Ask Amanda About Marketing – Episode 9: The Case for Controversial Content


This week’s episode is about… controversy.

dun dun dun

Tune in to learn the benefits of controversial content (and how to persuade your boss or client that it’s worth trying out).

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This podcast seeks to answer your questions about content marketing and digital PR with straightforward, actionable tips. You can find all episodes here.

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episode 9

Episode 9: The Case for Controversial Content – Show Notes

This week’s question is one that’s been asked by our clients:

How can I sell my boss on controversial/edgy content?

Mentioned Links / Additional Resources:

Why Use Controversial Content?

Before I explain exactly how to make the case, I want to explore why controversial content works in the first place.

Our research has shown that emotions are key to content getting significant traction and potentially going viral. When you consider this, it’s no surprise that controversial content can have a lot of success – controversy has its roots in passionate opinion and emotion.

But that doesn’t always mean a brand should engage in that level of intensity. Controversial content is best used when your primary marketing goal is building links.

I’ll explain why in the next section. But when that’s your goal, you can get pretty incredible results if you’re willing to take a risk.

America’s Most P.C. and Prejudiced Places, a content campaign we did for Abodo, ended up garnering hundreds of links and earned media coverage on sites like CNET, Slate, Business Insider, AOL, Yahoo, Mic, The Daily Beast, and Adweek.

Are these the kind of results you’re looking for? Then read on.

How to Successfully Use Controversial Content

The best way to mitigate the risk of getting the brand too involved in a heated debate is to utilize an impartial, accurate data source as the foundation of your content.

When you proceed with that strategy, your brand voice is simply commenting on fact and presenting data, rather than posing an argument or taking sides.

For example, for the Abodo campaign, we analyzed thousands of tweets as our primary data source, removing the client from having to make any judgement calls and rather simply illustrating what we found with straightforward bar graphs and maps.

Writers who decide to cover your content will sometimes form opinions based on the data you present, but more likely than not, they’re only referring to your brand as the source of the information if the project is done objectively.

Pro tip: A quick check to see if you’re approaching the project objectively is to pause before you start collecting data and ask yourself: Do I have expectations for what the data will reveal? Is there something I want it to reveal? This could be a red flag, because you want to make sure you’re presenting the data in an unbiased fashion and not subconsciously trying to tell a story you had in mind all along.

Have a question you want to submit to the podcast?

Email me at amanda@frac.tl or comment below!

Have any additional insight on controversial content? Post it in the comments! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Full Transcript:

Welcome to Ask Amanda About Marketing, a podcast in which I, Amanda, or occasionally a special guest, answers your questions about inbound marketing. Straightforward, right? If you want to submit a question, email me at amanda@frac.tl. I’d love to hear from you. Let’s get right to it.

I’ve been doing a lot of traveling recently and I realized that I left my mic for podcasting back at the last place I was in, so I’m going a little rogue here and using my computer microphone the built-in microphone. So I’m already mentally preparing myself to edit all the popping and terrible “S” sounds that come out of this podcast.

Anyway this week, I’m going to answer a question we actually hear a lot from our clients and that question is: How can I sell my boss on controversial or edgy content?

And before I get into how are you able to make the case for that and why it’s so successful, the first thing I want to talk about is why we ever would suggest controversial content in the first place. And here’s the reason: all of our research has shown that emotions are key to content that becomes highly shared and controversial content inherently has that emotional component. However, a lot of why we would suggest doing controversial content would depend on the person’s goals and most of the time—not all the time but most of the time—this goal involves acquiring a high number of links for their backlink portfolio.

So throughout this podcast, I’m going to talk about why we’re able to make controversial content work and that’s how you can make a case for it. Alongside that discussion, I’m going to point to a case study we did for a campaign we created for our client Abodo, in which we talked about the most PC and prejudiced places in America. Now that campaign, which did extremely well, ended up receiving media coverage on sites like Yahoo, Mic, Business Insider. Slate, C-Net, Ad Week and it goes on and on with over 67,000 social shares.

So this is what I’m talking about. If you know you and your boss want results like that—you know featured placements media placements on really well-known sites—then controversial content can be the way to go and this is why we suggested it to some of our clients who primarily have that goal of link building. So to make the case to your boss about why this is a pursuit worth trying out you have to understand how we mitigate the risk when we create controversial content and there are two major parts of this.

The first is don’t do something that’s highly brand related unless you are willing to take a side. And this is going to be so rare. I don’t know many brands that are willing to do this and we don’t necessarily recommend it. And that’s because your it’s hard for a whole company to decide on a controversial stance they’re willing to take. A lot of the times, the marketing department is not going to have the right—quote unquote—to make that call.

So what we often do is—instead of doing something that’s really super relevant to your service offering—we go a little more tangential, which is the word we like to use internally meaning it’s related but not directly related. It still makes sense in terms of your brand and your brand offering but it’s not going to be directly related to your product or service.

Then this way using more of a tangential angle, you don’t have to be called upon to take a position. You’re going to be presenting information that’s relevant but you’re not going to have to take a stance on it. And the good thing about this is that you don’t want to be involved in any kind of heated conversation that may result from the content you put out there. You want to be the source of that content, but you don’t necessarily want to be the one taking a stance on it.

So an example of what I mean by a tangential idea is this Abodo campaign. So we basically did we created a series of maps that show which states tweet the most tweets that include certain slurs and obviously this sort of thing can incite a lot of emotions in people. But Abodo is a site that helps people find apartments so obviously this is not directly related, but when you get involved with anything related to living and housing and geography. That’s where these ideas become related, but not directly related.

So knowing the culture of the atmosphere of different states is relevant if you are looking to move and that’s how they’re still a connection there, but this doesn’t put Abodo in a position to make a judgment call about any of these places or take a side in any sort of way. And that’s the balance you’re looking for. Once you have an idea of a project you want to create that seems like it’s going to meet that balance, you have to use a valid data source—a verified data source—as the core of the project.

By using data as the foundation for the content you’re creating, you’re inherently basing something in fact, and that is going to solve a lot of the issues that come with controversial content. You’re just going to be presenting information rather than commenting on it. So that’s going to allow the brand voice to be presenting data rather than posing an argument and that’s going to be key to the success of this kind of initiative. What you have to know is that when you put this information out there and if you do go through the process of pitching the content to publishers to try to increase the reach and get some media coverage, you have to expect that publishers will often form arguments or take sides or create stories around the data that you’re giving them.

However, if you present the data well on your own site, so you build out a landing page and you present the information and your write-up is objective—meaning you’re not making subjective comments or any kind of opinionated commentary on the data—then more likely than not, when a publisher creates a story around this data, they’re just going to refer to your brand as the source of the information rather than linking your brand to whatever opinion they have. Typically, there’s no reason for them to do that. And that’s why it’s so important for your brand to be positioned as a data source, a company that really wants to explore the topic more and is willing to do the nitty-gritty work of getting that information to their potential customers or clients.

So again to use that about a campaign as an example and in the show notes, I’m going to link to the landing page we created for the actual campaign, but also the case study we wrote up that includes some of the information I’m talking about and some other information. But using this as an example, we created the content around the data source of Twitter and we conducted our analysis by finding how many times these different words we use were appearing in tweets from different states. So it was an analysis of tweet content and you know, there’s nothing subjective about that, right?

This brings up another important point, which is you need to be really clear and transparent about the methodology you used. So on every individual image asset we say that the source is Twitter and that it’s per 100,000 tweets or whatever it was and what exactly we were looking for for that set of results. And then we present simple bar graphs or maps that, in a very straightforward manner, exhibit what we found when analyzing the data.

Just one more quick note before I dive into actual examples of media coverage and how it illustrates what I’ve been talking about. I wanted to call attention to a red flag that I think it’s really useful as a tip for making sure that the campaign you’re producing is actually going to be objective before you start your data collection or you’re surveying or however you’re going through with getting the data you need, think to yourself: Do I have an expectation of what this is going to say? Do I know in my head what I want the results to be?

And if this is the case, then you’re at risk for creating a biased campaign. You should go into the campaign—you might be able to have like they guesses about what will come as a results—but don’t expect anything because that means you’re already predisposed to taking a certain stance or a certain position on the data and you don’t want that. You want to be as objective as possible. You want to just be doing kind of like a collecting mission. You’re just out there seeking the truth or seeking the raw information rather than seeking validation to a point you have in your head.

So that’s just one way to kind of try to identify before you get too deep whether or not you’re going to be objective. So just really quickly to illustrate what I’m talking about, I pulled up some of the coverage for this Abodo campaign I’m talking about and I think it’ll point to how different publishers will cover the story and how these tactics work and produce results you’re looking for.

So I have the Mic coverage pulled up at the headline is “Here’s How homophobic, sexist, and Racist Each U.S. State Really Is.” The interesting thing about this is it calls to attention the tangential angle I was talking about and how well it works because—let me just really quickly read the introductory paragraphs. It says:

“When looking for a place to live, you might consider a neighborhood safety, its school system, or its proximity to loved ones. But what about considering whether you’re moving to a place that might be full of racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and body shaming?

Real estate site Abodo conducted nationwide research by combing through tweets sent from June 2014 to December 2015 in order to find out which states and cities harbor the highest rates of prejudice against various groups. Here’s what Abodo found.”

Then the article goes to present the information. This is the perfect example of how doing something tangential that still makes sense for your brand and makes sense what the intent was in creating it is the perfect balance because publishers see the connection and they feel more comfortable writing about it. Another example I want to touch on is a regional example by The Baltimore Sun. So a lot of the times when you have map based assets in campaigns, you see that different local papers will pick up the specific part of the kit the content that relates to their location.

So this article’s headline is: “Tweet Analysis Shows Baltimore Leads The Nation in Racial Slurs Against African-Americans.” And the way that Abodo is mentioned in this is—well, this is from the paragraph:

“According to an analysis by the online rental service Abodo, Baltimore leads the nation in tweeting racial slurs against African-Americans.”

So like I mentioned before, the article goes into the data and why it may be the case, but Abodo is referred to as conducting the analysis and that’s essentially it. And that’s the level of balance you’re trying to achieve and that’s what you have to explain to your boss. There is a way to do this. There is a right way to do this. You can’t throw controversial content out there without any kind of you know, organization at the beginning, any kind of plan. Obviously, we would never recommend that and you would never want to tell your boss to do that because there’s way too much risk there. But there is a way to set everything up so that you’re providing accurate data, objectively, that contributes to a story that’s related to your brand that can get a lot of links.

If you have any other questions about how to make this case—or actually if you just want to chat about anything if you have questions for the podcast—you can email me or you can follow me on Twitter. I don’t think I mentioned my Twitter handle yet, it’s @Millanda.

And actually because you tolerated this audio quality of this episode and all of the popping and clipping, if you tweet at me a question for the podcast, I’ll make sure to prioritize it in the episode lineup because you deserve it. I appreciate you sticking with me, and I promise that I’ll get my mic back or get a new mic and get the quality back up.

Thanks again for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, click subscribe. Don’t leave me with the realization that I’m talking to no one and please rate and review on iTunes so I can keep making this podcast better and your lives easier. Take care.


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