Today’s blog post is based on a question that we received from HPC, a supplier of operations solutions for healthcare and corporates. Paraphrasing slightly, the question was as follows:
“We want to publish content on our blog, but we are worried that some of the topics may prove controversial with part of our audience. We don’t want people to comment negatively on our blog if they disagree with our perspective, because we are worried this will bring our business into disrepute. How much risk does a negative comment on our blog pose to our brand?”
That’s a great question.
Most brands avoid courting controversy for precisely this reason. They are scared of offending part of their audience and turning off potential new customers. Especially in a small business context, brands need all the customers they can get. And industries like healthcare are particularly risk-averse. Facilitating access to controversial drugs and treatments could be the difference between life and death for patients.
But such analysis is too one-sided. Let’s take it a level deeper and draw a distinction between:
- A business doing something that brings its reputation into disrepute across the board, and
- A business doing something that some people like and others don’t.
Theranos — a company doomed by a PR crisis
Perhaps the most infamous example of a company that fell from grace in recent years is that of Theranos. Founded by Elizabeth Holmes in 2003, Theranos became widely-known for its blood tests, which required a fraction of the blood needed in existing tests and could be performed at a fraction of the cost. At its peak, the company had a valuation of $10 billion and was the darling of Silicon Valley.
In 2015, WSJ journalist John Carreyou reported that Theranos was using traditional blood testing machines to run its tests, instead of its own supposedly revolutionary devices. Carreyou further alleged that Theranos’ own devices might provide inaccurate results. The company disputed the allegations and sent lawyers after Carreyou’s sources in an attempt to stop them from sharing information with the WSJ.
What began as bad press turned into a full-blown crisis. Theranos was investigated by regulators such as the FDA, sanctioned, and ultimately accused of criminal fraud. As of April 2019, Holmes and her co-founder face 20 years of jail time and fines of $250,000 if convicted. Theranos itself closed down in 2018.
For the purposes of this article, Theranos should be seen as the ultimate example of a company that brought its reputation into disrepute across the board. What began as one negative commenter turned into a crisis that ultimately destroyed a billion-dollar business. No sensible marketer or PR expert should defend Theranos’ business practices.
If you apply the example of Theranos to HPC’s question, you can conclude that no company should be outright lying or advertising unethical business practices on its blog. In such cases, bad PR (and even business failure) would be richly justified.
You can’t please everyone
But there’s a huge difference between a business doing something that’s controversial with part of its audience and an enterprise like Theranos engaging in (and then concealing) fraudulent business practices.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from running Content Viking over the last few years is that you cannot please every customer. Indeed, the more you try to make your business appeal to every potential customer, the more watered-down your brand and offering becomes, and the harder it is to market yourself effectively.
For example, Content Viking used to offer a transactional writing service that was paid by the word. This appealed to price-sensitive customers who wanted to control the volume of content they received every month. Over time, we’ve learned that most (although not all) of these customers are not the right fit for us. We’d rather be viewed less as a transactional agent who processes orders on demand, and more as a partner which provides marketing consulting services and manages more of the content marketing process than just the writing. We are therefore taking steps to discontinue this transactional business model, to the point that we don’t even mention it on our website anymore.
This is controversial with the bargain-hunting types of customers, as they both want to keep prices low and control the volume of content each month. We’re ok with that. We have to be comfortable with some customers potentially not liking us anymore in order to grow and work with the sort of customers that we want. That takes a measure of courage, which is at the core of our values.
The analogy with negative comments on a blog post? Sometimes readers are going to disagree with what you write online. Sometimes strongly. Sometimes those readers will be your customers, and they will get mad. Successful businesses need to have the confidence to be ok with that, and be able to logically defend their ideas. If your position is not fraudulent or unethical, and if you genuinely stand behind it, that shouldn’t be too hard.
As an aside, many times the readers who leave negative comments on a corporate blog will just be trolls or haters. In those cases, no amount of logical defence of your business’ position will be sufficient to appease them. It’s better to just delete their comment, view it as their problem rather than yours, and get on with your day.
Controversy as a marketing opportunity
Here’s a useful heuristic: successful people see opportunities where others see problems. So take a moment to pause and reflect: how can negative comments on a blog post be seen as a positive, as opposed to a negative?
Here’s my two cents.
Imagine that your business publishes an article about a controversial topic in your industry. The article attracts readers with strong opinions on both sides of the debate. The comment section is full of impassioned debate from both sides.
The result? An article like this might just end up getting so much attention that it goes viral. This article about one cryptographer’s decision to stop using Google Chrome garnered 220 comments on both sides of the debate. From a content marketing perspective, businesses can build an audience off the back of one such article, let alone more than one. We have a customer right now who regularly gets 20 leads per month from one article.
Caveat: this doesn’t mean that brands should produce controversial content just for the sake of being controversial. That would be manipulative, and customers see through that sort of thing. If your brand advocates controversial opinions that you don’t actually stand behind, be aware that customers will eventually hold you to your word.
What it does mean is that brands should not be scared of advancing unpopular opinions. Far better to be true to yourself as a brand and attract customers that genuinely resonate with your perspective, rather than publishing mirage content that is watered-down to the point of being insipid.
“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” — Aristotle
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