Use controversy with caution

by Martin Reed on 30 July 2007 in Articles

Back in April, I wrote about how you can use suspense to promote interaction within your community. Another technique that I am seeing more often is the use of deliberate controversy.

Controversy can be a great way of encouraging interaction amongst your community members, however it can be a dangerous method to employ.

Why controversy can encourage interaction

Community controversyNothing gets people emotionally involved in an argument more than controversy. Just as you may consider religion and politics a subject you do not want to get involved in, these same subjects can generate a huge amount of interaction and content for your community.

A community where everyone agrees with everyone else, and the only posts are those where members say hello and goodbye is boring. A community that enjoys a little controversy and upsets some of its members from time to time can be exciting.

The dangers of using controversy

The very same aspects that can make your community a little more exciting can also drive your members away. Writing a post that you may very well not actually agree with, but know will generate controversy, can send your members the wrong signal.

They may believe that what you are writing comes from your heart and that they are your true opinions. Some people feel passionately about certain subjects. Using controversy could drive them away and leave them so angry they never return.

This is only one extreme, though. If you use controversy with caution and only employ it when you understand your community, you should be able to stir up your members without antagonising them.

My opinion

I think controversy is a fantastic way of generating interaction. It must be used carefully though. Only employ this tactic if you are confident you will not end up driving members away. If you have never written a deliberately controversial post before, work yourself up to it. Write something you think may be mildly controversial before going for the jugular!

Perhaps start off by disagreeing with something like the minimum wage. If this goes down well, try something a little more controversial; perhaps write about what you consider to be the benefits of war. Just tread softly and see how your community deals with controversy.

You will soon learn how far you can push your members and in the meantime will be encouraging interaction and hopefully be having a little fun!

Your opinions

What are your thoughts on using controversy to encourage interaction? Do you feel it is unethical? Do you feel that by employing such a tactic you are playing with fire? Have you deliberately written controversial content to stir up your members? Share your experiences and thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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Tim July 30, 2007 at 6:26 pm

I think there’s nothing wrong with being a little controverse. If my communtity consisted of highly emotional people that threaten to leave every time someone criticizes something… There’s no point in continueing working for this community as it doesn’t want to change.

Smiley July 30, 2007 at 7:46 pm

You know me, Martin, I’m a big fan of controversy! I’m never happier than when a gang of people frothing at the mouth are throwing abuse at me, I eerily get off on it a little too much – LOL.

However; I remember to tone it down at my place. I leave the in-character me for the big, popular sites that aren’t affected by it.

I have not yet used controversy at mine, as there’s only a handful of regs, most of them are brand new who I’ve only just met, so I don’t know them that well as of yet. Although everyone enjoys a good French-bashing, so we all do that!

In the future, I may create an alter-ego for controversial posts first, to test the waters and see how they react to it. If it goes sour, then, I can swoop in and act the hero heh heh, no harm done then.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 30, 2007 at 10:56 pm

Tim – You make a good point; there is no fun in running a community if you are always pandering to a bunch of over emotional members! A bit of controversy should help toughen them up ;)

Smiley – It’s a good idea to wait until you know your community and members before hitting out with the controversy! I am glad to hear that you are trying to hold back a bit (at least for the time being!).

Smiley July 30, 2007 at 11:46 pm

Hee hee, you know me too well. Temptation is always there. You have no idea how much I had to grit my teeth when one member slagged of Maggie Thatcher!

Anthony July 31, 2007 at 4:20 am

Instead of being controversial i try and be provocative. Its only a slight difference but makes a world of difference

Biddy July 31, 2007 at 10:40 am

“Sometimes I think that…” can be a useful phrase for distancing yourself personally from an extreme viewpoint you’re trying out. It signals that it’s not quite your *actual* opinion, but an extreme stance sometimes born out of frustration. It can open up discussion of the extreme viewpoint itself, without leaving you having to argue for a position you don’t actually support.

e.g. I said somewhere a while back something like “eBay buyers who send cheques are so slow to post them, sometimes I think they should make Paypal compulsory” – which didn’t half spur a debate… and left me free to be part of the debate, not having to defend an indefensible position.

Martin Reed - Blog Author August 3, 2007 at 6:39 pm

Smiley – I am amazed you managed to hold back during such an outrageous attack

Anthony – Being pro-active is extremely important and will aid your community’s development no end. Do you have any examples to share with us?

Biddy – I couldn’t agree more; making your opinion on things a little uncertain can open up discussion but prevent other members from being offended.

sportsthought November 16, 2007 at 9:34 am

I’ve had great sucess with controversy, without trying to be contoversal – I was just giving my honest opinion. That led to one of my posts being picked up by the telegragh

I had another post that got a lot of reaction – again I believe it pays to just be honest with your opinions – if they are good enough you will get a reaction. In this case the Potuguese came after me :)

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 16, 2007 at 6:58 pm

Sportsthought – Creating controversy without even having that intention, eh?!? Well done! Your experience just goes to show that honesty can be the best policy – particularly if you have ‘unique’ or ‘minority’ opinions!

Eva White June 16, 2008 at 7:55 am

Controversies sure help making you popular. Everyone has an opion and most people get divided over the core issues. It makes for interesting reading.

Martin Reed - Blog Author June 26, 2008 at 11:42 pm

Eva – Yup, the occasional controversy can work wonders for an online community. You do need to keep a close eye on such threads though, to ensure they don’t descend into slanging matches which can actually damage your community.

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