How to Be Controversial without Being a Jerk

Whether you run your own blog or ghostwrite for those that do, one of the biggest challenges you probably face is engagement. How do you get people, when they visit the site, to leave comments, share, and subscribe?

Do a quick Google search for “how to get more comments” and you’ll find more or less some variation on the same advice:

  • Ask for comments
  • Write personalized content
  • Respond to comments
  • Use social media
  • Be controversial

There are others, but it’s that last one that really sticks – this idea that by poking the proverbial Internet bear with a stick, you can wake it up.

But this piece of advice alone isn’t enough. In fact, it’s often quite dangerous. No one wants to piss people off (well, most people don’t anyways), but more often than not “controversy” turns into vitriol and you alienate half the people already reading.

If you are a freelancer especially, you can’t afford to write like that. Your clients want content that captures attention and drives discussion – not that turns them into a heel that half their readers want to tar and feather.

So to take this often times vague, misleading piece of advice a step further, I’ve gathered a few tips for how to be controversial without being a jerk, gaining all the benefits without creating a firestorm.

Respect Opposing Beliefs

Turn on the TV for five minutes and you’ll find controversy in heaping quantities – some of it real, most of it manufactured.

What you won’t find, however, is respect from either side of any one issue for their opponents. Short news cycles, instant response times, and an ever-more polarized political landscape make people less respectful by the day.

Don’t fall into that trap. Sure it’s easy to generate TONS of traffic if you call someone a “poopy-head” on your blog, but it certainly won’t win you many friends.

As Sonia Simone, the CMO of Copyblogger says, you want authority, not attention.

Attention is easy to get. Jump around waving your arms, yelling at anyone that comes within three feet.

Five years old get attention.

To establish authority, you need to do more. Present a stark viewpoint, back up your opinion with facts, and respect the opinions of those who don’t disagree with you – both in your articles and in the comments.

Not only does this elevate you above the name calling that the Internet is known for, it makes your opinion that much more respected. When you DO call someone out, people will take it more seriously.

Ask and ANSWER Questions

Strong opinions make for powerful blog posts. But if all you do is tell everyone why you are right, you’re lecturing.

Lectures are not engaging, nor are they particularly controversial. They can be informative and you can build a large audience, but will that audience stay loyal to you over time?

Probably not.

To avoid falling into the EDU site trap – where everything you write has no face on it and is designed solely to educate (btw, this can work very well – just look at sites like ListVerse, HowStuffWorks, or WikiHow) – you need to ask and ANSWER questions actively.

Put questions to your audience, engage with them on a personal level, and preemptively answer questions that you pose.

Use personal stories to illustrate WHY you take the position you do. If you hate PC’s and love your Mac, why? It’s not good enough to say “Macs are better”. That just starts an argument. Use personal stories and case studies to illustrate how you would answer that very question.

Facilitate Civilized Conversation

It’s all fine and good to be a nice person in your posts, respect other opinions and ask people to do the same.

But you have a responsibility beyond initial posting duties to keep things civilized. It doesn’t matter what your comment policies are if you don’t uphold them, and I guarantee that if you write about controversial topics, people will be fighting tooth and nail over their own opinions in the comments.

So be proactive. Warn people when they cross a line, answer questions when they are asked, address rudeness directly, and most importantly, stand up for your readers.

I am personally against censorship. If someone calls you an idiot, so be it – at least they’re reading and engaging with the content. But if those mild insults turn into racial epithets, threats, or incredibly insulting or degrading language, it’s time to step in.

Warn the first time, ban the second.

Avoid Non-Topical Discussions

One of my clients maintained a blog for the better part of three years about tablet computers and mobile phones. I managed it for slightly more than half that time and we were constantly brainstorming ways to drive new traffic to the site.

The controversy issue came up and I asked him what topics were most likely to solicit strong opinions from his readers.

Keep in mind that this is a tech niche. It’s VERY easy to rile people up when you talk about the merits of one operating system or device over another. But he wanted to go another direction entirely and talk about the upcoming parliamentary elections in his country.

We want controversy, he was thinking, I can do controversy. But it didn’t fit. Not only is politics a mixed bag I don’t recommend you touch with a ten foot pole (unless you run a political blog), but it had nothing to do with the authority he had developed in  his niche.

Here’s how I see things. If I have 1,000 monthly readers, there’s a good chance at least 25% of them disagree with me on any give opinion – from politics to religion to my choice of major league team in New York.

But they still respect me because I offer advice about things that have an impact on their life – freelancing, working at home and writing.

However, the moment I cross that line and start talking about topics that they feel STRONGER about is the moment I start driving people away from my site. Existing readers bolt, new readers are confused, and you suddenly limit your audience.

Controversy should be topical. Avoid drawing lines in the sand for the sake of drawing lines. Feel free to write off topic, but beware of the impact controversial tangents might have.

Keep It PG for Mixed Audiences

Unless it’s clear that your audience is all adult and can handle a certain level of maturity (don’t assume this unless it’s overwhelmingly obvious), keep it PG.

You want what you write to be as open and inviting as possible, and that means it can be read by anyone in your niche – whether they are fifteen or fifty-five. I don’t assume that all of my readers are in their late 20’s like me, so I keep it (mostly) clean and accessible.

Do the same, even if you are breaching topics that call for a bit of heated language.

Why Controversial Content Works

Humans are opinionated. They feel strongly about everything from the political leaders they vote for to which type of mayonnaise they prefer on their sandwich. People who would otherwise abstain from leaving a comment will jump all over a post in which you take sides on a hot topic, even if you do it politely.

When you can tap into passion – any kind of passion – your blog will benefit because of it. Use the five tips above wisely, find relevant content in your niche that is instantly controversial and market those posts accordingly. I guarantee you’ll see an uptick in engagement because of it.

About Anthony

Thanks for reading my blog! I've been in the digital marketing industry since graduating college in 2006 as a writer and strategist. I have an incredible family, a son with more energy than I can fathom, and an undying love for baseball and board games.

6 Responses to How to Be Controversial without Being a Jerk

  1. Paul Masterson April 5, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    Controversial content written in a fun way can be more enjoyable than the strict serious political type. IMHO… 🙂

    • Anthony April 5, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

      Very good point – if you can have fun with it, most people will have fun with you. There are always a few spoil-sports but they tend to be the minority.

  2. TheGirl April 6, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    Hi Anthony,

    I saw your post on LinkedIn and came by to take a look! You have nice blog and I’ll give you a 5 star rating! I sometimes struggle with getting comments and likes. One thing I would like to know, is how can you measure your loyal base?

    • Anthony April 8, 2013 at 11:37 am #

      Thanks for the comment and review! Just taking a look at your blog and it looks really great! Will leave my review in turn of course.

      Engagement is probably the most common problem in the blogosphere – I’ve seen blogs pull in four or even five digit traffic a day and get almost no comments. Others pull in 50-100 hits a day and get a dozen comments. So finding the loyal followers is super important. Connecting with a social media account, getting people on your email list, and constantly engaging people with questions and personal interactions certainly helps.

      This is one topic I’m still learning myself, though. If I ever figure out a secret formula this will be the first place I write about it 🙂

  3. Lori @ Torontonicity April 7, 2013 at 11:42 am #

    Very good points! I agree that controversial posts tend to gain more comments, but I think ‘respect’ for opposing beliefs is key here, even when writing controversial posts, otherwise you alienate your readers and worse, jeopardize your credibility.

    • Anthony April 8, 2013 at 11:38 am #

      Thanks Lori! From personal experience, I can attest to this. I lost half my readership in the first six months on this blog simply by being a jerk about something that had driven a lot of traffic. It’s a dangerous strategy if used improperly.

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