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.

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