Polarization as a marketing tool

Is polarization in Marketing just good positioning based on core values?

This is a post about positioning, branding, and values. The growing importance of brand sentiment, thought leadership, and the value of a brand in Search and social media makes this an important point. Bear with me.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the power of polarization in the context of T-Series becoming the biggest Youtube channel, in part based on the polarizing campaign from PewDiePie. In this post, I want to zoom in on polarization on social networks and how it leads up to a tool for brands.

Polarization catches attention. People like Elon Musk, David Heinemeier Hansson, or Donald Trump wield this skill like a sword. They intentionally polarize audiences to position themselves and achieve a certain outcome like elections or sign-ups.

Polarization has been a marketing tool for a long time and, as ever so often, it's an old message in a new format.

Some examples from Elon Musk to warm you up:

Notice how many likes and retweets those Tweets got. While the first Tweet is more of an attention-catcher, the latter is a stance against shelter-in-place - a very controversial topic.

I asked my followers whether polarization works as a tactic and half of them said "yes":

Polarization as a marketing tactic

The idea is simple:

  1. take a controversial topic
  2. look at the positions on each side
  3. pick one side (that fits your audience)
  4. put out a statement that one side will support and the other will be appalled by
  5. publish a statement on a platform like Twitter et voila!

From NPR:

Comments on social media and cable news often give reasons to be angry. Sometimes anger seems to be the whole point. Anger draws Internet clicks, which is to say that many people now have a motive or even a business model for getting you mad. New research asks how all this outrage is affecting our minds. Shankar Vedantam is host of the NPR podcast Hidden Brain, which explores the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior.

This works only on social media due to the nature of engagement-amplifying algorithms. Polarization creates engagement, engagement leads to reach and exposure, which leads to more engagement.

Not sorry for the meme - I couldn't resist

From the same NPR interview:

BAVEL: For every moral, emotional word that people use in a tweet, we found that it increased the rate of retweeting from other people who saw it by 15 to 20%.

The concept doesn't translate well to written content because social media is all about interaction while written content is about information and thought leadership. Sure, old social posts can resurface years later but they are much more ephemeral than written content (more about that in a post I'm publishing very soon).

It's also hard for people or accounts that don't have a large enough following.  It's an arbitrary number, but I think under 100,000 followers it doesn't work out to be controversial. You need critical mass to polarize.

Why this is important

Two reasons.

One, too much polarization can degrade your credibility. David Heinemeier Hansson, or "DHH", LOVES this polarization. But he recently made an important point about unfair rules in Apple's play store that is actually worth talking about:

The problem is that when you constantly use polarization as a marketing tactic, you're the boy who cried "wolf" when things suddenly get serious and shouldn't be polarizing. You can overdo it.

Jason Fried, DHH's co-founder, falls into the same category...

.... which leads to a perception like this:

Two, it's a problem social networks are confronted with. It's the number one conversation about social platforms at the moment: should they be held responsible for the content that's published on them or not (formalized in section 230 of the Communications Decency Act from 1996).

Twitter fact-checking Trump's Tweets is in part an attempt to limit the attention coming from polarization. It's a risky game to play for social networks because speech regulation quickly pushes you into gray zones. A game you can't win. On the other hand, pressure from regulation drives more and more social networks to take a harder stance on fake news.

Google has it easier because intent-driven content is easier to fact check. Google can add fact-checking easier to Search because it's a pull channel. Social Networks have a harder time and a longer history of polarization.

There are several interesting studies about the use of political polarization on Twitter. One is "Political Polarization on Twitter":

To explain the distinct topologies of the retweet and mention networks we conjecture that politically motivated individuals provoke interaction by injecting partisan content into information streams whose primary audience consists of ideologically-opposed users. We conclude with statistical evidence in support of this hypothesis.

Take a stance based on values

This brings me back to Marketing and what we can actually learn from polarization. Brand polarization is basically value-driven positioning.

Nike, is one of the best examples. The campaign around POC change makers was released and successful - thought controversial - before the murder of George Floyd outraged the country.

The importance of brand in a Marketing environment that's increasingly dependent on big platforms and their confluence is undeniable. Taking a side on controversial topics can help with that. It can improve brand sentiment, lead to backlinks, and get people talking. It might mean sacrificing the other side of the controversy but it's worth it if it leads to a stronger connection with the side you take.

From Campaign Live:

"Brands have the resources to effect change. So increasingly we see brands entering the political arena to spark dialogue and, hopefully, drive advocacy," said Kyle Boots, director of brand and social analytics at Y&R and BAV Group.

In this way, brands have the power to transform a transactional relationship into a declaration of values, and that’s a powerful thing to offer consumers."