Image showing what “Walking the Controversy Tightrope” is like

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

The topic of using controversial topics to grow blog traffic and generate leads is, in and of itself, controversial.

I’ve read articles online that talk about how well it works. I’ve read others about how well it backfires. I’ve seen opinions that you should DEFINITELY do it, and I’ve seen other opinions that you should definitely NOT.

However….. per an article published in Forbes in May 2015…..

  • Americans are 8.1% more likely to buy from a company that shares their opinions about social and political issues.
  • Americans are 8.4% less likely to buy from a company that doesn’t.
  • 56% of Americans believe corporations SHOULD talk about controversial social and political issues.
  • 26 to 35-year-olds are 20% more likely to buy from companies whose social and political values mirror their own.
  • People over 56 years of age are 16.2% less likely to buy from companies whose social and political values are inconsistent with their own.
  • People aged 36 to 55 do care about the social and political values of companies, but much less so than people who are either younger or older.

So… a Good idea? Bad idea?

Be aware, at this point, I am (somewhat) leaving the realm of facts and statistics, and expressing opinions. Some I found in doing research are not mine. Others are mine.

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A Few Case Studies

Below, a few case studies are summarized, to give you an idea of how others have had some success, and in some cases, almost unbelievable success. But….. whether this can work for you or not seems to depend A LOT on what you sell, and who you sell it to.

So, What do You Sell?

Below are two examples of using controversy successfully, at least from a financial perspective.

American News LLC of Miami

The textbook example of how to do this is American News of Miami, which owns multiple “news” websites where they sell advertising. It has been uncovered that they write one story, then spin it for different audiences on different platforms. Their business model is to attract readers via controversy and sell ads.

They own a liberal platform named Liberal Society, and they own a conservative platform named Conservative 101.

They write outrageous clickbait headlines appropriate for their different audiences. A specific example from Feb 22nd of 2017 is:

Liberal Society: White House FINALLY Gives Kellyanne Conway The Boot, Are You Glad?

Conservative 101: White House Just Gave Conway The Boot, Prepare To Be Infuriated

The articles beneath those headlines contained the same basic details but from completely different political perspectives.

Because of what they sell, and how they sell it, controversy works very well for them.

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University of Moncton

The University of Moncton is in Moncton, New Brunswick, which technically is in English Canada. But half of New Brunswick speaks French and clearly, the commercial in question is for them.

They experienced a 22% increase in enrollment after they ran this commercial.

Somehow I think the difference that made the difference was the library scene 10 seconds in, which I have to say, is pretty racey for a University recruiting commercial. But this commercial worked.

When You Google “Controversy in Marketing”…

The top results are all about how it can work.

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Article 1: The Pros And Cons Of Controversial Marketing

This article is mostly Pros. This article showcases a few times controversial marketing worked. Two of them are identified below.

The Presidential campaign of Donald Trump

I see no need to elaborate on this one.

Starbucks Red Holiday Cups (Perceived as Anti-Christmas)

Starbucks is a big brand so they can pull this off. For some reason, their red holiday cups are perceived as anti-Christmas to the point of being considered part of the “war on Christmas”. However, one of their red cups is featured on Instagram every 14 seconds. In aggregate, they picked up a lot of exposure but lost some devout Christian customers.

Article 2: Why Using Controversy In Your Marketing Campaign Could Pay Off — Or Not

Below are summaries of two times controversy was attempted, once with success, and the other, not so much.

The One That Worked

Candice Galek, the founder of Bikini Luxe, attempted to take advantage of the Facebookification of LinkedIn, by intentionally posting a controversial post on LinkedIn which asked if the post itself was acceptable for LinkedIn. The post featured a picture of a Miss Universe contender wearing swimwear from one of her competitors.

There was a backlash against this “nonprofessional” use of LinkedIn, but this marketing stunt paid off. Her post was viewed 50,000 times before being pulled by LinkedIn, and Galek’s (the entrepreneur) profile picture was deleted as people confused her profile picture with the one in the post (she herself looks a bit like the model in her post). However, LinkedIn later provided her a “follow” button on her profile (something which is reserved for their highest influencers), she became a regular contributor to Inc magazine, and her company reported a huge increase in customers and revenue.

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The One That Didn’t

In 1983, the first pharmaceutical ad ran on TV. It was for Rufen, which is an ingredient in Ibuprofen. The ad made no specific claims about pain relief, but within 48 hours the federal government ordered the ad pulled, and ever since, the pharmaceutical industry has had tight rules imposed on what they can and can not advertise.

Article 3: Making the Case for Controversial Marketing

The argument put forth in this article is that controversial content CAN have a positive impact after a few fundamental questions are taken into consideration first. The reason controversial content can have a positive impact is that they trigger an emotional response in us, and as much as we like to think of ourselves as highly evolved creatures who make decisions on intellect, it’s just not true. We make decisions based on emotions, then use intellect to justify the emotional decision we’ve made.

Their Important Questions Are

  • Can controversial content work at all in your situation?
  • How will the content connect back to your brand?
  • How will the content create a positive impression of your brand? What “side” are you on?
  • What’s your plan for backlash, should it occur?

That last one is particularly important and merits further discussion.

First, you do your best to avoid negative reactions by presenting facts and letting them speak for themselves. If you have to explain WHY a certain conclusion is appropriate, you’re offering an opinion. Either the facts speak for themselves, or they don’t.

Get your data from reputable (impeccable if possible) sources. Detail specifics on where, when, and how you got your data. Identify any exceptions to the data you found. Provide a list of additional sources you used for secondary research. Be willing to provide the raw data if needed.

And finally, DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS. If people push back negatively, be polite, stick to the facts, and if someone provides quality data that sheds new light, thank them.

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What Makes a Topic Controversial?

What follows is my observation and beliefs, not something I’m quoting from another source. It seems to me that any topic that challenges a deeply held belief or value is considered to be controversial.

Below, in the section about Is There a Right Way to Use Controversy, I’ll provide an example of an incredibly controversial topic that is utterly trivial. Yet, in spite of its trivial nature, we have strong beliefs on the topic.

So, at the risk of making some flaming controversial statements, how do you feel about the following statements:

  • Blacks are lazier than whites.
  • Rich people are better than the rest of us.
  • Donald Trump knows what he’s doing.

For most of us, those statements trigger emotions. That is why they’re controversial.

Controversial topics are ones where it’s hard to find someone with a neutral opinion.

What is the Psychology of Controversy?

Below again are my personal observations and opinions. Where we stand on most controversial topics depends on how you define Us vs them. This is sometimes referred to as tribalism.

Who is us? Who is them?

Assuming you accept The Theory of Evolution (a topic whose controversy constantly surprises me), humans evolved as a social species. For millions of years, our very survival depended on group cooperation. This created a need for us to delineate between who is in the group (us) and who is not (them).

With some exceptions for conflict between group members, we know the importance of taking care of us and being vigilant about them.

I personally believe that tribalism is the root cause of our perceptions of ideas being controversial.

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Is There a Right Way to Use Controversy?

There appear to be two right ways for brands who sell products and services to use controversy.

Keep it Trivial

And now for the beautiful example of the topic of high controversy and low significance.

The unimportant, yet highly controversial question is…… How do you properly hang toilet paper?

The right way to hang toilet paper is with the roll dispensing to the top. The wrong way is with the roll dispensing to the bottom.
How to hang toilet paper

Per Ann Landers, this was the most controversial issue in the history of her column.

Want to stimulate thought and discussion without fearing things will get out of hand? Keep it trivial (and yes, pineapple DOES belong on pizza).

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Be the Messenger, Not the Source

In other words, don’t be the source of the controversy. If you wish to use politics to get interested and discussion going, do not reveal YOUR views, but rather cite the views of experts, with the understanding that some people will accept those experts and others won’t. If possible, present data with which the readers can draw their own conclusions.

A case in point about the use of data is a blog post that used to be on OkCupid (a dating website) about Gay Sex vs Straight Sex (no controversy there). This post was positive for OkCupid, and most likely because they provided reams of data to support their conclusions. They were not the source of the beliefs, their data was, and you as a reader are free to view the data and make your own conclusion.

In Closing

Done right, controversy helps you sell whatever it is that you sell, but the important points seem to be:

  • Keep it as trivial as possible (i.e.: did I mention pineapple DEFINITELY belongs on pizza!)
  • Be the messenger, not the source
  • If trolls show up, do NOT feed them – be polite and share your data
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Kevin Carney
Kevin Carney

Kevin "fell into" SEO by accident, like many others. The SaaS platform to help writers boost their topical authority came years later after various SEOs said it was something they would like to see.

    1 Response to "How to increase blog traffic with controversial topics"

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