Conversation, Controversy, and What’s Really Important

Controversy legend

Nothing gets your hackles up more than spotting a post that you passionately disagree with. You smack the REPLY link and start banging away on your keyboard….you’ll set ’em straight!

Aren’t social media grand?

Well, while controversy does ignite content, and can fascinate and engage people in a way few other approaches can, it is not a sustainable strategy for your business. Passion is one thing, screaming online is another.

First, though, distinguish between controversial content from that which is conversational or thought-provoking. A definition of controversial is “a state of prolonged, contentious public dispute or debate.” Take a close look at the words “prolonged,” “contentious,” and “public.”

Sometimes you just can’t dodge controversy, but is it something you should mindfully pursue as a content strategy? Sit back and think about this: can you identify any respected, successful company or organization that pursues a prolonged dispute as a marketing strategy?


Companies avoid controversy if at all possible. Negative emotion is not what you want your brand built upon. Numerous studies arrive at the same conclusion: positive, uplifting content gets more views and clicks over time.

Another reason to avoid controversy as a transmission strategy is the that you may attract the entirely wrong audience. An online ‘dust-up’ is like a schoolyard fight. The fascination value might drive a short spike in traffic, but will it make someone want to befriend you? Become a paying customer? Or are they more likely to watch the fight from the sidelines and walk away when it’s over?

If a controversy is associated with a positive cause it can be used effectively. Remember when the CVS pharmacy chain “dropped the bomb” that they were banning cigarette sales from their stores as part of their corporate focus on wellness? That’s a great example of a positive controversy.

You come to this discussion of conversation and controversy as you put together and hone your content strategy, deciding what’s really important to your audience, to the company and to the effectiveness of the strategy itself.

Well, here’s a shocker: the most important part of your content is not your content.

How’s THAT for controversy?

It turns out that, despite the quality of your world-class, premium content, if your headline sucks, no one will read it. The state of the online world today dictates that you craft a descriptive, emotive, accurate, catchy ‘tweet-able” headline or you’re sunk. This is so fundamental that it is usually missed by many content creators. We live in a world of scanner, and if you can’t snag them in a nanosecond, they’re gone. they will NEVER see the rest of the post.

Mark Schaefer lists his ‘Ever-So-Useful Best Blog Post Headline Practices’ as:
  • Make it Tweetable (that is, short). Headlines with 8 words or less are shared 21% more than average.
  • Make it descriptive and accurate, Never mislead readers.
  • Make it creative enough to stand out in a crowded list of content choices.
  • Reference a numbered list to increase social transmission by 50% (something like: : “Six Extraordinary Lessons from The Content Code”).
  • Make sure the headline offers something helpful.
  • Include one keyword or phrase to help a search engine determine the theme of the article and aid your SEO.
  • Don’t let your headline be an afterthought. The headline is the most critical part of the post. Work it.
The warmth and coolness of words make a difference, too. In another study of blog posts that had received over 1,000 social shares over a year, headlines that featured a warm or “human” word like “food,” home,” or “lifestyle” made up 85% of the world’s most viral content. Cool words like “business,” “tech,” and “news” were only part of 14% of that traffic.

There are a couple of useful tools that you can use to analyze and tweak your headlines, and they’re both free. One is the Headline Analyzer from the Advanced Marketing Institute . It works on the theory that increasing the emotional marketing value (EMV) of your headline drives more social sharing. You just need to be careful that it you don’t go over the edge, as too emotional is as unattractive as not emotional.  The other tool is the Blog Post Headline Analyzer from CoSchedule. It analyzes your headline for word balance, headline type, length, search-ability and other factors, and provides tips on improving your score. In my experience, a headline with a score around 70 or above is likely to work for you, as long as it hits the other points in the list above, too.

How hard is it for you to write an eyeball-grabbing headline? What was your best headline ever?

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