Controversy is good: go ahead, disagree with me!

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controversyIf you were raised in a conflict-averse household like I was, you may find that this early history seeps into your business and you are afraid to upset anyone with a controversial product or service.

Big mistake!

The most successful (and interesting) businesses take a stand and create something different, unique, and meaningful for their target market.  You should be no different.

I was very inspired by Guy Kawasaki’s take on this from The Art of the Start:

Polarize people.  When you create a product or service that some people love, don’t be surprised if some people hate it.  Your goal is to catalyze passion:  pro or anti.  Don’t be offended if people take issue with what you have done; the only result that should offend (and scare) you is lack of interest.”

This week’s 6-minute podcast expands on this thought, and offers a few strategies for taking a stand while designing your business:

  • Create from the heart and soul.  Let your rational mind have its place in the design process, but by no means let it lead.
  • Speak clearly and speak the truth.  My take on why Bob Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule is a success, and why it would have been so much less effective with a watered-down title such as Don’t be a Jerk in the Workplace or The Successful Manager’s Handbook.
  • Know your niche.  If your urban youth-targeted product offends your wife or mother, you have a winner.
  • Embrace your detractors. Learn to decipher useful information amidst snide personal comments.  Decide who to care about and when to delete offending messages, lest they stink up your inbox.
  • Don’t back peddle.  Tweaks and enhancements are good.  Total redesign to accommodate many diverse segments of a market will lead to watered down products and “design by committee,” a phenomenon that should strike fear in the hearts of any corporate employee who has lived through it.

Finally, I want to distinguish between being bold or controversial for its own sake rather than as a means to create something of use, value or beauty for a specific group of people.  Ann Coulter is  my poster girl for the “rile em up, consequences be damned” approach to creating controversy.   I could be wrong, but it seems like little value comes from, as Bob Sutton would say, acting like an asshole for its own sake.  I don’t imagine that I have one Coulter fan in my blog feed, but if I do, please point out where I am missing the boat.  Just refrain from the personal insults, ok?

Go here to listen to or download the podcast.   If you want to subscribe to the feed, here it is.

15 Responses to “Controversy is good: go ahead, disagree with me!”

  1. baron chandler says:

    To Ann Michael – I see what you’re saying about Jon Stewart, et. al, but I disagree that they’re the left-wing analog of someone like Ann Coulter. In fact, I think they’re both actually very good, very public examples of exactly what this post is about.

    I think there’s a large difference between Ms. Coulter and Jon Stewart. If you see any good interviews with Jon Stewart, it will become quickly apparent that he sees himself as an entertainer, not a political commentator or analyst. Ms. Coulter, as Pamela points out, generates controversy for the sake of stirring the political pot. I think the value to folks who generate (seemingly needless) controversy is akin to a pack of wolves hunting herds of cattle — they get the prey all stirred up and moving so that they can then be directed where the wolves want them to be. And you’re right there, both sides have these types of people playing for their team.

    Jon’s an opportunist, and he’s been lucky, if you can call it that, to have 6 years of excellent material for his shows. I suspect the hot climate and the top-grade fertilizer explain why his show’s been so successful. I also think that his humor makes controversy palatable by removing a lot of the energy behind the vitriol.

    In this way, I suspect he would be the antithesis to the wolf in this example. If the herd stops and thinks about the stupidity of the situation it might even be funny. For a minute, anyway.

  2. Hugh says:

    I like to hear what Ann Coulter has to say, so I guess I’m a fan.

    I also enjoy reading you Blog too and find it insightful, so I guess I’m odd man out.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Pamela Slim says:

    Good question Colin, and I can’t argue with Robert about the importance of service.

    But I would say my bias is that “to niche” is better than “not to niche,” and here is why … when you get really clear who you want to market to specifically, you can find specific ways to find them, and you are much more likely to be able to reach them through sales and marketing efforts.

    Just because you START with one niche doesn’t mean that you can’t expand into others once you are successful.

    I personally would much rather market to “35+ years old African American and Asian advertising vice presidents who graduated from Ivy League schools and reside in San Francisco, California” rather than “men.” (random demographic characteristics used to illustrate point)

    I say pick something and run with it … if your comrades are really set at being more generic, then you personally can choose a specific niche to work with for a particular marketing campaign and see if it works.

    Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

  4. Carla Golden says:

    I agree that disagreement is good, Pam. I, too, grew up in a family that believed in avoiding conflict at all costs. Part of the problem is that people have a tendency to take things personally. If I disagree with someone it has nothing to do with whether I like them or not.

    I will say this though…I disagree with Ann Coulter and also don’t particularly care for her as a person. She is intentionally hurtful and that is unnecessary. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are satirists. There is no satire in Ann’s attacks on people. She hits below the belt and there is a rage that is boiling right below the surface. You can definitely tell the difference when you watch her as opposed to Stewart and Colbert. Anyway, that’s my opinion…. Great topic, by the way!

  5. Colin says:


    That’s really thought provoking advice. Time is better spent providing a great product / service rather than figuring out how to position a mediocre one.


  6. robert says:

    I can see where you are coming from and do see why the others wanting to go duck shooting.

    In the end it is all about establishing yourselves in a market that you know you will service better than the opposition at margins which are competetive and attractive to customers & make you a profit. Without profit, why be in business? Right?

    Selective targeting is dangerous because, by way of a single example, your initial criteria to compile the DB may exclude potentialy viable customers. So be aware that you might miss out on that one prospect who could end up being a fantastic sticky customer.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Sounds familar? No worries, there is still another way to decide the best route to market.


    I can safely say that service dictates winner companies. If you provide your few customers with the best service, price becomes a secondary issue. If you provide me with incredible service I sure as nuts will not mind paying over the odds for your product or service. Why?

    If I call your order department and know that I can take delivery within hours and it allows me to get my service/product out my door faster and ahead of my opposition, I will go with you everytime.

    And those extra cents or dollars you charge can be recouped by me through ongoing and increased trade from the customers you help me keep happy.

    So decide how your service will suffer. Will you be able to service the crowd well and build a reputation with them all? Or would you prefer to service the few knowing you can apply all your resource and attention at them, build a reputation and eventually increase your customerbase by way of word of mouth? Nothing beats a happy customer lauding your company’s service.

    I know which one I’d want if I was your customer.

    Good luck.

  7. Colin says:

    One of the things my startup is struggling with is accurately defining where we stand in the marketplace. It is the contention of some of the group that if we define ourselves to narrowly at this early stage, we may lose customers. My contention is that we should define ourselves as narrowly as possible so that we can clearly express what it is we are doing! If we alienate 90% of the people but appeal to 10%, that is better than not alienating but not appealing to 100%

  8. As Pam’s closing paragraph points out, there is a big difference between taking a stand to create something different, unique, and meaningful for a target market and acting like an asshole for its own sake.

    I could barely believe it, when I heard on NPR last week that in early April, Kathy Sierra had been intimidated into canceling her speaking appearances and withdrawing (hopefully only temporarily) from publishing her blog “Creating Passionate Users” because of online threats from people who clearly couldn’t make the distinction or who chose not to.

    the NPR audio clip is here:


  9. Tomas says:

    Surprise, surprise, you have one Ann Coulter fan among your readers!

    I am not here to defend her but rather the notion that “acting like an asshole for its own sake” might have some (limited) merit.

    To disrupt established line of thinking sometimes requires going waaay over the line, and yes, you can employ insults and hyperboles to emphasize your point. You better be funny at the same time, though, just spitting bile ain’t gonna do it.

    I say that our society suffers from self-induced PC amnesia, our industry included, and that creating controversies for their own sake – while not solving anything in particular – can serve as a much-needed wake-up call.

  10. robert says:

    I just got back from the office where I disagree and polarise until the cows come home! I am amazed that being a non-conformist has not got me into deep trouble. But then how you say what you say and your tonality counts greatly to avoiding unecessary hostility.

    So if I said that I disagree and think it is pointless to be contrary and polarise because in the end you will conform, will you deem me to have a valid point?

    I think you will.

  11. Bob Sutton says:

    I love this line of talk. One of my favorite sayings is that “when two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” I would add that so long as they don’t act like assholes in the process. Indeed, that is why I work with Jeff Pfeffer, we fight like crazy, but are great friends. And as for the asshole book, see this post — I love this letter, which objects to the title. Talk about a well-crafted, and very funny complaint:

  12. I don’t know if I would classify myself as an Ann Coulter “fan.” I agree with her or don’t particularly mind what she does, but I don’t exactly follow everything she writes either.

    It’s not like people on the other side of the political fence don’t employ similar methods. If Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart were just as funny but representing a conservative viewpoint (impossible for some of you to imagine, i know), then they wouldn’t have the status they have today. (Comedy Central probably wouldn’t let them have shows either)

    Like you said, you’re from a controversy-avoiding background. But some people have different personalities – and it works for them. Different strokes for different folks. No big deal.

  13. ann michael says:

    Ah yes – constructive conflict.

    Personally, I find it fascinating and invigorating, but then again I’ve probably scared my fair share of co-workers!

    I find that setting expectations with a team upfront that their varied perspectives will create a better product – and conflict, helps them not to shrink away from passionately stating their views and “fighting” for them.

    I also find (sorry to say) that the under 30 set seems to be a lot more comfortable with this (and don’t take it personally) than the over 50 set. Interesting!

  14. I definitely concur. I’ve differentiated myself in the DC marketplace by becoming the PR person who best understands new media.

    It’s worked out well. I’ve taken my stand, too. We’re telling folks if you don’t have a new media strategy in 5 years, you won’t be a top company in your segment, because the competition will. This has wreaked havoc with my competitors who will often comment that we’re nuts. But I’m not here to please them…

  15. Pamela, I agree with what you’re saying 🙂

    Some additional thoughts that came to my mind while listening to your Podcast:

    What you say reminds me of Brad Blanton’s book “Radical Honesty”. Have you read it already?

    The owners or leaders of a company very much influence the corporate culture as well as how a product is being presented. If your boss is conflict-averse, your marketing will most likely not (be allowed to) polarize.