Condition Readers To Share Your Content

Everyone knows the story of Pavlov’s dog.  A summary for those who slept through 7th grade science class:

The original and most famous example of classical conditioning involved the salivary conditioning of Pavlov’s dogs. During his research on the physiology of digestion in dogs, Pavlov noticed that, rather than simply salivating in the presence of meat powder (an innate response to food that he called the unconditioned response), the dogs began to salivate in the presence of the lab technician who normally fed them. From this observation he predicted that, if a particular stimulus in the dog’s surroundings were present when the dog was presented with meat powder, then this stimulus would become associated with food and cause salivation on its own. In his initial experiment, Pavlov used a metronome to call the dogs to their food and, after a few repetitions, the dogs started to salivate in response to the metronome. Thus, a neutral stimulus (metronome) became a conditioned stimulus (CS) as a result of consistent pairing with the unconditioned stimulus (US – meat powder in this example). Pavlov referred to this learned relationship as a conditional reflex (now called Conditioned Response).

Paralleling this to web publishing – if you become known for a high degree of signal for a long enough period of time, the mere act of publishing content will be enough for people to automatically share it.  Now, your readers are hardly dogs – but Pavlovian reactions, or conditioned responses are a powerful force that we humans are just as susceptible to as dogs.  It’s why popular things get more popular, people can’t help but share them.

The unconditioned response of subscribers is when you publish, they’ll read your content.  In other words, it’s natural after people subscribe to a site that they read content in RSS or click through to read it on the page – that’s why they subscribed.  But, merely reading is not enough if you want to grow.  You need to develop a conditioned response in users to share what you’re doing with their personal networks.

This is becoming even more important for growth in seemingly saturated markets.  I’ll show you a quick example why – Matt at Snarkmarket has reached the point many other RSS users have reached (hat tip to Noah for pointing this out):

I’ve reached the terrible moment. Google Reader has long since stopped telling me how many unread items I have, opting instead for the euphemistic “1000+”. I’ve dumped all the folders I’m willing to dump. I am unwilling to declare bankruptcy, but I don’t know how long I can stave off my attention creditors.

Here’s what I’ve come to realize about myself: I fully accept that there’s not a particular link in that ridiculous heap that will change my life. It’s been a while since I worried about missing a single killer post or app or XKCD or whatever; if it’s valuable enough, it’ll find me, I got it.

Matt should read my post on the fact that there’s no reason to feel overwhelmed.  But he has a point, and it’s this:  there is a bloat of content among us and the truth is many users, instead of cleaning out their feeds, will entrust the discovery of what they consume to the wisdom of their peers and/or the crowds.  And, as more people do this, the value in having an audience motivated to share, link and bookmark your stuff goes up beyond merely having piles of passive RSS readers.

Back to the example of Pavlov, your goal should be to condition subscribers to share your content as a natural response to your publishing.

It’s a simple formula getting there:  only publish that which your core readers are interested in sharing. Do this long enough and people will become conditioned to share what you post as an automatic reaction.

Sites I observe that people are conditioned to share first, consume second:

XKCD (Webcomic)

Seth Godin (Marketing blogger)

Yahtzee at Escapist Magazine (Video blogger)

Smashing Magazine (Design blog)

Their content is all strong, but what’s even more interesting with these examples in particular is the fact that people race to share the material before they’ve even finished reading/viewing it (it is a normal occurrence to see Tweets that say “reading Seth Godin’s new post, check it out here” or witness the weekly race to submit Yahtzee/XKCD to Digg merely because it’s new).  In these cases (and others) audiences share their content automatically, thus helping build new audiences and cutting through the noise of 1,000+ items in an RSS reader.

All of these sites update regularly, (XKCD every Monday, Wednesday and Friday; Yahtzee on Wednesday; Seth Godin daily; Smashing Magazine nearly every day) but perhaps even more important than publishing on a timed schedule, is the signal to noise ratio on their sites.  For their core fans/subscribers – the ones who actively share the material – everything they publish is signal.  People share their stuff because they know that what the quality of the content will be even before clicking it.  They also deliver what they know their fans want, meeting that expectation again and again.

The web has fostered and encouraged a culture of sharing, and by consistently creating material that taps into the reasons why we share content, your readers will become conditioned to share what you create.  There are so many social bookmarking services and even more users actively looking for steady streams of good content they can share to grow their own strength on those sites.  You already have the right readers to tap into this today, it’s a safe bet those 11% of users who are fluent in RSS are the same people who make up the top 10% of the participation inequality pyramid.

This is not a manipulative strategy either, it is simply the natural result of consistently delivering on a successful formula.

Related posts from The Future Buzz

The 48 Laws Of Power Applied To Blogging

Case Study – Escapist Magazine / Zero Punctuation: Building Popularity By Teaming Up With An Exceptional Content Creator

Make Every Communication Significant

Related posts from around the web

Are You Using the Right Content Development Strategy for Your Website? (Dosh Dosh)

How to Write with Authority for a Loyalty-Starved Market (Copyblogger)

Is There Such a Thing as a Saturated Niche? (Daily Blog Tips)