Using ShareThis to Mobilize Conversations

One of the defining characteristics of Web 2.0 (and man, do I ever hate that phrase) is the new way in which conversations are taking place across the world wide webbleness.  It’s not just a case of giving people the chance to make simple comments on a blog now - these days a blog might end up on Digg or Slashdot or shared on Facebook, and entirely new conversations can take place based on your content, but not in your venue.  Universities across the country are finding new ways to inspire these conversations lately: Facebook pages, YouTube accounts, student blogs, etc.  The only real way to track their impact though is to find a way to quantify their existence.  This might be easy with some tools (tracking Facebook fans), but harder with others (who’s Stumbling a press release).  The goal is that we should strive to give visitors the tools to facilitate their conversations wherever they want them to take place.  Part of successful web development and marketing is understanding that you need to cede a certain amount of control, and instead just watch the viral aspect take affect.  A tool perfect in this regard is ShareThis.

ShareThis Popup Box

Many of you are probably familiar with ShareThis from its widespread use as a tool for blogs.  We are even using it right here on .eduGuru, you can see the button at the bottom of this blog post (and if you’re just discovering it, feel free to test out its usefulness. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge).  But, what many people aren’t taking advantage of is its ability to work in so many different areas.  Using our school’s site as an example, ShareThis has been implemented through three distinct areas so far, none of which are blogs (though that will happen as well soon): calendar postings, press releases, and constituent stories.  We’re also planning to extend its use into the athletics site as well.  Our hope is to get away from this idea that “user X only wants to share blogs.”  Personally, I’d like to see tools such as this deployed widely.  Don’t try to predict how users want to share you content.  And never, ever, buy into the idea that tools like this are either meant or good for one thing and one thing only.  Good web developers look for ways to take a tool and find the opportunity in it.

The reason I like ShareThis is that it has such a simple, clean, useful reporting dashboard.  You can see how many people saw a given page (similar to normal analytics), you can tell how people are sharing, where it’s shared at, and even if they are simply using it to e-mail the article.   The ShareThis plugin gives you the ability to empower users to take a conversation to any of the top social networking and sharing sites, but without you needing to try to predict or restrict which ones (though you do have the option to create a list a la carte).  ShareThis automatically can populate the list from all the most popular sites, allowing you to enable easy user broadcasting.  From there, you can begin to follow just where and how it’s being used.  In our case, we see things getting shared on Facebook frequently, but also Reddit, Digg, Blinklist, and others.

Usage Pie Chart

Let’s take this chart from our reporting dashboard, for instance.  It allows me to quickly see the most popular uses of our content across eight different utilities (in this case), or even export it to be reused with other data in a spreadsheet.  Have you ever wondered if e-mail is dead?  Using these reports, we are able to see that while Facebook  manages to get the most referrals of all the sites, sharing via plain old e-mail stomped down other uses with about 68% of the users.  Easy quantification.  This can be very valuable information if you were considering planning a campaign over one site versus another.  Or perhaps you see that Facebook penetration is strong, making it a likely target for easy expansion with some marketing in that area.

Value.  That’s what ShareThis has.  Making a tool like this yourself is little more than child’s play with a few lines of jQuery, but you don’t get the kind of tracking and data that ShareThis is able to return to you (at least not without way more work than it would take to slap the button on your site).  Forget for a moment where people are even passing your content to.  The medium is less important than the fact that you can easily quantify the fact that people ARE sharing information, and finding value enough in what you are producing to take it to their favorite venues.  Tastes will change.  This year’s Plurk could be next year’s Facebook.  Your real goal is simple, basic, easy to measure penetration.  You’ll find out how many people are sharing, and what ratio that is to people just viewing, which can enable you to start goal setting for a social media campaign.

It’s important to remember that tools like ShareThis aren’t going to make people read or share your content.  You still need to be in the business of writing compelling, engaging stuff.  That’s a whole different ball game, and if you see that the sharing ratio is low as a snake’s belly, you can begin to identify and diagnose a problem like that.  I would also not recommend slapping ShareThis on every page of your site.  This is why we focused on the people areas.  Events, news, and stories tend to always involve people of the university in one way or another.  A biology course syllabus?  Not so much.  If you run it universally, you’ll run the risk of desensitizing your audience to its presence.  By selecting specific areas, you reinforce its value.  It’s your way of saying “Hey, this is the kind of stuff you might want to show other people.”

Here’s an assignment I will leave you with.  It is shameless, and I have no problems admitting it.  Look a few lines below this at the green ShareThis button.  Click it.  Take a look at the options it provides - the e-mail, posting, and sharing functionality.  Choose one and share this, see how it works.  Then come up with a way that you could implement it on your site and post a comment with your thoughts below.

7 Responses to “Using ShareThis to Mobilize Conversations”

  1. Says:

    We tried ShareThis for a short time but the email feature was never getting through to our campus mail system. Possibly labeled as spam. Since then we have been using AddThis with virtually the same functionality. It hasn’t really caught on yet. The widget is added to ever “news item” page in our CMS. I have also added a little description of what social bookmarking/sharing is. Maybe in the next CMS newsletter we send out to our campus we can explain it again. Any ideas on how to educate the campus about this ability or is it a waste of time if people aren’t ready?

    • Says:

      Let me offer this advice:
      First, check the analytics on your news items. It might not be the tool that’s not compelling, but rather the content it’s attached to. If you’re satisfied with page stats, try doing a press release simply about the functionality and why it is in your news. I would include a little video a la the Twitter in Plain English video ( that shows very quickly how to use it. I’d recommend one, but there doesn’t happen to be one readily surfacing in a quick search of YouTube.

      You might also check the placement. We place ours right at the top right corner of the article, so that it falls in that traditional “F” space that people tend to scan. Quite frequently people will put it somewhere like the bottom right corner, but in those cases it can get lost below the fold and be missed by scanners.

      • Says:

        So you bring up an interesting point here Fienen… should we put the ShareThis button in the top right on this site?

      • Says:

        It’s not a terrible idea. It used to be that we used the upper right for article imagery on the old layout, but now we’re not doing that, so that space is open.

  2. Says:

    Is the ShareThis widget considered accessible (will it pass S508 or WAI)?

  3. Says:

    yeah I am using addthis. tried sharethis but had some probs. i’ve also integrated as I love it from a design point of view.

  4. Says:

    This great tool is very important in today’s scenario where information is so huge and most of time it is available on different sources. All of the people can not reach on all the sources this is main reason people are sharing information via different medium and trust me medium doesn’t matter at all the point is that people are sharing.

    Please let me know from where I can download this plug in to install it on my blog that currently doesn’t have any feature of this kind. Let me also give some benefits for my users.