The Biggest Mistake in Content Marketing: Creating Negative Motives to Share

For viral content to succeed, it must create strong motives to share.

Soon after I developed the BUMP Viral Content algorithm I was sitting at my desk putting together some notes for a night class I was scheduled to teach, when I got a phone call. The woman calling introduced herself as Cheryl, and explained that she was the director of a boutique advertising agency in Sydney Australia. Her voice was rushed and forceful, and she sounded stressed. She explained she heard I was researching about viral movies, and wanted some advice.

I was flattered, and curious.

We chatted for about 5 minutes, whereafter some small talk and pleasantries she explained her predicament. She told me her agency had recently taken on a new client who wanted to launch a new brand of underwear. Her brief was to produce a high engagement advertisement. Or as she put it, something that would “go viral”. The problem was that the advertisement wasn’t creating buzz—after several months it had barely 400 views, and the client wanted answers. Cheryl had no idea why it wasn’t working, and wanted to find out if anything could be done to make it work.

Before the phone call ended I promised Cheryl I would have a look, though suspecting that it would be unlikely anything could be fixed.

I set aside my class preparation, and began watching. It was a personalized story type advertisement—a technique I had seen before where the viewer was asked to upload a photo of themselves that would be included in the story. I followed the instructions – uploaded a photo of myself, and selected male for my gender.

The movie loaded and revealed a dimly-lit studio apartment. A woman appeared from the shadows wearing lingerie. Gliding past a coffee table she picked up a magazine, headed towards her bed, and lay down. She opened the magazine, flicking through the pages before pausing. The camera zoomed in on the page she paused on. It was a fit male model wearing underwear. The camera zoomed in to the face—it was me! They had superimposed my face from the image I uploaded at the start.

The women began to touch herself, and moan… I felt awkward.

It was obvious to me why the ad had not gone viral. The problem was not the quality of the production—it was the content. Incorrectly assuming that sex sells was where it went wrong. Or more precisely, they had wrongly assumed that by showing provocative content it would somehow make people want to share it.

One of the reasons why something goes viral is because it motivates people to share it with other people. Worse than creating no motive for viewers to share, Cheryl’s advertisement actually created a negative motive to share. Most people would not feel comfortable sharing soft-pornography with people they knew, let alone publicly on social networks, since most people don’t want to risk their reputation, and there is no social capital available from sharing. Cheryl’s campaign actually created an incentive to not share.

The lesson to be learnt from Cheryl’s experience is important: For viral content to succeed, it must create strong motives to share.

Dr Coker’s Going Viral Marketing Framework

What makes content sharable?

What are the psychological triggers that evoke sharing motives, and how are they activated?

Over the past eight years I’ve been researching these questions. A summary of my findings can be found in my book Going Viral, and many of the concepts are also discussed in the Virology Viral Marketing Masterclass.

In this blog post, I will outline the three most important elements: Emotion, Self Enhancement, and Affinity.


What does winning a prize and almost getting hit by a car have in common? Both situations invoke strong emotional reactions of course — but both situations also lead to strong word-of-mouth reactions — in both cases you’ll be telling everyone what happened.

Strong Emotions are linked to sharing.

There are two dimensions of emotion: arousal and valence. Although it is critical to use emotions in your marketing content, it is actually the arousal dimension that evokes sharing tendencies. Arousal seems to affect sharing motives through the amygdala part of the brain—a primitive part of the limbic system that is believed to manage feelings-based (affect) memories. Some research suggests it also controls social behaviour. Valence moderates decisions to share marketing content after appraisal from the pre-frontal cortex, though one way to maximise sharing motives is to combine high arousal stimuli of opposite valence.

The science of creating high engagement marketing content using emotions centres on the combination of emotions, and how to maximise the strengths of the emotions to evoke arousal.

Here is an example of a super viral (over 1 million shares) that mixes emotions of opposite valence extremely effectively.

Self Enhancement

Self enhancement is a biological tendency for humans to behave in ways to boost positive self-opinion. It’s believed to be a primary mechanism behind building and sustaining self-esteem. Because self enhancement motives appear to be fixed, it’s an extremely powerful tool for motivating content engagement.

People self-enhance in different ways, and for different reasons. Understanding self-enhancement motives in your target audience is a critical step in the initial phases of creating an online marketing campaign. This requires a deep understanding of psychographic preferences—particularly values and ideals. Oftentimes the required information is not obvious, though there are techniques to more accurately identify self enhancement triggers.

There are three general categories of self-enhancement cues used to guide content creation.

(1) Membership cues.   Humans are a group-oriented species. Members of a group are bound by common values or beliefs. If you attend the group’s social meetings you’ll eventually discover what those values and beliefs are—since the topics of conversation give clues about what they might be. For example, motorcycle clubs will mostly talk about the lifestyle of riding a motorcycle, such as near misses with cars, or long-distance adventure tours. These are membership cues—basically things that members in the group think is important and that they all share an interest in. People use membership cues in conversation to confirm, endorse, and legitimise their membership. If membership cues are known, they provide the impetus for content engagement.

Impression management.           People share content to manage other people’s impressions of themselves. The usefulness of content that can shape others’ opinions is that it circumvents ego-inflation needs. Content that enables people to manage impressions includes anything that signals something about a character trait that is revered. For example, someone might share a meme that suggests something positive about their work ethic or knowledge of management on LinkedIn.

Approval cues.  Approval cues are sought to obtain recognition and respect – two extremely powerful social needs. There’s nothing like the feeling of approval from those around you. When people applaud, laugh, or even pat you on the back, it gives you a tremendous boost in self-esteem. The equivalent of this in social media is engagement (Likes, Retweets, Thumbs up etc). Some types of things people share to earn approval cues may include recent purchases made, recent sporting or life achievements, or amusing situations.


Affinity is a feeling of warmth, respect, and deep appreciation for an activity, idea, or object, that endures over time. Affinity is different from emotion, primarily because emotions are short-term and affinity can be used to evoke strong powerful memories – an extremely useful tool for content marketers.

The most important thing to note about affinity is that it’s a requirement for something to go viral. If you don’t invoke affinity, people most certainly won’t share it. In other words, although emotion might be important when creating marketing content, affinity is critical.

There are several ways to invoke affinity, though two of the most popular include the following:

(1) Youth. People value memories from their youth. Activating time-based affinity from youth-based memories requires identifying a theme that has strong meaning. Youth-based memories don’t have to be specific memories, but rather can be characterised by themes, which widens their appeal. For example, everyone has memories of receiving gifts in their youth. These memories are tied to nostalgic times of being young, which do have importance for a wide range of people.

(2) Relationships. Almost everybody has had relationships in their lives that matter. These memories can be general in nature (mothers vs. a specific person). Using this strategy, the task is usually to identify a likely relationship theme, which usually means romantic or family based but could also be mentor based such as a teacher or leader.

A super viral (over one million shares) example of affinity based content using relationships.

These are the three basic elements of the Going Viral framework.

You can find out more about the factors contributing to highly sharable content in my Virology series, or download a free chapter of my book Going Viral.

How to use Affinity to Increase Content Engagement

When you create content to post online, what’s the number 1 thing you care about? Engagement right? Affinity is the key to engagement. In this blogpost I describe what affinity is, how to create affinity, and why it drives engagement.

What is ‘Affinity’?

Affinity is something that people deeply care about. Ultra strong relevance, usually tied to people’s value system. If people don’t care about the story you’re trying to tell, they’re not going to share it.

Technically, affinity is a feeling of warmth, respect, and deep appreciation for an activity, idea, or object. Affinity is different than emotion, which is characterised by more of a short term physical response to a stimulus. Affinity is an enduring quality of feeling radiating from the heart, that doesn’t necessarily have any physical symptoms.

The most important thing to note about affinity is that it’s a requirement for something to go viral. If somebody doesn’t relate to or care about your Marketing, then they most certainly won’t share it. Although emotion might be important when creating marketing content, affinity is critical.

One of the ways to create affinity is to remind people why they love something. The biggest problem with this however is that not all of your target audience might like the same thing. It’s of course easier if you’re selling something where your target market is bound together  by a shared passion, like motorcycling, but for many brands their target audience is more mixed. In this situation, activating meaningful memories that a wider range of people care about is a better choice.

Here’s an example. This is a well-known surf brand here in Australia, and this type of advertisement is often used by surf brands – a pic of someone surfing inside the barrel of a wave.

Did this go viral and get a lot of engagement? No. Although it appeals to their target market’s main interest – it doesn’t tap into their value system (create affinity).

Compare that example to this example from a competitor. They realised that their target market cared deeply about 2 things – (1) location – where they had surfed. And (2) the health of the ocean – surfers care about ocean a lot – it taps into their value system.

So in this image we have someone surfing in an iconic surf location for those who surf – Java – an island in Indonesia. And it’s also showing the amount of pollution in the ocean. You think this went viral? Its sure did – the engagement was through the roof.

So that’s affinity – before you start creating content – figure out what your target market deeply cares about, and use that in your campaigns.

You can learn more about Affinity in my book, or in my Virology Viral Marketing Masterclass

Rejoinder: The difference between Affinity and Emotions

Affinity is a powerful feeling that creates the foundations of sharing. Affinity manifests itself as a feeling of warmth, respect, or deep appreciation for an activity, idea, or object. Affinity is different from emotion for several reasons.

An emotion is characterised by some kind of physiological effect. Adrenaline is released, or blood pressure increases. Facial expressions might change to match the emotion. Emotions are characterised by energy and a physical change in the body. They’re usually short term, and can come and go quickly.

Affinity in contrast is a long term quality of feeling. It is a passion that somebody has for something that radiates from the heart. It is a closeness to something, characterised by passion.

Operationally, affinity has greater importance for the prediction of viral content than emotion.

How Social Currency drives Content Engagement

Think about how many jokes you’ve heard in your lifetime. Dozens? Hundreds? Now think about how many jokes you can remember. If you’re like most people, it’s a struggle to remember more than a few. Jokes are basically short messages that have gone viral, but they aren’t really that memorable. So if jokes are not that easy to remember, how do jokes survive and not just disappear?

It has to do with the speed of transfer. Jokes don’t just survive because they’re written down somewhere—most jokes have been around since long before the internet, and not everyone reads joke books. Jokes are spread by word-of-mouth—one person telling another. If people stop telling each other jokes, the joke will eventually disappear, unless of course someone reads it somewhere and begins telling the joke again.

It’s the word of mouth sharing of a joke that keeps it alive. The motive that causes word-of-mouth sharing is related to the emotion that the joke creates. Jokes are designed to be humorous, which explains why they’re shared. Someone will tell someone else a joke, to make them laugh. But why would an individual feel compelled to make someone else laugh, by telling them a joke? The reason is because all people have a desire to build something we call social currency.

Social currency is intrinsic value we use to help us interact with others, and build social status. When people respect or admire us, we have social currency. When we have social currency we have a good reputation, people respect us, and we feel sense of belonging. For example, one reason why men keep up with popular sports, even though they might not play the sport themselves, is so they can use sports knowledge as a conversation piece with other men. This earns them social currency by helping them build bonds based on shared interests. Building social currency is something all people desire to do, and therefore efforts to build and retain social currency control much of our behavior.

Social currency therefore acts as a powerful motivator for people to share information with others. People share a humorous image, a joke, an idea, a movie, or any other information if they feel that other people will appreciate their efforts to share something that has value. People appreciate others who share useful information, which results in the sharer earning social currency.