Five ways using “controversy” as a content strategy backfires

controversial content

By Mark Schaefer

I recently listened in on a webinar where a young guy was pontificating on the best strategies to build an audience for your content. A pillar of his presentation was “be controversial.”

This struck me as odd. Is “controversy” really a sustainable position for a content marketing strategy? The more I thought about this, the more I disliked this advice.

First, let me distinguish content that is “conversational” or “thought-provoking” from content that is controversial. A definition of controversial is “a state of prolonged, contentious public dispute or debate.” The keywords here for me are “prolonged,” “contentious, and “public.”

Sometimes controversy happens.  Occasionally, it might even be unavoidable. But is this a tactic you should mindfully pursue as a long-term content strategy? Let’s take a look at five reasons why the answer is NO.

1) It is naive.

I have this image in my head.  I walk into my boss and I say, “Hey, I just attended this webinar and I’m convinced that we need to be more controversial to be build our company’s blog audience.”

What do you think the reaction would be?

Can you think of any respected, successful company that pursues a prolonged dispute as their marketing strategy?  Of course not. Companies are built to avoid controversy! Most brands are not built on a negative emotion.

2) It is exhausting.

Have you ever been in the middle of an online controversy? Nothing can suck up more time and energy from your day. Do you really want a strategy with that impact on productivity?

3) It is not sustainable.

Reading “contentious” content is like watching a train wreck. In short doses, it might be gruesomely compelling, but it’s not something you want to expose yourself to every day.

Study after study shows that positive, uplifting content gets more views and clicks over time. Who wants a steady diet of prolonged disputes?

4) It drives the “wrong” traffic.

Let’s say you’re the playground bully. Every time you start a fight, a crowd might gather to see what’s happening, but then they walk away when the fight is over. The people who watch might even pretend to be your friend and say the right things but they’re never going to trust you because if the bully is chronically contentious, it is only a matter of time before they turn on you too.

Controversial blog posts are like a schoolyard fight.  It might drive a short-term spike in traffic through the “fascination” value, but is it going to make somebody want to befriend you?  Become a customer?  Or, are they just going to stay on the sidelines and walk away?

5) It’s inauthentic.

Adopting “controversial” as a strategy is kind of like adopting “angry” or “love-struck” as a theme. If you are forced to aim for the same emotional tone every day, how do you avoid becoming a character instead of an authentic person?

I hope some of this makes sense. I am NOT saying that you should never be controversial.  If you bring your humanity to your content, occasionally you may strike a chord in others that results in a dispute.

About 2-3 times a year I write a post that results in controversy.  But my content strategy is not to purposefully churn up a dispute. My strategy is to be honest. And sometimes being honest requires the courage to say things that go against the grain of popular opinion and to take the heat that comes with it.

I’d love to hear your take on this in the comment section … at the risk of being controversial, of course. : )

How does controversy work for or against you?

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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  • I think you’re just posting on this topic to build your readership — and adverte your books — trying to pick a fight by attaching somebody’s stated point of view, i.e. by puffing up a fake controversy.

    Include me out, thank you.

    -dlj.

  • Nauman

    Controversy is great to popularise short term achievements example Red Bull jump from the space recently!!

  • Mark, I particularly resonate with point number five. When controversy equals contrivance, it’s not a content strategy at all, it’s just posturing.

  • Ha! Good one. Thanks!

  • Was that a dispute? Or just great conversational content? Newsworthy content, really.

  • I just don’t see how you can keep that strategy up but I suppose it’s possible. Thanks for stopping by Chuck!

  • Being seen as a source of constant controversy (for the sake of being controversial) is like being ‘that’ colleague that is always negative, often for no reason other than you are just difficult, eventually, people stop listening and just find you annoying.
    Being controversial should not be a deliberate and targeted effort. As you say, if you cause controversy through writing honest, justified content then so be it.

    As you mention, the definition of ‘controversial’ is
    something that is debated and/or disputed for a prolonged period. If the
    content is badly written or not properly thought through and
    justified (which will invariably be the case if this is a deliberate strategy you adopt) then it will just be seen as one persons uneducated opinion, and
    dismissed.

  • When controversies are real, the first thing that is controlled by the bully in the fight is voice. Blogs give you voice.

    Online controversy should never be only about controversy though. 30-70 mix is good. If your blog avoids controversy simply because you don’t want to be seen as controversial, but the controversy is worthy and just, than you are thinking about the success of the blog and not the way your blog could make a difference. That’s OK. After all, lots of people do it. But lots of people don’t use the voice they have. Bad people count on that.

    Controversies for the sake of controversy are easy to detect and won’t last long. Controversies that could make a difference can be effective but they have to move people from where they are to new insight. That’s an art.

    Take Gun Control. Most online chats offer nothing more than Guns kill vs Guns don’t kill/people kill. Same rhetoric and stance over and over. No one seems to be able to move anyone.

    This is an area of blogging that needs to be developed but not necessarily avoided.

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  • I totally agree with all of your points, especially number 5. Authenticity is essential in building trust. Isn’t it interesting, though, how this webinar guy got to you? His view on being controversial is controversial in itself and it made you write about it! 🙂

  • You bring up a very good point here Barry. If you do choose to provoke controversy, you better be prepared and do your research or you will get slammed!

  • Thanks for sharing your wisdom today. Love that summary line and wish there was a way to make that happen!

  • Inspiration is everywhere. : )

    I think his point is valid that controversy can drive interest in a blog. No question about that. But to adopt that as an over-arching strategy is fraught with peril!

  • One cannot ‘be’ controversial. One’s position may TURN OUT to be controversial.

    Perhaps what he meant was “be contrarian” … also not an easy position to sustain. Anyone who’s read me at http://answerguy.com would know that, right? 😉

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  • “My strategy is to be honest. And sometimes being honest requires the
    courage to say things that go against the grain of popular opinion and
    to take the heat that comes with it.”

    This really sums it up for me. If I truly have a desire to influence someone and help them change, those honest moments are going to have to come out sometime. In Christian circles, when a pastor speaks honestly and from the Bible like this, we often call it being “convicting”

    Of course, people don’t always like to feel convicted of how their behaviors may be hurting them. But if your content strategy exists to take your audience from one place to another, these moments will arise.

    However, the idea of being controversial for controversy’s sake – I agree about the naivete of it all. It’s basically standing in the middle of a public place yelling “NOTICE ME NOTICE ME!” rather than trying to add genuine value and serve the people around you.

  • Much like celebrities that are only controversial, people will initially be drawn in and then start to fade out. Outrage, anger, dissent, etc. are all strong emotion that illicit a response. However, if you think of your company’s brand as the emotions people feel toward your company, those emotions would be the ones you’d choose. Great Article, Mark!

  • Totally agree. There’s a huge difference between taking a stand on an issue and creating controversy just for the sake of it. People want to know what you believe, but seeking out a fight just feels like a thinly veiled grab for attention.

  • This sounds quite a bit like the silly advice my former bosses were taking. They also wanted me to be an “expert” in social media. I told them there was no such thing since things were changing so fast. I got told I was negative and not a team player. Turns out not only was I right, that business could not get any clients. Why? Because they wanted to be “experts” in everything instead of picking one or two areas of expertise and growing from there. The other problem was they wanted to be controversial. I kept suggesting this was a bad idea. Turns out I was probably right about that.

  • Well said Jeff. And, those “convicting moments” can come in private, too!

  • We need to think about the brand — corporate or personal! Thanks Cari.

  • Or, not so thinly veiled in some cases! : )

  • HAHA! So true!

  • The problem with this, on the other hand, is that nowadays one is often confused as being “strategically” controversial or just a plain a** for having a very critical attitude and voicing different opinions. There’s only one industry I can imagine people look at controversy as a strategy. And it happens to be the industry I’m in. Sigh, sometimes…

  • There’s a big difference between being opinionated and being controversial. I do think it’s important to create a ‘voice’ online and to stand behind the causes and practices that you feel are right — even if they are controversial. But designing your content marketing strategy around being controversial is nothing more than exhausting and polarizing. Like you said, people may come to watch the train wreck, but they’re most likely not sticking around and certainly not hiring you.

  • Wow, is it ever exhausting. Great advice. When I think about what brings me to a blog it is not about controversy and I hate unkindness, whether it is in the post or the comments. Just last night I read about a well known author who sent her minions after someone who didn’t like her book and did something weird with it (then posted it on FB). What astounds me again and again is just how unkind we feel entitled to be sometimes. It is so less exhausting to just be kind to others. IMHO.

  • probably were. : )

  • “My strategy is to be honest.” I’ve met you and even though I wouldn’t say I know you well, I think you are one of the most honest people I know. Also truthful, and they are not the same thing.

    My question is this: can honesty be a strategy? Or is it a characteristic so intrinsic to our moral fiber that we just… are? The way I’m seeing the word “strategize” in my head right now is to deliberately craft a plan, a series of actions, a cascade of moments. I don’t think honest people plan that; they just are.

  • i would add sports, news and entertainment as other industries that probably are strategic about their controversies : ) Or maybe I’m just imagining that?

  • Amen. Nothing more to add but to thank you Tara!

  • And it is a lot easier to be unkind to anonymous others on the Interweb. That causes a lot of weird dynamics!

  • Gino Brenni

    “Who wants a steady diet of prolonged disputes?”

    – only politicians and people interested in politics. So maybe, your blogpost doesn’t apply to politics blogs?

  • I am my own case study. : )

    I am the least “optimized” blogger alive. I want to help people and do good work, not worry about the games and SEO. In fact I took all the award badges off the blog and do zero — literally zero — in terms of SEO.

    Being useful, helpful and honest is what is SUPPOSED to work in the Internet right? I’m not sure it does but ask me in a few years and I’ll let you know. And you’re right. I just want to “be” and see what happens. I think we’re on the same journey Shonali!

  • Good point. I think that is a legitimate exception Gino!

  • I know, I remember you talking about when you did that (took off all your badges). I don’t have the guts to do that just yet. When I’m a multiple-published author like you, maybe then. 😉

  • Adam

    Love this Mark and agree with all 5 points! Seems to me that if “controversial” is your strategy, it is also your brand. That might work if you want to be on reality TV, but if your goal is to work in the professional world, it is very shortsighted.

  • I don’t know those but I presume you might be right 😉 PS2: is politics an industry? PS2: can I still write rants without being called strategically controversial? 😉

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  • I know who are referring to and thought the same things when I heard his webinar (well, your reaction was a million times more eloquent than anything I would have typed!) Could not believe what I was hearing. I checked my notes from his webinar and found this “creating controversy” tip interesting because YOU actually adhered to it perfectly:

    “Don’t name names (Fight against the concept, not people who believe in something!)”

    Well done, sir.

  • While some folks go with the old saying “there is no such thing as bad press” and controversy seems to happen no matter what you do. It seems it’s part of the human condition to be contentious these days. But to generate controversy on purpose besides being unauthentic is dangerous in our litigious society. Do you really want a marketing strategy that opens the door for possible lawsuits? Humor is a much better device for generating interest!

  • When I heard it I thought it sounded like a gimmick but certainly not a strategy. Thanks Mark.

  • I don’t follow my own advice. I know that stuff is important, It was just driving the wrong behaviors for me.

  • Ha! I think politics is most certainly an industry.

  • Yup. Dangerous territory I think!

  • Well, different strokes for different folks. I don’t think that advice would fly in many organizations and he’ll probably find that out soon enough!

  • I like that. I probably lean toward that side! : )

  • Thanks very much for taking the time to comment!

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  • Controversial content probably appeals to people who want short-term ‘success’; I want a campaign to have X engagements… So it’s the sort of thing some agencies might pitch or go for because they can then hit that target, even though that target in itself is meaningless.

    Can’t help thinking though that any content strategy has to be based on a long-term aim, with each piece of content fitting in. The aim should never be to simply create a buzz while forgetting what you’re actually trying to achieve / what your voice is.

  • Thanks for sharing your wisdom today Jon. Great comment!

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  • There is controversy and there is “controversy.” I think the question is approach and how you handle things.

    It is exhausting to swim upstream all the time but sometimes “thinking different” works.

    If your approach is designed to be offensive than I am not a fan because you will alienate and discourage people from working/aligning/talking with you.

    But if you are challenging the status quo because you think you have a better way and take a civil approach, well that might work.

  • Agree completely. Love people who think differently!!

  • So…reading you guys going back in forth, would it be more accurate to say your strategy is not to have one – but rather to simply be you?

  • The Content Wrangler

    Aside from the obvious ‘duh’ feeling I processed as I read this post, this article errs in the way many content marketing articles do: It uses the term ‘content strategy’ (or its cousin ‘content marketing strategy’) without ever actually talking about content strategy.

    Content strategy is a discipline, not a tactic. Publishing ‘controversial’ content is a tactic. Strategy is miles above this minutiae. Strategy is about your vision of the future and how you plan to use your business assets (money, people, technology) to accomplish those goals.

  • I agree with you but also would offer that I have appropriately defined “strategy” correctly in the context of the presentation I viewed. In this presentation, the expert suggested that the business assets (money, people, technology) would be in support of an effort to be controversial. A strategy is hinged on points of competitive differentiation and that is what was being proposed — “controversy” as a point of differentiation. In some ways, that could work. i’m sure that is Howard Stern’s strategy and competiitve advantage. The day he stops being controversial is the day he fails. Every resource available to him is supporting that direction. But in general, I do agree with you.

  • Wow, I love your comment “I just want to “be” @businessesgrow:disqus . That is very much my strategy. I am so with you on this. I am tired by the folks who know better creating controversy for sake of readership. If you disagree with a subject, concept, approach then disagree with it but do it with tact, not by attacking others or having a primary goal to create controversy.

    I actually made a commitment to my readers last year to eliminate (or at least aggressively minimize) negative content on my blog. I had gotten a lot of attention after writing the post about deleting my Klout profile. It was not the traffic I wanted and it stirred up so much emotion, wasted time, wasted energy and did everything on this list you mention in the post. I learned that is not who I was or what I wanted to spend my time on.

    While I stay 100% honest on all of my blog posts, social media status updates and am always happy to voice an opinion I also don’t purposely start stuff for attention. I try to focus on value to my readership, colleagues, clients, and greater community in everything I do. I like you just want to “be”, I want to “be me.” If people like it then great. If not they can go fight it out on all the other blogs where people are setting up a ring for fighting and social punching.

    When are you coming to Florida btw? Would love to see you when you come. I think you mentioned you’d be here in early May?

  • Coming back to add a comment on your last point about sometimes being honest stirs up controversy. Yes, this is so very true. There are some things I simply can’t help but write about because I am so passionate about them. Will they stir up emotion and possibly controversy? Yes. But that is not the goal.

  • Sometimes it is hard for me to keep my mouth shut because I care deeply. I’m a passionate person and I care about the people and issues in my industry. Also, i have found that when i do speak up, in general, people sy “thank goodness somebody finally said something.” So in a way i have been rewarded for NOT keeping my mouth shut. I have never intended to create controversy, but I have known a position I took would become controversial. A subtle but important difference.

    I will be in FL in a few weeks to give a speech but will be there less than 24 hours unfortunately. Hope to see you soon!

  • A strategy is based on points of differentiation. Since I am a small business selling personal services, I AM the brand. So in a way, yes, leveraging my cumulative life experiences, lessons and skills is my strategy.

  • Totally agree!

  • Wow. Once again I am late to the party. My favorite line in your post is “Five reasons the answer is NO.” The fun is in the comments. I suppose it’s to be expected that a blog post about controversy would stir up a bit a controversy.

    Whether it’s a strategy or a tactic, if the goal is to be interesting, I think providing contrarian perspecitve or opinion is a better idea than contriving controversy.

    Contrast and angles add interest to visuals, stories, articles and ideas. Controversy can be interesting too but only because it’s so ugly.

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  • To add to your list – it’s polarizing, it’s pointless. From a corporate branding perspective, as you say it’s nothing but counterproductive. You’re opening a can of worms that will mutate into fire-breathing, kitten eating, world destroying dragons that no one will support. Makes little sense to do so as an individual, professional. You’re gonna exhaust yourself attracting the wrong people, but worse – spend valuable time alienating the right ones. You’re going to develop reputation as a rabble rouser, be hard to shake that or be taken differently.

    I think many of us try to tell it like it is Mark, you certainly head that list. It’s just we often forget that ‘like it is’ frankly – it’s opinion, it’s mileage that will always vary. How it is for me may not be for you or anyone else. That’s the difference in some of these manufactured ‘controversies’ we get in to – some blogger stirs the pot, then some raise their eyebrows, then others make stinky noise faces right back, a few ride the link bait coattails… lather, rinse, repeat until the next brouhaha. And the rest of the world ignores, watches DWTS. FWIW.

  • “Contrived” is probably the word I was looking for. Thanks!

  • Fantastic comment Davina, as always!! I agree that telling like it is provides an opinion except when it is either you or me, and then it is a fact. But of course you already knew this. : )

    Just thought I would add that clarification!

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  • My blog skirts on controversy. The name itself leads people to jump to the wrong conclusion. People post “Hate” comments without ever reading a single article. I have been cursed out on my Facebook Fan page a few times but when I respond to their comments and explain what the site is and is not, most people go back and remove the negative comments on their own. Other times, they will read a few articles and see that my site is 99% positive and the negative 1% is in the blog titles for the sole purpose of grabbing the readers attention. People have accused me of teaching the public how to avoid paying their bills. I do no such thing. I merely suggest that when negotiating payment of past due bills, make sure you negotiate terms that are favorable to you, and not the debt collector. If they don’t want to play ball, move them to the bottom of the list and negotiate payment with the next bill collector. There is no dishonor in giving people smart advice.

  • aleena rose

    Awesome blog! Now In anticipation of a follow-up ….
    dwi ny

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