Controversial, Risky, and Offensive Content: When is it Appropriate for Online Marketing Success?

by Marcus Sheridan

risky content

I was fortunate enough to speak at the Go Inbound marketing event in Indianapolis yesterday and was asked a very interesting question from a kind lady in the audience:

“You talk a lot about honesty, transparency, and answering customer questions. With our business, I see a lot of things wrong in the industry but really don’t know if I want to talk about them on my blog and rock the boat. What do you think?”

This is a very interesting question, and one that deserves serious attention as many companies, big and small, are confronted with this issue the moment they decide to embrace online marketing and put their thoughts out there for the world to see.

And if they truly do want these marketing efforts to help them become one of the premier voices and thought leaders of their industry, they are going to have to be willing to tackle subjects others simply won’t mess with.

My response to the lady’s question above was a simple one:

“When you’re talking with a prospect, do these subjects come up and are you honest with your thoughts when they do?”

Her reply was telling:

“Yes, they do come up and I’m honest in that moment, but it’s different when you’re just talking to a customer vs. publishing your thoughts online.”

Hmmm, an interesting statement, one I think many folks have considered before, and begs the question:

Should our online message and communication be much more filtered than our “offline” communication when talking with prospects and customers?

My philosophy in a case like this is a simple one, and it came out in my response to the lady I was conversing with:

“Actually, when you talk to a customer you’re verbally publishing your thoughts, which in this day and age of social media is like sharing it with the world anyway. In other words, if you would do it in that moment there is a good chance you should do it on your digital platforms as well.”

Instead of hiding from the constant comparisons with the Apple iPhone, Samsung chose an incredibly creative and gutsy marketing approach.

Instead of hiding from the constant comparisons with the Apple iPhone, Samsung chose an incredibly creative and gutsy marketing approach.

Now granted, whether it’s a one-on-one communication or one-on-many(digital), it’s important to use tact and common sense. This being said, one of the main reasons so many individuals and businesses fail to get any momentum online is because they don’t have the guts to talk about things that are at all controversial or risky. Unfortunately for these businesses, in almost every industry, it’s the “apparent” controversial/risky/potentially offensive articles that get the greatest results.

For example, when it comes to my swimming pool company, here are the 5 most trafficked blog posts we’ve ever written:

1. How much does a fiberglass pool cost? (“Risky” because almost no one in the pool industry talks about pricing online for fear of the competition or scaring off potential customers.)

2. Fiberglass vs. Concrete vs. Vinyl Liner Pools: An Honest Comparison (“Risky” because we were freely admitting the benefits of concrete and vinyl liner pools over fiberglass)

3. Top 5 Fiberglass Pool Problems and Solutions (“Risky” because we were openly discussing the faults of our products)

4. Small Inground Fiberglass Pool Design Awards for 2010 (“Risky” because this was the first time I gave competitors awards)

5. Viking Fiberglass Pools vs. Trilogy Pools Reviews / Ratings: Which is Better? (“Risky” and “Controversial” because we were taking a stand on a product we sold versus one of the leading competitors.)

Although comparing two major brands in any industry can seem risky, it certainly can pay huge dividends when done the right way.

Although comparing two major brands in any industry can seem risky, it certainly can pay huge dividends when done the right way.

You likely already know, but each of these articles has generated a huge amount of traffic, leads, and sales to River Pools. In fact, because of our advanced analytics, these 5 articles, “risky” as they may be to some, have generated to date over $4 million dollars in sales for the company we otherwise would not have had.

Furthermore, I can honestly say that if we hadn’t written these 5 articles I don’t know if we’d still be in business today.

But because we allowed our customers to be the true editorial guide of our content and therefore were willing to openly address these subjects—the same online as we would offline in a normal conversation with a customer—River Pools today is the most trafficked swimming pool website in the world and the dominant voice and brand of the fiberglass swimming pool industry.

Luke Warm Content Gets Luke Warm Results

As you can likely imagine, this principle of honesty and transparency in our marketing efforts doesn’t just apply to pools. In fact, it very much applies to essentially any industry out there right now.

My friends at Yale Appliance are absolute blogging masters, mainly because they aren't afraid to share their opinions, which is why posts like this one have been read thousands upon thousands of times.

My friends at Yale Appliance are absolute blogging masters, mainly because they aren’t afraid to share their opinions, which is why posts like this one have been read thousands upon thousands of times.

Currently, I have clients that are government contractors, lawyers, pharmacists, software developers, home builders, consultants, doctors, etc.—and each company experiences almost the exact same results with their content marketing:

The more honest they are and the more they embrace what others in their industry see as “risky” (articles dealing with prices, comparisons, reviews, problems, etc.) the more they see a significant increase in traffic, leads, and sales.

Please understand I’m not espousing being irresponsible and lawless online. As with anything else in this world, too much of anything can be bad, and this article is clearly not a green light for “stupid content.” Furthermore, risky and controversial content shouldn’t be “sought out.” If your consumer base truly seeks answers, then that’s one thing, but if you’re just looking to draw attention to your brand or company, then there’s a good chance you’re off-base.

That being said,  honesty, transparency, and bravery are a rare thing for businesses online, especially in many “old-school” industries.

So my challenge to readers is simple:

Have guts.

Talk about things others run from.

And if there is an elephant in the room, intelligently and tactfully tell everyone else where they can find it.

Your Turn

What’s your take on controversial, gutsy content? I’m sure we can all agree that everything must be done in moderation, but how does your company define how far to go? Also, if you have an example, tell us about a controversial or “risky” article you wrote and what the results were.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Paolo June 14, 2013 at

Marcus,

I think that inbound marketing works only if you have the courage tell everything.
When I look for information on a certain product or service I want to find everything.
I look for the the worst issues, the strange things, and not for the common commercial infos you can find everywhere.
This is the core of inbound marketing and content marketing. To produce useful content for the consumer.
And if this content is something that bothers or hurts someone the better for the consumer.
It ‘also an incentive for companies to produce better products and services.
Therefore welcome to controversial and risky content in online marketing.
Great post as usual.

Reply

Marcus Sheridan June 15, 2013 at

Paolo, LOVE your approach and thoughts. Really, I hope others will catch your special vision.

Cheers to you sir,

Marcus

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Iain June 19, 2013 at

I’m with you Paolo,

I love reading reviews of products that are honest reviews. If something sucks, tell people. If something doesn’t work properly, tell people.

Too often people talk about all these amazing things and don’t get into the meat of things.

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Kristen June 14, 2013 at

I haven’t had the opportunity to write anything risky yet, but if/when that time comes, I definitely won’t shy away. In my experience, it’s so easy to tell when a blogger or writer is being dishonest, or holding something back, or avoiding the elephant in the room.

On the flip side, tackling that elephant and writing about risky or potentially offensive subject matter for the SOLE purpose of getting page views is not a good idea, either. People are smart. They can tell.

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Marcus Sheridan June 15, 2013 at

Well that’s exactly it Kristen, one must be careful about not becoming “the blogger that cried wolf”–otherwise one ends up looking desperate for attention, and quite unprofessional as well.

Thanks so much for stopping by,

Marcus

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Jason Diller June 14, 2013 at

This is always a great questions. I think if we fast forward marketing 5 years, this will be common place.

Think about car buying. I’m looking at an Infiniti 37 coupe. 10 years ago, I would have never thought Infiniti would show all the specs on the BMW 335i, Audi A5, and Cadillac STS on their website. Now this is common place.

It’s all about the Honest Economy… Yeah, the BMW has more torque…and Infiniti isn’t afraid to put that on their website. They also aren’t afraid to talk about how the BMW is a polished ride, but probably too soft for hard core driving enthusiasts. It’s a two way street, but all about being honest.

I write risky things all the time about advertising, media buying, and other traditional stuff.

Marcus’s play here is right on point.

Cheers, bro.

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Marcus Sheridan June 15, 2013 at

AWESOME analogy Jason. I actually wasn’t aware that was what Infinity was doing, but it’s the perfect comparison.

And yes, I also hope this will be commonplace my friend. Then we could say we saw it coming ;-)

Marcus

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Sheryl Kurland June 14, 2013 at

Marcus, I’ve wondered about this topic, whether it’s “safe” to be controversial or state a strong opinion which surely others will just as strongly disagree with in writing and/or in person. Something unusual has happened to me with regard to this…I actually went way out on a limb a couple of months ago and predicted Michelle Chamuel will win “The Voice” (TV singing competition, winner to be announced next week) and I’ve been regularly writing about her in my blog (http://tinyurl.com/l4guyl3) … Surprising to me, it’s stirred a lot of conversation both online and in-person, particularly because she apparently is Jewish and gay but NEITHER of which I’ve ever mentioned in writing or verbally. It’s definitely driven traffic my way.

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Kristen June 14, 2013 at

It makes me really sad that a figure is “controversial” due to being Jewish and gay.

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Sheryl Kurland June 14, 2013 at

It is sad, I agree with you, Kristen. My hope is that people will love Michelle for who she is and for the gifts she brings to the world. Period.

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Marcus Sheridan June 15, 2013 at

Sheryl, great seeing you stop by, as always.

Your experience here is an interesting one. Fact is, most people online wouldn’t even touch a slightly controversial subject, like the one you’ve mentioned, and because of that, few are standing out.

So just doing your thing my friend :-)

Marcus

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Mary DeMuth (@MaryDeMuth) June 14, 2013 at

Thank you so much for this. It’s a validation of how I’ve been blogging (over 9 years now).

BTW, my friends Hannah Hill and Thomas Umstattd have “introduced” me to you. They really value you and love working with you.

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Cheryl Pickett June 14, 2013 at

HI Mary, Just so you feel even more at home here with the Lion, I thought I’d pop in to let you know I’ve been following your journey as a writer for at least a couple years. Nice to connect with you here too. Even though some of what Marcus writes is for larger companies than what we are as solo authors, I’m sure you’ll find some useful tips.

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Marcus Sheridan June 15, 2013 at

Thank you Cheryl!! ;-)

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Marcus Sheridan June 15, 2013 at

Awesome Mary! They’re good people indeed, so I’m thrilled to have you stop by :-)

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Jamie Anderson June 14, 2013 at

Hey Marcus,

That is some amazing numbers you mentioned about how much those articles you published on your pool blog have made you in sales. I had a look at your pool site and really liked the layout, spent more time than I should’ve checking out the gallery too!

It’s a dream of mine to have my own swimming pool, but I’m afraid I’ll have to own my own home abroad first as we don’t exactly have the weather for it here in Scotland.

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Marcus Sheridan June 15, 2013 at

Scotland Jamie? Nice!! I’m not sure they even have fiberglass pools in Scotland! :-)

Either way, thanks so much for stopping by both sites and continued success sir!

Marcus

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Marshall Ponzi June 14, 2013 at

Hey, Marcus:

As usual, spot on.

IMHO, if you are an established brand, consultant or personality, you may have earned the right to tell it like it is. But many of the best content marketers are up-and-comers, solo-preneurs, etc.

Like any other social interaction (Rotary Club, networking club, church group, etc.) it’s a good idea to measure the mood of the audience before waxing eloquent. A little humility goes a long way when establishing yourself.

It’s just social “common sense.” (if there is such a thing.)

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Marcus Sheridan June 15, 2013 at

As usual Marshall, very well said. Yes, this has much to do with common sense–understanding the situation and using the right amount of “balance” in all things.

Thanks again for stopping by bud,

Marcus

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Simon June 17, 2013 at

One needs to be more careful in online content writing because it lacks the non-verbal gesture which are present in offline face to face communication and help in saying controversial words in way they look normal to the customers.

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Sebastian Aiden Daniels June 17, 2013 at

I completely agree that the most responsive blog posts I have had in my short term blogging have been from ones that were emotionally open and honest. People love transparency on the web because it allows people to trust you because if it was in person they can pick up on subtle clues to how honest you are, but online it has to be all out there or else they might think you are suspicious. I always prefer people who gives me the pros and cons of something because there are almost always pros and cons. Don’t try to sell me just the positives.

Trust is everything.

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Chris Huntley June 21, 2013 at

Hey Marcus,
When you posted this and said “many businesses fail because they don’t have the guts to write something controversial or risky,” it got me thinking of this idea I’ve had for a post for over 6 months.

Well, I just posted it today. http://www.insuranceblogbychris.com/chicks-dig-guys-with-big-policies/

It’s intended to be funny, but some will definitely find it offensive. What do you think?

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Marcus Sheridan June 26, 2013 at

Chris, I commend you for being different and a difficult digital world. I suggest you continue to experiment, test, keep learning, and let that be your measuring stick of success.

Cheers my friend,

Marcus

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Ozio Media June 22, 2013 at

Taking a stand on any issue is almost always controversial in some way. It is also the exact sort of content that many prospective customers will be looking for when they are doing purchase research on the web. Having a clear opinion is one way that you can be certain that you will stand out from the mediocre mass of content on the internet that is too frightened to state their genuine opinions.

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Marcus Sheridan June 26, 2013 at

Amen to that! :-)

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T.C. Teresa Clark July 22, 2013 at

Marcus,

Fantastic article! I absolutely agree that luke warm content will get you luke warm results. Here is something that I do that keeps my content from becoming, as you said, luke warm.

Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm!! This cannot be stressed enough. Use something like Creative Content Collaboration, or Triple C for short. Getting in touch with a business partner in your industry, or even outside of your industry (which is often times more productive) can help create content that is readable and interesting for the reader. Flipping this content every 6 months or so can also help keep your content charismatic and fresh!

Thanks,

T.C.

Reply

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