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February 5, 2021

How to Use Controversial Topics to Expand Your Social Media Reach

Today we bring to you an article shared with us by our friends at Fund & Grow, written by Imran Rahman. A quick summary: On social media, controversial topics get the most coverage because everyone wants to read about them and many like to share their opinions. That’s why it can be rewarding to create content on controversial topics – it can help you reach thousands of people on social media. However, exercise caution while doing so or you may end up losing your reputation and valuable customers as well.

Written By Imran “IR” Rahman

Imran is the CMO of Fund&Grow. He resides in Las Vegas, NV with his wife and daughter.

You may have seen high-profile companies discussing controversial topics or running controversial campaigns on social media.

Such topics and campaigns get a lot of traction which, in turn, helps these businesses expand their social media reach.

But what exactly is a controversial topic?

Controversial topics are those that provoke discussion – they often tap into audience emotion and push the way in which one perceives social boundaries.

They can be about taboo issues; they can elicit shock or even incite debates.

Consider the following example.

This campaign featured Colin Kaepernick.

He was effectively banished from NFL for kneeling during the National Anthem to protest against racial inequality.

No team has signed him since 2016.

However, he stood up for what he believed in, and people connected with that.

Though there were some who opposed this ad, Nike claims their sales rose 31% after its release.

That’s hardly surprising, given that these days younger consumers are more inclined to engage with brands that support strong social causes.

What are the pros and cons of using controversial topics to expand social media reach?

As discussed earlier, controversial topics are a great way to increase your visibility on social media.

But unless you are careful about the topics you choose and the way you handle the campaign and discussion, you could be labeled toxic, demonetized or deplatformed altogether.

Having said that, here are the specific advantages you can hope to receive.

  • Create publicity – discussions that are taboo, shocking, or debatable will often attract attention and rise above the noise that’s ever-present on social media.
  • Generate emotion – You engage best with the audience when you can elicit an emotional response from them, and controversial topics can be a great way to do just that.

Patagonia, an outdoor clothing brand, states that it’s in business to save the planet.

They stick to their words, too, as is evident from things like some of their tweets.

For example, in this tweet they respond to a user as to why they send catalogs, that they send them on recycled paper using non-toxic link, and then they give the user instructions on how to get off their catalog mailing list.

And in another, they explain that the reason they don’t have a Black Friday sale is because, “… it promotes buying more which promotes more waste.”

Now that’s a great way to show commitment to company values and elicit an emotional response from the audience.

  • Start a meaningful conversation – controversial topics can provide a way to take a stand for a cause that is close to your heart – this can inspire a meaningful dialogue with the audience.

For example, in this tweet, Sanofi responds to comedian Roseanne Barr blaming the sedative Ambien for her racism.

“People of all races, religions and nationalities work at Sanofi every day to improve the lives of people around the world. While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

  • Improve sales – there’ll always be people who get offended, but if the majority of your audience connects with your stand, you can experience a boost in customer loyalty, and consequently an increase in your sales figures.

As far as disadvantages are concerned, here are some.

  • People may get offended – there’ll always be individuals on the other side of the fence. So, expect a backlash from a certain section of the audience when you discuss a controversial topic.
  • Loss of audience members/customers – the people who you offend with your discussion or campaign may unfollow you on social media – in other words, you may end up narrowing your demographic to only those who agree with your stance. The worst-case scenario is that the people you offend would completely turn their back on you – and never buy from your company again.
  • Defamation – Unless the issue is dealt with in a sensitive and respectful manner, it can unite your audience against you – which would cause your brand to lose face.
  • You could be demonetized or deplatformed – If the platform on which you post the discussion/campaign sees you as toxic, you could be demonetized or barred from the platform altogether.

Using Controversial Topics

Content is likely to go viral when it inspires emotions like awe, anger, anxiety, etc. because it raises peoples’ passions.

However, in such cases, the discussions can go the other way, too.

To ensure you are more likely to gain, and not lose, by discussing controversial topics, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

  1. Choose the right controversy

As mentioned earlier, topics can be shock, taboo, or debatable.

Out of the three, it is most advisable to discuss debatable topics, because unlike the other two, they have valid and rational points.

Moreover, the points can often be backed by data.

Such topics rarely cause damage to the brand because people rarely get offended or hurt.

Keep in mind that choosing the “right” controversy involves making sure that you get the demographics and timing right.

In other words, you’ll need to pick a controversy that aligns with the social values of your target demographic.

Secondly, try to “create” the controversy around a topic that’s currently trending – this will help ensure you garner maximum eyeballs and audience engagement.

To explain this better, let’s say you own a cigar company.

In that case, choosing a controversial topic like a gay pride campaign wouldn’t make sense for your company.

That’s because a part of your target demographic would consist of older, conservative men with traditional values, and as such, it’s unlikely they would support the cause.

On the other hand, this article by apartment location start-up Abodo, is a good example of choosing the right controversy.

Here, the company analyzed tweets for racist language, then ranked states by tolerance level.

The topic would appeal to the target demographic because most individuals looking for an apartment would prefer to stay in a tolerant and peaceful neighborhood.

If you have a young audience, it can be especially beneficial to choose a topic that supports a social cause that’s close to their hearts.

These days, younger consumers are more likely to engage with brands that support strong social causes.

You must also get the timing right – it won’t make much sense raking up a controversial issue that happened a decade ago because the audience would just not be interested in it anymore.

You are more likely to grab attention if you create content around currently trending topics.

  1. Relate the controversy to your business

When you do this, you stand a better chance of garnering comments, likes, shares, and even an increase in sales.

Burger King, the fast food chain known for its Whoppers, tackled the complicated topic of net neutrality.

It launched a commercial where it showed its employees telling angry and confused customers that they would have to pay a premium if they wanted their food quickly.

The commercial “Whopper Neutrality” explained to the audience why repealing regulations around net neutrality would have a negative impact on everyone.

The ad was a huge success – it got more than 4.6 million views on YouTube (in contrast, the average Burger King video usually gets about 286,000 views).

However, in following this strategy, don’t go overboard and focus too much on your products and services instead of the issue at hand, or you may draw flak from the audience for being too self-serving and insincere.

  1. Make sure all team members are on the same page

Because it’s a controversial topic, there’s all the more reason to ensure that your entire team supports your stand, at least publicly.

For this, you must familiarize them with the idea and guidelines beforehand, so that there’s no risk of different team members exercising unwanted views in front of the audience.

  1. Encourage respectful discussion

This is possible if you back your data with facts and present both sides of the topic, just as Abodo did.

They showed not only the states with the most prejudiced tweets, but also the ones with the least prejudiced tweets.

And of course, they backed the entire thing with solid data.

It also helps if you do not use disrespectful or inflammatory language in the content or in the discussion/comments inspired by your content.

You could also request that your audience be respectful – and remove rude comments, if any, from your page.

  1. Create a management system for negative pushback

When you discuss a controversial topic, there’s always going to be people who oppose it.

In such circumstances, you should have a crisis management system in place to deal with all the negativity.

This will help you handle it calmly without taking any hasty, uncalculated steps that could come back to haunt you.

First, make sure that people at the top of the organization take the initiative to handle such pushback – this will give the message that the issue at hand is being taken seriously.

Secondly, be empathetic, sensitive, and tactful while discussing the issue with the audience – this can help manage the problem to a large extent.

  1. Make use of trending hashtags and opinion polls

These are a great source if you want to identify controversial topics and understand audience views about them.

Hashtags for controversial topics trend very quickly, so you can keep track of them on various social media sites like Twitter, and quickly create related content.

Of course, before you go all out and create/post content, you should understand what your audience views are.

For these, opinion polls on Facebook and Instagram can prove handy.

Make sure you craft your content based on the feedback you get from the audience.

Controversial topics can be a double-edged sword – but if done right, they do more good than harm.

To ensure that you gain from such topics, just follow the guidelines that we’ve discussed.

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