Controversy Is the Oxygen of Publicity on Twitter – but Does It Work for Small Businesses?

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Pointers around search-engine optimising a small business Twitter account

In the song by Jonny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue”, the absent father called his son Sue so that he would grow up tough. In doing so, he created a living controversy that insured that his son was never short of unwelcome attention. In the same way, controversy on Twitter attracts attention like fruit flies to a dish of sugar. Every wannabe celebrity knows that if you want to be heard, you have to stand out. Be different. The Admen call this cut-through. But, as any business owner knows, sometimes is it hard to get cut through on your advertising. So should a small business ever consider using controversy to attract attention and ultimately sell on Twitter?

Consider the following statements that a Micro Brewery with a public bar might put out in the course of its messaging on Twitter:

  1. Traditional drinking pubs are hard to find. Fortunately we cater…
  2. Big breweries and crippling Government taxes have killed most traditional drinking pubs. Fortunately we cater…

Which of these is more likely to get a traditional Micro Brewery noticed on Twitter? Of course, it is the latter. This message contains enough information about the subject plus a hint of controversy to spark a debate with the serious drinkers that would be the target audience for a Micro Brewery.

Note that the reference to “big breweries and crippling Government taxes” might be lost on those not familiar with the arguments why traditional drinking pubs are indeed closing down. But that is the point. With social media like Twitter you can be very specific in your wording. The aim is to create engagement with the target audience. If the Micro Brewery were lucky, then interested individuals might choose to enter a debate. This would attract more potential customers on Twitter and also help with the chances of the Micro Brewery being found on Google searches.

Once the brewery had established an audience, it would be useful to continue providing reasons why someone should visit the brewery. This might be the unusual history of the brewery, or information about the types of beer and seasonal variations, for example. Leading on from this, the Micro Brewery might want to encourage participation on Twitter through a quiz style competition and ultimately to run a prize competition that would encourage the local audience to actually visit the pub.

Whatever, you need to keep an eye on your “Signal to Noise ratio”.  Your signal is the message that you want to put across and the noise is the mountain of messages that comprise Twitter. Generally, there is just too much noise compared to your signal. It sounds positively boring compared to the controversy tactics used by wannabe celebrities, but in order for a local business to stand out you have to do the basics and provide relevant material and real value. Quality is much more important for a business seeking publicity on Twitter than quantity.

Man Down the Pub Test

So what topic or organisation is a safe target to use to create controversy? I suggest you use the “Man down the pub test”. In the case of a Micro Brewery example, no man (or woman) down the pub would object to attacking big business and the government, so it is safe ground. Other business should make sure that any campaigns they plan to create that use controversy would pass their own “man down the pub” common sense test.

Everyone knows that using controversy is how you get famous, but controversy is like a junkie’s fix with diminishing returns. Many celebrities choose to “get controversial” as they seek the oxygen of publicity only to be hurt when the public tire of their increasingly indulgent antics and move onto the next big thing. Fortunately, for a small business, it is possible to use a little controversy without alienating customers. Just make sure that you chose your targets carefully! (Unless of course, you are the father of a boy named Sue!)