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How to Discuss a Controversial Topic on Social Media


Even hearing the phrase “social media controversy” is enough to send many business leaders ducking under a desk in their office and hiding until the din has died down on the digital playground. It usually makes them wince because they want their customers and prospects to associate positive feelings with their company, and they believe that controversy is inherently antithetical to the concept of positivity.

Thanks largely to the prevalence of social media and the proliferation of information sources, we now have near-constant access to more viewpoints and events than at any time in history. People are liable to cement their position on an issue early on, which makes it almost impossible to avoid controversy completely if you plan on interacting with people in a social media forum. It doesn’t especially matter what industry your business operates in or who your core customer base is; at some point you’re going to find yourself faced with a topic that is sure to engender strong feelings throughout audience members in one way or another.

But the terrifying specter of controversy doesn’t have to hang over your company’s head, waiting to cause mayhem at the worst possible time. Creating a conversation surrounding a controversial topic can have numerous benefits for your company’s brand awareness, brand loyalty, and revenue. Not everyone will like what you post, and there are still potential opportunities for a misstep, but it is possible to have honest conversations on social media platforms that engage the audience in ways that would be impossible if you decided to sidestep the issue completely.

Engage in honest discussions

Honesty is a core tenet of any aspect of marketing or brand management strategy, but its importance becomes magnified when viewed through the lens of controversy and social media. Because these conversations are tied to intense personal feelings, people are more attuned to searching for examples of hypocrisy and dishonesty which they can then use to bolster their claim. If consumers sense you’re trying to attract attention with a controversial subject without honestly engaging with the participants, it will likely be seen as a crass attempt at cheap publicity.


Image source: https://chipotle.com/2015incidents

One of the most recent notable examples of the power of honesty in conjunction with controversy came from fast casual restaurant power-player, Chipotle. As stories of food borne illnesses contracted from Chipotle restaurants spread throughout the 24-hour news cycle, the burrito chain found itself forced to address the issue that it had made crucial mistakes in food handling practices. Chipotle executives chose to display detailed information about the restaurants affected and the number of people sickened in each incident on its social channels. This transparency about the damage the illnesses had caused signaled to the public that Chipotle understood what a serious matter they were dealing with, and that they were committed to being open about the steps taken to address the dangers that had caused the sickness.

Tap into audience passions

Studies have shown that content is more likely to go viral when it inspires certain specific emotions: notable anxiety, awe, and anger. These particular emotions are seen as being high-energy, and they typically encourage a passionate response to the issue that the content is addressing. When the audience senses one of these high-energy emotions they usually feel more compelled to act, and this action can take the form of interacting with your content directly in some way or sharing it with a greater audience.


Image source: https://twitter.com/JohnStamos/status/762819726342885377

The Twilight film series put this principle to good use while promoting the second movie in the series on social media. Now, Twilight may or may not be your idea of cinematic excellence, but that’s beside the point. The question of whether you were #TeamEdward or #TeamJacob immediately inspired passionate responses among the series’ most devoted fans, which then spread to the greater culture at large. The film essentially positioned its fans against one another, which led to intense feelings of anger towards the opposing side and awe for your own.

Remember that timing is important

Many social media marketers probably feel like their lives are controlled by the concept of proper timing, and it’s no different when it comes to controversial content. Just as it’s important to give your customers the appropriate information based on their stage in the buying funnel, you have to have a feel for when a controversial discussion is going to have the biggest impact on the public without being seen as cravenly opportunistic. Knowing when to engage your audience is as important as knowing how to engage them. If you promote your content too soon, it could be perceived as an attempt to capitalize on an issue without any substantive thought behind your stance. Wait until it’s too late, and the audience could begin to view your brand as behind the times, or unwilling to take a stand until hearing from other entities.

Break conventions if it makes sense for your brand

One of the best ways to embrace controversy and drive awareness is to do something that the audience isn’t suspecting. Informal conventions run deep on most social media platforms, and the regular users of such channels have become conditioned to expect content that mostly follows these rules and stays within the lane of the particular site in question. When bold companies decide they want to break these conventions and share something new with the audience, interesting things can happen.


Image source: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/appropriate-linkedin-candice-galek?trk=mp-reader-card

The story of Bikini Luxe and LinkedIn is a prime example of this, as a forward-thinking entrepreneur decided that controversy is a great way to differentiate a brand in a highly-competitive market such as retail clothing. While many staid LinkedIn users cried outrage over Candice Galek’s decision to utilize bikini-clad models on the site known for professional networking, many others applauded her creativity, resulting in 30,000 new LinkedIn followers following the controversy.

Embrace user-generated content

Inviting users to create their own content and submit it through social media is a trend that has been gaining traction in recent years. Whether it is tied to a contest or just used as a way for fans to display their passion for a brand, user-generated content is a great way to make customers feel like they are actively involved in the branding story of your company, and it can be a portal to controversial discussions as well.

Yes, soliciting user-generated content opens you up to the trolls and nihilists of the web, and it’s a wise idea to delete posts that don’t attempt to provide any value and are merely created as a vehicle for offending others. However, when a user posts something honest that conflicts with the views of others in the forum, it can be a positive for all involved. Recent evidence indicates that consumers trust user-generated content up to 50% more than other types of media.

Proudly show your values

Despite the fact that most companies are composed of a diverse collection of individuals who may have differing opinions on current events, that doesn’t mean that the company as a whole can’t share a cohesive set of values. No company is completely apolitical, and that’s OK because most consumers don’t expect them to be. Nearly three-quarters of adults want businesses to comment on the important issues of the day, and the younger the respondent, the more likely they are to share this view.


Image source: https://www.instagram.com/p/pq2yAvky6X/

As many companies witnessed when they celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality in 2015, not everyone will be with you when you take a stand on a divisive issue. Detractors will inevitably emerge from the fog, and it’s crucial to avoid walking back on your stance or else you risk also alienating your core audience who supports your values.

Use controversy as a springboard for listening

One of the great byproducts of controversial topics is that they get people talking, and when customers are talking any successful business should be listening. These discussions create a channel for your core audience to share anything and everything about their feelings for your brand, and you can participate in this process by addressing concerns in a substantive way that demonstrates that you are actively listening to what the customers have to say.

Understand the differences between social media and other interactions

If you’re going to get involved in controversial topics on social media platforms, it’s important to remember that many of the rules of face-to-face conversations don’t apply. When people engage in a face-to-face conversation about something they disagree on, the interaction is still guided by an inherent respect for the other party’s humanity, and it usually requires a longer and much more intense conversation before things start to turn heated.

Social media conversations lack this quality, and the veil of anonymity sometimes makes participants more likely to engage with vitriol. When companies delve into controversy they always have to maintain a high level of respect and avoid succumbing to a culture of anger, even if that seems to be driving the conversation completely from the other side.

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