Five reasons using controversy as a content strategy backfires

controversy as content strategy

By Mark Schaefer

Some time ago I listened to a young guy on a webinar 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 (sometimes even common sense is controversial if it’s against the grain!).  My intent is never to be controversial for the sake of being controversial. My content strategy is to be helpful and honest. And sometimes being honest requires the courage to say things that go against popular opinion and take the heat that comes with it.

For those who use me as an example of “using controversy” to gain an audience, I would much rather be known for somebody who is “using honesty” to gain an audience!

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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