Recently the New York Times got a lot of “oohs” and “aahs” for its development of… ::drumroll please::… Facebook sharing. Really.

Okay, it’s a little more nuanced than that. People like sharing articles, and paying readers tend to share more. But the Times has a paywall, stymying subscribers’ efforts to flaunt their moral and intellectual superiority as a relentless supporter of essential journalism.

Rather than say, “Good. Those shares will drive new readers against the meter and lead to more subscription messaging,” the Times built a new tool to “gift” articles. Gifting gives the subscriber a link that pulls that article in front of the paywall, and it can be sent to an unlimited number of people, and read an unlimited number of times.

Why would they do this? Aren’t they cannibalizing potential subscriptions?

Absolutely not. What the Times has figured out is that readers are its best evangelists, and gifting — like all sharing — facilitates targeted, highly effective distribution. One person posts an article with a genuine reaction to their Facebook feed, and it now has exposure to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who trust and engage with that person.

Anyone could already share a Times article, but recipients hitting a paywall isn’t the best user experience. The Times is betting that that piece of content organically referred by that person is going to be more relevant and persuasive to that individual than any marketing effort would be. By ensuring a good experience, they think they’re more likely to snag a subscription in the long-term. And we think they’re right.

This is one of the benefits of encouraging readers to share your content. Their credibility and legitimacy within their personal networks pass on to your publication, and they’re targeting a network of like-minded people who might otherwise be inaccessible to you.

Another benefit is algorithmic: Facebook prioritizes individuals’ posts over the posts of business pages. In the end, that link is going to go deeper into a reader’s network, be better targeted, and carry more weight. It’s organic growth gold; and doesn’t cost you one cent or require a ton of ongoing effort..

So what can you do to encourage people to share? Great question!

  • Make sure you have share buttons for the right platforms immediately visible — Facebook and Twitter are musts. Are LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit and G+?
  • Test new positions and designs of your share buttons. Consider moving (or repeating) them at the bottom of the post, so a reader is reminded to share when they finish reading.
  • Try active callouts in your posts to share articles. “If you think XYZ is important, help spread the word by sharing it on Facebook or Twitter…”.
  • Explore plugins to create shareable pull quotes. Try experimenting with the format, such as using the pull quotes to create social polls.

The number one thing you can do? Make them bigger and more colorful. The more prominent social sharing buttons are on your post, the more effective they are at getting people to use them.

Bonus points: Track these shares. By attaching Google Analytics campaign tracking codes to the links, you can see the effect of user sharing and compare it to your own efforts on social. Without this, all these numbers are bundled together — and you really have no idea if your social media strategy is working, or if readers are doing the work for you. If you’re on WordPress, our favorite plugin for this is Social Warfare.