I love that quote. The story got shared because it’s a “reverse”: the accepted wisdom is that men want sex, and women are their targets. But not that day in Munich. That story was the exception. In 99 cases out of 100, people don’t want to associate smut with their personal brand.

Dogs work better than cats.

With all the hoopla about cats on the internet, most people refuse to believe this. But the numbers don’t lie. Dogs appear in twice as many headlines as cats overall, and are twice as shareable. Cats are nice, but dogs run deeper.

Politics can work.

It’s a given that political stories are boring. Just like cats, that’s wrong. Yes, most politics yarns sink without social trace, but if you hit on something political that actually has life impact, people share it. Reports on in-fighting and speculation don’t work. Your guide here is that something should have happened, actually physically happened, or a decision should have been made. When you come to think about it, that’s a great approach to news in general.

It’s not all about sharing.

Weirdly, the majority of the articles we find in the top sharing lists are not “classic sharers” like awe-inspiring scientific discoveries and tear-jerking soldier reunions. Most are articles where people pass judgment on others or reinforce identity around interest group topics. We had to invent a classification system just to deal with this huge part of the sharing landscape.

It is all about new information.

People are not interested in things they already know. It may be absurdly simple, but there it is. As publishers we are involved in an arms race, not with each other, but between our powers of invention and the infinitely plastic mind of the audience. People are insatiable consumers of information, and only a break in established patterns constitutes information. If you want to delight your audience, you need to surprise them – that’s as true in news as it is in marketing.

Hal Crawford
Hal Crawford is ninemsn’s Editor-in-Chief. He is a print and digital veteran who began his career at The West Australian newspaper. Hal has also taught journalism at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
Hal will be speaking at CommsDirect on August 7 on the “Going Direct” panel.
Tickets are just $395 for those working in media or the not-for-profit sector and $495 for corporate: $100 off the regular price!