Close this search box.


How to create a controversial email marketing campaign

Controversy can be exciting and good for business. If it’s left unchecked, though, it can also be an inferno that rages out of control and

leaves your brand a burnt crisp

in the ashes.

As a result, we’re left with the age-old question. Is all press really good press? It’s hard to say conclusively, but you might start by asking China how it’s worked for them finding global scorn as ground zero for COVID-19.

The real question to ask yourself is how much controversy you can create without going too far, and how can you take advantage of the ultra-viral nature of controversy in your

next email marketing campaign

without having it blow up in your face. The complicating matter is that public taste is fickle, and estimating the actual impact of these kinds of topics is not an exact science.

Let’s get started. 

Obey the email marketing imperatives

Once you have the big picture idea of your controversial campaign in place (which we’ll discuss in a bit), it’s time to translate it to the email medium. 

At this point,

best practices take over

, something you hopefully have a grip on from previous marketing experience. We’re talking about the standard concerns:

  • Timing/frequency of outreach
  • Subject lines
  • Content: visuals and copy

  • Device optimization
  • Personalization
  • Stay

    out of the filters
  • Keep this in mind. No amount of carefully calculated controversy can save a poorly planned or executed email marketing campaign. You have to get the basics right or nothing else matters. 

Especially important, since you plan to court controversy, is to not get so carried away that you run afoul of today’s ever more

efficient malware and spam filters

. If the customer never sees the message, what’s the point?  

Does controversy = brand discussion?

Before we blindly assume that all controversy is good because it gets people talking about your brand, you should take a look at what the Wharton School of Business found when it studied the subject. Data suggests that controversial topics only

induce a low level discussion

. After a certain point it actually inhabits discussion because people become uncomfortable talking about it. 

Turning people away from talking about your brand is not what you want. Digging deeper. When designing a controversial campaign, know that there are essentially three ways to go about it.

  • Shock them with something unexpected
  • Violate their social taboos
  • Create a debate on an issue with obvious pros and cons

If you haven’t guessed it, we’re going to suggest you go with the third option and forget about the first two.

Avoid the disconnect

Once you’ve decided on the perfect debatable controversy, it’s time to figure out how to harness its power and connect it to your brand. Otherwise, you’re just stirring the pot with no positive measurable effect on likes, dislikes, shares, or (most importantly) sales.

This idea is probably easiest explained through an example.

Here is an ad

run by the group UN Women on the topic of equal gender rights. It’s not an email campaign but the technique could translate. The clever part is they use the mechanism of an actual Google search to make the point that there is still a lot of Medieval thinking around the world. 

The really clever part about it is that they merely presented factual data to make the point, positioning themselves in the powerful role of messenger. Did it work? Absolutely, as the ad earned recognition as

one of Facebook’s most shared ads

and logged 224 million Twitter impressions for the #womenshould hashtag.

The lesson here is that the UN Women group wasn’t seen as some kind of shock pimp trying anything to get a reaction, but rather emerged as the leader in a movement that means something to a lot of people.

Prepare for the recoil

Strangely, some

companies who undertake controversial campaigns

seem ill-equipped to deal with the fallout, which is kind of the whole point. Controversy elicits strong feelings that will be expressed forcefully to the one poking the bear, which is you.

The best advice here is to plan ahead for reactions and then

be prepared to deal with those reactions

accordingly. To cave and start issuing stuttering apologies at the first hint of public scrutiny will undo any eventual revenue gains the strategy might have yielded. 

To stick a toe in the waters of controversy but then jerk it back out at the first sign of danger is worse than never taking a stand at all. The Boy Scouts like to say, “be prepared,” and that’s good advice here.

There’s power in the debate

Email marketing remains a powerful

digital marketing strategy

and can be an even more formidable tool when combined with properly conceived controversy, but don’t dive in headfirst without understanding why a debate is better than either the shock or gross-out approach. 

While evidence shows

email marketing services are seven times better

at generating sales than any social media platform, a good debate can make those numbers even more impressive. Chosen wisely, you have millions of people strongly on one side or the other, all of them with – here’s the important part – rational opinions that can easily fall to one side of the issue or the other. 

Although passions can burn hot in the midst of a debate, there is not so much that anyone becomes truly offended by the process and takes it out on your brand. Meanwhile you’re sitting there in the middle of it all gaining a nice little business boost.

Final thoughts

The thing to keep in mind is that stirring up controversy for its own sake could be counterproductive. If your email marketing is already a finely tuned machine, it might not make much sense to play with fire. On the other hand, if you can find a topic that feels good to put

your company’s heft and brand behind

, don’t shy away simply because it might stir up a hornet’s nest.

The bottom line to keep in mind is that if you’re going into this with the intention to offend, you’re doing it wrong. The goal is to spark debate and discussion and benefit from the increased interest in the topic. If offense is taken along the way, it’s not your problem, but it should also never be the goal.

The B2B Marketing US Agencies Benchmarking Report 2020

Who are the US’s top B2B marketing agencies? Download this free 76-page guide to find out.

Download now

Related Articles

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on your website. Read more about cookies policy.