Over the last 12 months or so, we’ve seen our fair share of controversies. With Brexit, Donald Trump being named leader of the free world, and Marine Le Pen pushing Emmanuel Macron all the way in the French elections, there is clearly a growing enthusiasm for ideas, and people, that, for want of a better phrase, go against the grain. But in amongst all this furore, are there lessons to be learned for businesses about harnessing the power of controversy in your content?
Trumping to conclusions
Perhaps the most obvious example of this trend is President Donald Trump, the businessman and reality TV star who, against all odds, became the most powerful individual in the world. He did so by assuring the electorate that he would be a voice for the voiceless, that he would instigate change for the betterment of all, and that he could be relied upon to understand the needs and challenges of real people.
For a man who once tried to sue an author for $5 million because he called Trump a millionaire instead of a billionaire, convincing working Americans that he had the capacity to understand their problems was something of an achievement.
On numerous occasions, Trump lambasted media outlets that either did not agree with his stance on a particular topic, or openly rebelled against his presidency campaign
He also managed to win the affections of people that had grown disillusioned with politics. And he did this by simply not acting like a politician; he threw Twitter tantrums, picked fights, gave contentious answers, and ruthlessly took advantage of any mistakes made by his opponents. His unorthodox methods gained him legions of supporters, many of whom took to social media to praise his ambitions, or discredit his rivals.
On numerous occasions, Trump lambasted media outlets that either did not agree with his stance on a particular topic, or openly rebelled against his presidency campaign. CNN, the American media powerhouse that Trump famously condemned as being ‘fake news’, and the New York Times, the newspaper he regularly describes as ‘failing’, received the lion’s share of his wrath, but other outlets were also been criticised. In doing so, he compelled his supporters to question the legitimacy of these established sources, and encouraged them to dismiss any negative stories as bogus. It was a move that proved to be incredibly effective.
Trump used, and continues to use, controversy to astounding effect. By persuading millions of people that some media sources were out solely to paint him as untrustworthy and devious, he assembled an army of individuals willing to support him through thick and thin. Trump thrived on controversy, because he knew how to use it to his advantage.
Trump used, and continues to use, controversy to astounding effect
Of course, not everyone is Donald Trump. Being provocative isn’t something you should make a habit of doing just for the sake of it. However, by tackling issues that split opinion, or discussing topics that are somewhat taboo, you could significantly enhance your content’s reach, and gain new customers in the process.
The rise of the provocative viral celebrity
For many years the internet has been awash with viral sensations, though pre-2016, the vast majority found fame by doing something comical, unpleasant, impressive, or unequivocally embarrassing. However, during the 2016 American presidential campaign, political commentators with disruptive opinions and inflammatory agendas found that they could become social media hits.
People that were already fairly well-known in certain circles were thrust into the media spotlight, resulting in widespread condemnation of their views from some, but extensive praise from others. Sharp, witty and contentious figures such as Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, Jonathan Pie – alter ego of comedian Tom Walker – Tomi Lahren and Caolan Robertson, amongst others, grew in prominence, primarily due to their willingness to discuss heated topics and champion politically incorrect perspectives.
During the 2016 American presidential campaign, political commentators with disruptive opinions and inflammatory agendas found that they could become social media hits
Let’s take Milo Yiannopoulos, perhaps the most notorious of all political commentators, as as an example. His observations are, to say the least, divisive. He is vehemently opposed to the feminist movement, believes gender inequality is a conspiracy theory, and has stated numerous times that he is ‘dedicated to the destruction of political correctness’. Everything he says is intended to annoy and gratify in equal measure, and it’s a method that has cemented his place in the public eye.
Formerly an editor at Breitbart, Yiannopoulos boasts over two million fans on Facebook, and had in excess of 300,000 Twitter followers before his profile was, rather controversially, deleted in 2016. This is a man with both clout and reach. Even if you disagree with what he says, or the way he says it, there’s no denying that there are vast swathes who listen to his diatribes, and find themselves in complete agreement.
If prior to this blog you were unacquainted with Yiannopoulos’ stances, you may now be of the opinion that he is little more than an antagonist; a contrarian who relishes hostility, who speaks solely to infuriate and incense. However, it would be wrong to dismiss his ability to sway opinion. This man wields significant influence, and it’s largely because, like Trump, he speaks on behalf of people that, until recently, felt ignored.
Yiannopoulos, and others with similar political ideologies, realised that there was a huge gap in the media market, and they quickly moved to fill it. While Yiannopoulos often makes statements caused to irritate and offend, rarely does he say anything without having first considered the consequences. He understands the power of being controversial because that is what had made him, an America at least, a household name. But he also knows that to be controversial successfully, he must, to a certain extent, justify what he is saying.
Yiannopoulos, and others with similar political ideologies, realised that there was a huge gap in the media market, and they quickly moved to fill it
Yiannopoulos is well aware that he is popular amongst his supporters not only because he promotes scandalous opinions, but because he is able to back those opinions up with – occasionally contentious – research and statistics. He knows that being controversial is more than just being confrontational; it’s also about convincing people that controversial isn’t a synonym of incorrect.
The social media echo chamber
Social media allows messages to spread quickly to all corners of the globe. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook give users the ability to touch audiences that would otherwise be completely out of reach, and that’s commendable. Social media can help to bring people together, and affords people the opportunity to engage with content that we may not see elsewhere.
However, social media can also make us complacent. Research carried out by Demos has found that, when using social media, we are more likely to engage with people and media sources that share our beliefs, principles and opinions.
Social media can make us complacent
According to Alex Krasodomski-Jones, who carried out the study, the existence of echo chambers means that we tend to see only what we agree with, which can result in a kind of tunnel vision. And this brings about an important question: if we are only seeing arguments from one side, how are we to make objective decisions? It is when we do not give ourselves the opportunity to see and understand opposing views that rifts arise.
But how, you may ask, does this research relate to the writing of content? Quite simply, it reveals why you must always try to ensure you understand a topic or point of discussion from every available angle. Even if you are convinced that one person’s answer is broadly correct and someone else’s is entirely wrong, try to comprehend how each of them managed to reach their conclusion.
It is when we do not give ourselves the opportunity to see and understand opposing views that rifts arise
If you have made the decision to create content on a topic that is potentially controversial – say you’re giving an opinion on topical matters in your industry, which is a sure fire way to create unique content, by the way – then acknowledge all outlooks. Not only will this help give credence to what you’re saying, but it will help you support your opinions should anyone wish to debate the issue further.
People that disagree with what you say may well have unwittingly positioned themselves in the heart of a social media echo chamber, and could therefore rally against what you are saying. But, if you stand by what you have said, and have ways to back it up, then you could end up convincing them to look at things for a different perspective.
A judgement call
Of course, tackling subjects that split opinion, and expressing views that will likely rub some people up the wrong way, is not an approach that should be taken just for the sake of stimulating debate. For most content marketers, the aim of what they produce is to inform and educate, not stir up disagreement and discord with the aim of gaining some kind of online notoriety.
For most content marketers, the aim of what they produce is to inform and educate, not stir up disagreement and discord
Provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos built their careers on looking at matters in a way that some consider refreshing, but others regard as calculatingly offensive. Of course, it is all a matter of perception.
When it comes to marketing a brand or product, producing content that has the potential to split opinion and alienate potential consumers is not always the right move, but when done properly it can definitely work in your favour. Content that stands out and differs from the norm catches the eye. If, for example, 99 people produce a blog declaring support for a four-day working week, but one person writes a piece condemning the idea, the lone blogger will likely be the most visible.
When it comes to marketing a brand or product, producing content that has the potential to split opinion and alienate potential consumers is not always the right move
The aim of any marketing is to attract attention. A business succeeds by obtaining customers that could, feasibly, have gone elsewhere and received a similar service. By being noticeably different, and by refusing to stick with the status quo, people could well see you as a more attractive proposition when placed side by side with your competitors.