As marketers, it is our job to get people to notice our brands. We want people to learn about us, talk about us, and even tell others about us. We want to spark conversations that increase awareness and attract attention.
But with so many brands trying to do the same thing, this isn’t always easy. You have to do something extra valuable, exceptional, or even controversial to get the attention you want and need.
The following steps outline a plan for how you can use the latter – creative and responsible controversy – to spark conversations and spread the word about your brand without hurting your reputation.
Step 1: Understand the Power of Controversy
It’s easy to see why brands and marketers want to avoid controversy; no one wants to be at the receiving end of bad press or angry internet users.
But while controversy can be an uncertain area that leaves marketers wondering if all press really is good press, there is something we can’t deny:
Controversy is a powerful tool for content marketing.
When people talk about a story, it increases social sharing and mentions. It drives traffic and creates an uptick in links as publishers cover the story. Getting press is a good way for a brand to get noticed, and creating a piece of content that incites an emotional reaction or discusses a polarizing topic can bring valuable attention back to your brand.
Controversy is a powerful tool, but with this power comes great responsibility.
So before you create contentious content as a means to get people talking, make sure you have a plan. Be strategic about your approach, and plan to get people talking without making your brand look bad. The rest of this post will show you how to do exactly that.
Step 2: Identify a Hot Topic
It is possible to create content that people talk about without putting your brand at risk for negative PR. You can accomplish this by tying your content – not your brand – to a controversial hot topic.
We did this for apartment research website Abodo in a campaign called America’s Most P.C. and Prejudiced Places.
First, we looked at topics that were at the core of heated debates, news stories, and social interactions. We saw that conversations about bigotry were frequently happening in the news and online, so we focused on this hot-button issue.
While this is a sensitive topic that incites strong emotional reactions, our client did not shy away from it because we found a way to discuss the controversial topic without making the brand itself the source of controversy. Instead, we approached the topic from a data standpoint.
Step 3: Find a Way to Share Data Related to the Topic
When approaching a controversial topic, it’s best to share data rather than an opinion about the topic. This attaches your content to the subject without attaching your brand to a specific position or standpoint.
For the Abodo campaign, we collected public data from Twitter to analyze the way people talk about race online. We looked at 12 million tweets from June 2014 to December 2015 to tell a story about the language American Twitter members use to discuss different ethnicities, genders, abilities, religions, and sexual orientations.
We then created a series of charts to show how Twitter members in different cities and states were using derogatory language against certain groups.
This is certainly a touchy topic. But by presenting it from a data standpoint, we were able to start a conversation without infusing the brand into the controversy.
By not taking sides, the brand stayed objective and avoided being a part of the debate.
Step 4: Be Objective
The most important thing about sharing controversial data or information is not choosing a side. You can’t go into your research with an agenda, and you can’t aim to prove a point.
Instead, you must conduct fair research that shows the situation objectively. You have to let the data speak.
This distances your brand from making a statement about the topic and helps minimize the possibility that there will be negative backlash related to the research.
In the Abodo campaign, we didn’t take sides or aim to present a certain perspective. Our research wasn’t to show a story we wanted to tell; it was to shed light on a story that already existed.
Our data was positioned to help people find cities and states to live in that best matched their personal preferences. While the core of the topic was controversial, it wasn’t positioned to show our side or stance on the topic.
Step 5: Provide Balance by Showing Two Sides
When creating content that includes a contentious or negative topic, don’t focus the entire piece on the adverse angle. Create balance by also providing a look at the lighter side of the story.
Showing two sides provides more credibility. It stops the content from appearing too negative and helps distance your brand from taking a stance on the topic.
Plus, a Fractl study on the emotions behind viral content found that content is more likely to be shared when it’s not purely negative. Negative content paired with elements that make people feel positive emotions and surprise are often more widely shared.
We provided balance in this campaign by sharing data on both the less tolerant states and the most tolerant states.
Step 6: Explain Your Methodology
You can further build audience trust and decrease the possibility of backlash for your controversial content by providing an explanation of your methodology. By explaining your research approach, you prevent the possible criticism that comes from sharing biased or skewed data.
Let your audience know:
- How you collected the data
- How much data were used in your study
- Where the audience can review your sources
- What methods you used for analyzing the data
- How you defined the terms used in the study
We created a downloadable PDF that included our methodology and provided sources for our data. This provided credibility for our story so publishers could confidently cover it. It also showed readers that we responsibly, truthfully, and fairly gathered the data.
Step 7: Anticipate Reactions
A big conversation surrounding something your brand produced is a good thing, but it can also be a nerve-wracking thing. As you launch your controversial campaign, prepare yourself for the conversations to come.
Know that if a conversation is large enough, there will be both positive and negative reactions. Don’t be surprised, worried, or upset if your controversial content triggers comments that aren’t all positive in nature.
Create a plan ahead of time for how you will respond to comments, or if you will respond to comments at all. Ensure that your entire team is on board so that there are no panicked reactions or mishandling of brand responses.
Step 8: Measure the Results
Once the dust has settled, take a look at your campaign to see if you were able to create your intended results. Look at the number of:
- Stories that covered the campaign
- Links that were created
- Social shares and mentions
If your content didn’t trigger high numbers in these categories, it might not have been controversial or contentious enough to catch attention and create reactions.
In the case of our Abodo campaign, we were able to find the right balance and produce ideal results. It earned hundreds of links and was featured on more than 620 websites, including CNET, Slate, Business Insider, AOL, Yahoo, Mic, The Daily Beast, and Adweek. It sparked a large conversation and received more than 67,000 social shares. It even caught the attention of a nonprofit who contacted our client to collaborate on a similar piece of content for the future.
More Examples of Controversial Content Marketing
You can see other examples of how we’ve created content that sparks a conversation without hurting a brand by reviewing these three other Fractl campaigns. For each campaign, we were able to take a hot topic and infuse it into our client’s content without negatively affecting their brand.
Creating content with the word “sex” in the title is a sure way to spark discussion. We took this approach when we created the Sexual Emojis campaign. We scraped millions of Tweets to see which emoji characters associated with romantic or sexual suggestions showed up the most.
These data wouldn’t be right for just any brand, but it was highly relevant to our client Dr. Ed since the site’s offerings include sexual health services. This is one of our infographic examples that used the right balance of relevance and controversy to catch attention and get people talking about their favorite emojis.
Perceptions of Perfection
For Online Doctor, we chose to focus on body image issues and misleading Photoshopping. For the Perceptions of Perfection campaign, we asked designers from 18 countries to Photoshop the same image of a woman and make her “more attractive to other citizens of their country.”
We didn’t know what we would find by making this request to designers. The results were a series of shocking images that depicted the high and varied standards of beauty across the world. It surprised audiences and triggered conversation because some people disagreed with how their country was represented. The angle worked as the campaign received over 900,000 social shares, 700,000 page views, and 600 feature stories.
As marketers, it’s our job to get people talking about our brands. And while the idea of using a controversial topic to spark conversation can be scary, it’s often necessary and very powerful.
When you strategically create content to trigger reactions, you’ll find that controversial content is a useful way to increase traffic, get press, build backlinks, and attract social mentions.