Nearly everyone who has been in content creation or content marketing knows the feeling when none of their posts or blogs reach any sort of engagement. It’s a tough feeling that can leave you demotivated. That is, however, until you publish that one blog or post that one video that is so controversial, your brand’s engagement skyrockets like never before. This might make you feel ecstatic, and will surely prompt you to brainstorm plenty of other posts that will ignite the same fire in the public’s eye.
Despite all of your success, it is worth questioning the ethics behind posting such controversial topics. Being controversial (especially when you do not need to be) can backfire horrifically, which is the last thing you want for your company or client.
If you are looking to drive up engagement by publishing some controversial topics, then by all means go ahead, but be careful and take the following into consideration when making your content.
Minimize the threat of backlash to the brand
One of the main reasons why your controversial idea may get shot down is because your client is worried that “attaching their company to anything controversial can set off worst-case-scenario visions of an angry internet mob and bad press” (Libert). As the content marketer, you need to come up with a few ways to guarantee that your client will face the least amount of backlash possible upon publishing something controversial. Finding ways to minimize backlash can help make your controversial post more accepted and viewed more positively amongst your audience, thus proving that it can be ethically correct to publish content of this matter.
Use questions in your headlines
One practice that can help your controversial topic receive as little backlash as possible is if you decide to post your headline as a “yes-or-no” question rather than using it to immediately stake your claim. This is a tactic that journalists have used for decades, and content marketers can use it to “subtly present a suggestion for your reader and readership to think about” (Humanlytics). While you may not get as many shares from people who refuse to read past the title, you may receive more comments and discussion from those who are curious to see where you stand.
Be transparent about data
One of the best ways to ensure that your company does not receive any backlash for publishing something controversial is by being transparent about your data and to provide the facts. By doing this, you eliminate all bias that your company may have towards the topic and you leave it up to the data to tell the story (Libert). This way, you can still drive up engagement, but your audience will be focused on the data rather than your stance on the story. If you provide data from both sides of the story, then that shows your willingness to see the topic from all angles and “allows viewers to discuss and draw their own conclusions” (Lehr).
This is also very important: do not skew the data to fit your story. You may try your best to appear unbiased, but if you try to take raw data and distort it so it can support your belief, not only will you get called out, but you will lose your reputation and any chance at future engagement. Using these methods to force engagement will surely backfire, and is an unethical practice that everyone should avoid.
Publishing controversial content does not have to be a bad thing. Sometimes, it can spark discussion, stir up debates, and drive up engagement, all of which can do wonders for your page. Once that happens, however, do not get addicted to the feeling of high debate and huge discussions, because abusing controversy can gain your company notoriety rather than credibility. Besides, “positive and uplifting content gets more views and clicks over time” (Schaefer). Overall, your posts and content should stay true to your brand (or your client’s brand), and whether that involves being honest all the time or diving into a few controversial topics here and there is ultimately up to you.
Humanlytics Team. “It’s not fake news – content marketing is just like journalism.” Medium, 25 Jun. 2018, https://medium.com/analytics-for-humans/its-not-fake-news-content-marketing-is-just-like-journalism-251372d087c2
Lehr, Andrea. “The Do’s and Don’ts on Controversial Marketing.” Contently, 11 Jul. 2017, https://contently.com/2017/07/11/the-dos-and-donts-of-controversial-content/
Libert, Kelsey. “Case Study: How we Created Controversial Content that Earned Hundreds of Links.” Moz, 28 Jul. 2016, https://moz.com/blog/case-study-controversial-content-earned-hundreds-links
Schaefer, Mark. “Five reasons using controversy as a content strategy backfires.” Businesses Grow, 2020, https://businessesgrow.com/2017/08/03/controversy-as-content-strategy/