How to responsibly create content that pushes the envelope

Love it or hate it, columnist Kerry Jones explains how to skillfully craft controversial content that attracts attention.

LitMatch__ss_1920It’s no secret. Content marketing is driven by results; the higher the number of shares, links and publicity, the greater the mark of success.

But to get those high numbers of engagement, you’ve got to provide something that strikes a chord with your audience. Create something that will make them stop to read it, absorb the information and feel moved to share it.

Otherwise, with a quick swipe of their thumb, your content is quickly bypassed, along with a myriad of other articles touting the 10 Best this and the Top Ways to do that.

Give them something to talk about

If you want your content to stand out in a world of vanilla fro-yo, it needs to be the neon, rainbow-colored ice cream. People either love it or they hate it. Regardless, they will feel passionately one way or the other about this super-sweet, food coloring-saturated frozen treat.

When tasked to think outside the bland flavors of everyday content, it’s easy for content marketers to consider outrageous or extreme campaigns. But those bold ideas usually melt into unrecognizable mush when the boss or client waters them down for fear of unfavorable consequences.

A recent case study by Fractl (my employer) on “How We Created Controversial Content That Earned Hundreds of Links” outlines how to get your boss or client to sign off on envelope-pushing content that will attract attention — plus how to minimize the risk of backlash. We’ll use this and real-life examples to give you the scoop on how to make it work for your brand.

Getting your boss to buy in

It’s understandable that bosses and clients instinctively want to protect their brand at all costs and cringe at the thought of negative press. However, there are three easy ways to get them to unclench their protective grip.

Make your idea relevant or relatable to the brand

Find a unique perspective on a topic that will resonate with the people in your industry or with your target audience. Additionally, skim the internet for topics that are relevant to your brand and offer an opportunity to showcase a different perspective.

A great example of this is a contrarian piece created by a digital marketing company named WordStream called “Dear eBay, Your Ads Don’t Work Because They Suck.” This was created after the company saw an opportunity to put their spin on a story that was gaining tons of mainstream attention.


In the original article, eBay released an academic study announcing its plan to no longer use paid search ads, claiming it wasn’t worthwhile. This hit a nerve with WordStream because, as PPC experts, they felt eBay’s paid search ads weren’t up to par.

By quickly cranking out an article (Timing is everything!) that made the exact opposite claims, WordStream was able to newsjack eBay’s article.

Prove why playing it safe isn’t working

Demonstrate why “safe” or conservative content isn’t getting any attention. While repurposed and SEO-focused content has its place, it can be dry or predictable.

Remember, controversial content doesn’t have to be extreme or over-the-top. Use the “Toilet Paper Strategy” as a great example of “low-risk” controversial content to drive home the message that contrarian content can be thought-provoking without needing a team at the ready for damage control. This image was wildly popular on Facebook and, yes, it’s about the right way to place a toilet paper roll.


Assure them you’re utilizing safeguards

While you cannot guarantee there won’t be any negative responses, you can assure your boss or client you will take all measures necessary to minimize potential backlash. And just in case, it couldn’t hurt to have some responsive content in your arsenal, ready to fire in case the backlash becomes a virtual firing squad.

Take a lesson from Calvin Klein, a brand that thrives on controversy. After its #MyCalvins campaign drew criticism over what some considered a misogynistic photo, the brand was quick to respond with an image on Instagram directed at detractors.

Is your brand polarizing?

When people think about your brand, do they have an immediate love-it or hate-it knee-jerk reaction? A few examples of polarizing brands include Miracle Whip, Marmite and McDonald’s. All of them have both ultra-loyal fans and super-passionate haters.

Polarization can be a good thing. Some companies have actually boosted sales by increasing their number of haters. Utilize brand dispersion to measure your brand’s polarization, which means you’ll determine how many people really love your brand, really hate your brand or are somewhere in the middle. To do this, brands often use surveys.

Once you’ve determined your level of polarization, capitalize on it by pacifying or antagonizing the haters, or by amplifying your polarization even more. Some brands purposefully expand their polarization to gain a stronger connection with their market.

Essential tips for minimizing risk

When it comes to capitalizing on polarization and creating controversial content, basic journalism skills are key. Keep these pointers in mind:

  • Let the data tell the story. To maintain credibility, present your findings without injecting your opinion. Stick to the facts. Once the content gets picked up by publishers, they can put their own spin on the story and keep the conversation going.

  • Show more than one side. Don’t allow the content to be one-sided. This limits the opportunity for various audiences to connect with the content. If you go in with an agenda, readers will notice and call you out.

  • Be transparent about where your information came from. This is especially critical for data-heavy controversial content. Openly describe how and where the data was collected, and clearly list your sources.

  • Implement strict processes for fact-checking and quality assurance. Don’t let mistakes in your content become fodder for trolls. This is true for any content you publish, but even more so if it deals with a sensitive or polarizing topic.

Now that you’ve armed yourself with some basic knowledge on the power of controversy, take some time to re-evaluate your current library of content. Were there missed opportunities that you can go back and salvage? Research current stories and hot topics for ideas. The sweet taste of success is just a polarizing story away.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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