Is controversy the key to online success?

When it comes to developing an online content strategy there are many considerations but I think that it fundamentally comes down to two things:

  • What do you want to achieve?
  • What are you willing to risk to get it?

People LOVE to gossip, have something to moan about and have an opinion on. Whatever your business you can use this to your advantage because all successful business comes down to understanding people. On that basis I have decided that celebrities (or at least their PRs) are the best content strategists online. Their flirtation with controversy keeps celebrities, with little or no reason to be, front-of-mind on a regular basis.

As much I initially balked at Samantha Brick’s outrageous self-contradictory article on the key to a successful marriage I still read it, as did at least one thousand others judging by the 750+ comments on the article, at the time of writing. She is shamelessly controversial and gets a lot of benefit from doing so. Based on the fact that the Daily Mail site will probably get thousands of links from Twitter, where the article is being mentioned by an array of British account holders, not to mention the advertising revenues from the huge number of page views on the article you can assume that Samantha’s fee for the article was considerable. The Telegraph even wrote about the article, pushing her ‘brand’ to a different audience.

Charlie Sheen is another celebrity who used Twitter to save his career in March 2011 after causing much controversy making derogatory comments about Alcoholics Anonymous and the writers of Two and a Half Men, the TV sit-com he had previously starred in.

It didn’t work out so badly for him:

Charlie Sheen successfully associated himself with the hashtags #winning and #tigerblood which over a year on are still actively used on Twitter and keep this ‘brand’ front-of-mind.

Samsung’s design of the Galaxy S smart phone and tablet caused plenty of controversy for being so similar to the iPhone and iPad designs. Apple have taken Samsung to court claiming that the design breaches copyright law. Whether it does or not, the debate and court case has led to plenty of online coverage and comparisons of the two products, giving both brands ample additional brand awareness. I sincerely doubt that this has caused sales of these products to fall and would argue (although I have no way of proving it) that it has kept the sales of these products up by drawing attention away from other brands newer alternatives.

Although there is usually a backlash for the statements made these ‘brands’ always bounce back, because people are fickle. Even if they remember your controversial history, they won’t hold it against you if what you are offering now is better.

Using controversy as a business

Successfully replicating these outcomes is not a task to be undertaken lightly, but should not necessarily be shied away from. To launch a new brand in a competitive marketplace dominated by big players is a challenge and you cannot always compete on price. We have seen that it doesn’t necessarily matter if the website of an unknown brand out-ranks a known brand on Page 1 of the Google search results, people will scroll down and click through to the brand they know.

It doesn’t matter which product is better it comes down to whether or not people want to buy it.

Apple saved their business by understanding that very principle and using an extremely effective marketing strategy that positions their products as a lifestyle choice and rarely promotes the functionality of their products in any way.

Independent Scottish brewer BrewDog were successfully controversial enough that I read about their antics in an Econsultancy blogpost, I would otherwise have no knowledge of their existence. After wrongfully missing out on an Award at the British Institute of Innkeeping 2012 event due to a meddlesome Diageo employee they did not shrug it off and move on, they wrote all about it on their blog, ending the post with:

‘As for Diageo, once you cut through the glam veneer of pseudo corporate responsibility this incident shows them to be a band of dishonest hammerheads and dumb ass corporate freaks. No soul and no morals, with the integrity of a rabid dog and the style of a wart hog.’

Whilst BrewDog did not engineer this situation, they made the most of it and their underdog status to drum up support and expose the entire scandal. A standard press release would never have generated the same amount of publicity as their provocative blogpost.

As a business flirting with controversy is a potentially risky approach to take, there is a lot to lose:

  • People may hold negative sentiment towards your brand
  • There may be a back-lash
  • The ‘short-term’ loss stops the business from coming out the other end

However, there is a lot to gain, it is a simply a question of aligning:

  • Your brand values
  • Your content and PR strategies
  • Where you are going to position yourself outside of the industry norm
  • The proportion of your potential customers who will support your decision
  • The proportion of your potential customers who will hear about it and not really care

If you want to keep up to date with content strategy trends and digital marketing innovations then keep an eye on my contributions to the blog.

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