Courage and clicks: why controversy works

Controversy and click-bait still cut through.

That’s the perhaps unpalatable truth revealed by recent Newsmodo research. Their top performing articles were those with headlines that got “a rise” out of some audiences, making them click through.

“It’s critical that all pitches include a ‘controversial’ headline that has the reader click through, but the article itself is more balanced. The idea is to get more click throughs using these ‘opinionated’ headlines,” Newsmodo advises.

Newspaper editors have known this for years. But it’s a struggle for businesses, even though they are increasingly content producers and providers, to air a strong opinion.

Being controversial is challenging. It’s risky: you never know what stakeholder – or unknown associate of a stakeholder – may take exception to what you’ve written, and get “offended”.

Cut-through needs courage

But the reality is that media organisations and their readers don’t want safe, generic content. They want opinion articles (opinionated articles!) that are strong, with interesting information and unique viewpoints.

Media are inoculated to the bland corporate boilerplate of the average press release. Most get hundreds of these releases every day, all from “world’s leading this” extolling “groundbreaking, world-first that”.

Journalists aren’t expecting to cut and paste them, but to try to extract the truth amid the puffery, and put that into an actual story that’s relevant and interesting to readers.

When it comes to penning a piece and asking somebody else to publish it, different rules apply. That article is expected to be run in full. You can’t plug yourself and your company, because that’s advertorial.

You can’t be safe and cautious, because where’s the story? Where’s the hook, if you’re not saying anything new?

Dare to be bold

The answer, if not controversy, is at least courage.

  • Have the guts to be bold and speak out about what the issues are in your industry.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your strongest opinions.
  • If you’re sharing your own experiences, be honest about the mistakes you’ve made.

People learn far more from failure than success, and it’s a far juicier and more compelling read.

It may not feel comfortable. But we live in a world where sincerity and transparency are increasing critical. Harvard Business Review recently asked: Is it safe for CEOs to voice strong political opinions? It concluded that while “CEO activism” is not without risk, it particularly resonates among millennials (18-35 year olds). They are more likely to think favourably of a company whose CEO speaks out, and are more likely to buy from them.

When top performing headlines are analysed, there are clear patterns of what works. Emotion and direct human engagement are key, as are “curiosity and voyeurism”: “will make you” “this is why” “can we guess” “freaking out” “the reason is” “tears of joy” “shocked to see”.

Being courageous will also have more of an impact when publishing your own content. Try it in your next newsletter or EDM. Run an A/B test and work the phrase “will make you” into one version of the email header. Does it get more responses for you?

Being courageous is about building a brand of courage and truthfulness. No business strategy is without risk. The risk of not having courage is appearing weak or vacillating, or being ignored while your competitors fill the void.

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