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Authenticity, Controversy and Click-Bait (Part 4)

Updated: May 21, 2023

"Authenticity - ‘Being Yourself’ vs. Reality" - Part 4
a computer mouse lying next to a mouse trap with a cursor shaped piece of cheese

It would be a mistake to speak on the topic of content creation, and authenticity, without touching upon controversy & click-bait. They might actually be my favourite content strategy dilemmas, frankly, because of how banal and surface-level-obvious they seem, and yet, there’s a rabbit hole to be dug up here.

Creating Controversial Content

Let’s talk about controversy in content for a minute.

In general, controversy is a very solid option to go for when you’re looking for content ideas. Here are a couple of reasons why:

  • it allows you to take a stand, have an opinion, draw a line in the sand, which is also a good branding tool, rather than, say, listing your core values and beliefs

  • it will usually garner at least some attention, either because you’re speaking to something someone else feels too but didn’t realize they shared with others, or because you pricked someone hard enough to get a reaction

  • choosing a niche in content creation is a widely accepted good practice, and presenting yourself in some controversial way will naturally place you in a niche of your own

So, we know why you’d want to do it. Now, is it universally applicable to all content creation? Yes and no.

In theory, you can probably find something controversial to say about almost anything. But do you want to? Controversy almost always carries additional statements with it, about who you are, what you think, what you believe is important etc.

Controversy is

  • either picking a fight - and in that instance you’re saying this is something you’re willing to fight for or over -

  • or making light of something, if you’re doing it humorously, which can say a lot of things depending on what angle you take, but it always says SOMETHING.

Controversy is always provocative.

Thus, the choice to be controversial in your content needs to be considered carefully, and done deliberately. (Unless you are so controversial as a person that it all just comes naturally, in which case it’s not strategy and 100% authentically you, lol.)

When you really stand behind the actual idea, controversy can be a great form of expressing yourself authentically. It’s when you choose to be controversial as a tool rather than a reality where things get muddy.

Audiences will almost never consume your content with an awareness for what you’re doing from a strategic standpoint.

If you put out a piece of content that is more provocative than it actually ‘needs to be’ (e.g. picking a statement for a YouTube title you know a lot of people will disagree with just for that sake), they will take you at face value.

The Consequences of Controversial Content

If you deliver on the promise and you actually ‘win your case’, this can be a great thing and they will probably walk away feeling they gained something from this content, in some way. If it, however, becomes apparent that whatever you had to say or show was not actually that provocative at all, not only do you leave them dissatisfied in that instant, you have left an impression of yourself in them where they may start to take you less seriously, particularly if it happens again and again, until they reach a point where you are no longer worth their time and attention.

Obviously, the negative effects described above will be felt over time, not immediately, and you can argue to weigh the wins vs costs, i.e. controversy gets you clicks & views vs controversy lowers your audience’s opinion of you long-term.

As a brand strategist, I would personally advocate for less long-term damage than for quick wins, but that is something every content creator needs to weigh for themselves.

Additionally, as a head of content, responsible for making sure our channel is performing well and growing, I do at times need to either make the choice, or be okay with someone else’s choice, of going with the more controversial route (even when it wasn’t really needed) because we think that will give the video an extra boost in performance.

What then is Click Bait?

Lol a controversial topic in and of itself. XD

You’d likely get different answers from different people.

Some might say that anything attention or eye-grabbing is click-bait, because it’s elbowing itself to the front, but to me

it’s click-bait when you lure an audience in with a promise you don’t deliver on in your content

(because you know it’ll generate more clicks or views).

It's a similar scenario to what I described above about leaving the viewer/ reader disappointed, except with click-bait it can be much more palpable, depending on just how ‘bait-y’ you went.

Fundamentally, I am personally strongly opposed to utilising click-bait in content I’m involved in because it is ultimately dishonest. But, I also understand WHY content creators use it. Why I have used it.

It’s because once you start creating content for a purpose that goes beyond the joy of it, or simply wanting to share something with the world, without aiming to ‘get something out of it’, you start thinking about how you can grow and keep your audience and your engagement.

And when you’re in the thick of that - balancing numbers, comparing content performance, eliminating certain segments of content because it ‘historically hasn’t done well’ - you start sliding, might even lose your footing somewhere and suddenly you’ve ended up in click-bait land.

Where does authenticity fit into all of this?

Well, much of that has been implied but in summary:

  • Leaning into controversial content can be a great way to express yourself authentically, as they'll usually be statement pieces and rarely feel bland or standard, assuming you are expressing 'real beliefs'.

  • By contrast, 'pretending' to be controversial by hyping up something as more than it is, or worse, only giving the outward appearance of controversiality in title/ hook/ thumb and then not delivering, will plant doubt in your audience for what they can expect of you.

  • Utilising click-bait (as per my definition of the term) is you presenting a different front from what your content has to offer, making it inauthentic in and of itself, technically. I will admit that there are many shades of grey here, ranging from what truly is click-bait to how far you can stretch a justification. Not to mention that if you yourself do not have a problem with using click-bait to achieve your content's success, one could argue that using that strategy IS authentic to who you are...

  • Seeing as how it very rarely sits well with audiences, I would err on the side of avoiding it if you wish for people to take you and your content seriously aka wish for them to continue consuming it.

As Content Creators. How do you navigate utilising these very common content tools?
As Content Consumers, how do you feel about them?
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