It’s one of the oldest rules in marketing: controversy sells. Controversy sells books, movies, and newspapers. And with the right product, it can be a great strategy for selling products and services. Even if your product or service is fairly tame, throw in a bit of controversy into your marketing strategy, and you’ve got all the makings for a viral blog post or ad.
Consider the recent controversy surrounding STDCheck.com’s blog post titled “5 Colleges with the Highest STD Rates”. Who wouldn’t want to know how their former alma mater fared in these rankings? This is one college-ranking list, however, that no school wanted to be on! One school even filed a cease and desist letter against the company requesting that their name be removed from the blog entirely. The list was an overnight viral sensation, bringing new visitors (and potential customers) to STDCheck.com’s website. It was even featured on the evening news.
Of course, we want to say this is an amazing accomplishment – and it really is. But it’s vital to prepare for such success. If your business is planning to harness controversy for viral attention, it’s critical that you’re aware of the upsides and downsides associated with viral content. Keep the following in mind:
Pick a relevant topic. It goes without saying that your blog topic needs to be controversial. But it also needs to be relevant to your business’s core mission, product and/or service. “5 Colleges with the Highest STD Rates” works great for an STD website or even a website with a broader public health focus. It would not, however, be a wise choice for a financial company or executive recruitment firm’s blog. If you’re going to push the envelope, be sure the content is still relevant. Controversy requires you to take a position, which can come with a cost. It’s great to be bold, but just be sure this bold move aligns with your brand’s values.
Write a click-worthy headline. No, I’m not suggesting an Upworthy-style click-bait headline. But a compelling headline that succinctly references your subject matter’s inherent controversy is essential for successful viral content. Consider a headline that recently appeared on Today’s “Parents” blog: “Child leashes: Are they helpful or humiliating?” Even if you don’t have children, it’s hard not to click on a story where the headline references child leashes! While you never want to sound like a supermarket tabloid, don’t shy away from the controversy. Titles that are vivid, graphic and attention grabbing will stand out when folks are scrolling through their Facebook feeds and they cannot be ignored.
Do your homework, protect your reputation. If you create your content with the intention of it going viral, be prepared for the downsides (as well as the upsides) of this instant fame. As much as the Internet loves to build people up and create overnight stars, the Internet also loves to tear people down and rip things apart. When publishing a blog post on a controversial topic, take the time to really dig into your subject matter and ensure the topic is well researched. The “5 Colleges with the Highest STD Rates” blog post received a lot of criticism from readers who felt the post’s content was not well sourced and incorrect conclusions were being drawn from the research. It’s inevitable that some people will criticize your content and even disagree with it. As long as your research is correctly cited and factually based, however, even if people disagree with your content, you’ll still protect your reputation.
Yes, controversy sells, but it’s a double-edged sword that can also turn the public against you. Before publishing your controversial blog, be sure that you’ve done due diligence and you’ve got a good grasp on just how much your audience is willing to handle. Pushing the envelope too far can backfire.