Finding the right amount of edgy for B2B advertising

A tension exists between most marketers and their advertising agencies. Agencies want to push the envelope as far as they can to create advertising that cuts through the clutter and engages the audience. Marketers—especially B2B marketers—tend to be conservative and worry that edgy advertising will alienate customers and prospects. Who’s right? Research conducted by Jonah Berger of the Wharton School and Zoey Chen of the University of Miami indicates that both may be.

Berger and Chen set out to understand the degree to which controversy encourages engagement and conversation. The underlying assumption is that people notice controversial topics and talk about them with their family and peers. To explore this phenomenon they tracked two dimensions of stories posted on an online news site.  The first was a rating given by a panel of readers of how controversial the subject matter was on a 7 point scale where 1 was “not at all controversial” and 7 was “highly controversial.” The second dimension was the number of reader comments that were posted for each article over time. For more details on their study click here.

The results show that mildly controversial articles generate the most engagement and reader posts. However, “mildly” is the key qualifier. If the controversy rating is above a 4.6 on the 7 point scale, engagement falls off rapidly. Berger and Chen describe the marketer’s challenge succinctly: To find the “sweet spot where an image or issue generates enough heat to elicit interest but stops short of raising qualms.”

Controversy isn’t limited to consumer advertising. B2B advertising is rarely as risqué as Super Bowl ads or consumers ads that go viral. However, within the norms of individual B2B markets there are conservative ads and edgy ones that create hand wringing among marketers and executives. This may be the use of “#$%&” to represent curse words in the text or not showing the product or including people who do not look like the products historical buyers. The key is to find the right amount of edgy.

A healthy debate between marketers and their agencies will likely result in advertising that balances being controversial enough to garner attention but does not cross the line as defined by the audience. Still according to Berger and Chen the margin of error is relatively narrow. As they say, “A little controversy goes a long way.” There are times when the debate can be enhanced by collecting feedback directly from the intended audience. We often work with clients when the two sides—marketers and their agencies—cannot agree on where the fine line of edgy exists or when agreement exists but so much is riding on the campaign that they want validation they got it right.

In the end marketers should be open to their agencies edgier ideas, agencies should value the constraints their marketers put on them, and the audience is the final arbiter of what crosses the line.