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How content can succeed by making enemies

In Comment by Rand Fishkin0 Comments

Successful stories often appeal to those on both sides of an argument, says ‘Wizard of Moz’ Rand Fishkin.


Getting readers on board with your ideas isn’t the only way to achieve content success. Sometimes stirring up a little controversy and earning a few rivals can work incredibly well. But there’s certainly a right and a wrong way to do it.

I know you’re thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute, I thought my job was to make friends with my content”. Yes, and one of the best ways to make close friends is to make enemies, too.

Businesses, programs and organisations of all kinds tend to do really well when they get people on their side. So if I’m trying to create a movement or get people to believe in what I’m doing, I need to have positions, data, stories and content that bring people to my site. One of the best ways to do that is to think about it in opposition to something else … try and figure out how you can “earn” some enemies.

I worry that far too much content is bland. It takes no position because companies are so afraid of making someone upset, so they aim for the blandest common denominator. That’s a big mistake.

Content, products, companies, people, organisations and services that take sides, that have a position, that stand FOR something and also AGAINST something are doing something worth talking about. That’s how you earn amplification, links, coverage and rankings. It’s also how you create a memorable brand.

Just think of all the best stuff you’ve seen – disruptive new companies or amazing new products, powerful discussions or shareworthy content, a great talk at a conference or a video that stayed with you – chances are each of these took a stand, and made some enemies in the process.

Creating friends and foes

This data-driven content – “There are now twice as many solar jobs as coal jobs in the US” (which had 83,000+ shares; 87 links in the first 24 hours*) – clearly makes friends and enemies. It makes enemies with this classic, old-school Americana belief set around how important coal jobs are. It also creates allies, simply by sharing data. These are the people who are on the side of this story, and want to share it and amplify it and have it reach more people.

The same is true in this story: “Yoga is a good alternative to physical therapy” (no link: 34,600+ shares; 3530 links in first 24 hours*). Clearly, it did extremely well – tens of thousands of shares and thousands of links, and lots of ranking keywords. But it creates some enemies. Physical therapists are not going to be thrilled. Despite the research behind the story, this is frustrating for many of those folks. So you’ve created friends and allies – people who are yoga practitioners and yoga instructors. You’ve also created enemies, potentially those folks who don’t believe that this might be the case despite, what the research shows.

Here’s a third one: “The 50 Most Powerful Public Relations Firms in America” (8600+ shares; 11,000 links over six months*). It managed to rank for lots and lots of keywords around “best PR firms” and have thousands of shares and links. I mean 11,000 links – that’s darn impressive for a story of this nature. And they’ve created enemies. They’ve created enemies of all the people who are not in the 50 most powerful, who feel that they should be, and they’ve created allies of the people who are in there. They’ve also created some allies and enemies deeper inside the story.

“If you’ve created a threat to your enemies, you have also created something special for your allies.”Rand Fishkin

Then there’s “Replace your lawn with these superior alternatives” (863 shares; 10,900 links*). Well, guess what? You have now created some enemies in the lawn-care world and in the lawn-supply world and in the passionate communities, very passionate communities, especially here in the United States, around people who believe homes should have lawns and nothing else. This piece didn’t do that well in terms of shares, but did phenomenally well in terms of links. This was on Lifehacker, and it ranks for all sorts of things.

Who will help amplify this, and why?

These stories might not be the things you naturally think as ways of “earning enemies”. But when you’re creating content, you need to go through an exercise I’ve talked about many times over the years to find success … especially content amplification success. Before you create something – before you brainstorm the idea, come up with the title, come up with the content – ask yourself: “Who will help amplify this? Why will they help?”

One of the great things about framing things in terms of “who are my allies?” and “who are the enemies?” is that the “who” you are writing for becomes much clearer. Those who support your ideas, your ethics, your position, your logic or your data, and want to help amplify that, are potential amplifiers. But it’s the detractors, the enemies, who will help you identify that group.

The “why” becomes much clearer, too. The existence of that common enemy, the chance to show your shared support and beliefs, is a powerful catalyst for that amplification. This is the behaviour you’re attempting to drive in your community and your content consumers. I’ve found that thinking about it this way often gets content creators and SEOs in the right frame of mind to build stuff they do really well.

Some dos and don’ts

Do back up content with facts and data, not just opinion: That should be relatively obvious, but it can be dangerous in this kind of world.

Do convey a “world view”: I would urge you to provide multiple angles of appeal. If you’re saying, “Hey, you should replace your lawn with these superior alternatives”, don’t make it purely about conservation and ecological health. You can also make it about financial responsibility. You can also make it about the ease with which you can care for these lawns versus other ones. Now it becomes something that appeals across a broader range of the spectrum. The same thing goes with something like “solar jobs v coal jobs”. If you can get it to be economically focused and you can give it a capitalist bent, you will potentially appeal to multiple parts of the ideological spectrum.

Do collect input from notable parties: This is especially if the issue that you’re talking about is going to be culturally, socially or politically charged. Some of these fit into that. Yoga probably not so much, but potentially the solar jobs/coal jobs one, that might be something to run the actual content that you’ve created by some folks who are in the energy space so that they can help you along those lines, potentially the energy and the political space if you can.

Don’t be provocative just to be provocative: Don’t just say: “OK, what could we say that would really piss people off?” I’m urging you to say: “How can we take things that we already have – beliefs and positions, data, stories, whatever content – and how do we angle them in such a way that we think about who the enemies and allies are?” “How do we get that buy-in?” “How do we get that amplification?”

Don’t choose indefensible positions: You should probably stay away from paths that you think might get you into litigious danger. Likewise, if your positions are relatively indefensible and you’ve talked to some folks in the field and done the dues and they’re like, “I don’t know about that”, you might not want to pursue it.

Don’t give up on the first try: Don’t give up if your first attempts in this sort of framing don’t work. You should expect that you will have to, just like any other form of content, practice, iterate and do this multiple times before you have success.

Don’t be unprofessional: It can be tempting when you’re framing things in terms of, “How do I make enemies out of this?” to get on the attack. That is not necessary. I think that content that builds enemies does so even better when it does it from a non-attack vector mode.

Don’t sweat: When a lot of people start “drinking the Haterade” online, they run. They think, “OK, we’ve done something wrong”. That’s actually not the case. In my experience, that means you’re doing something right. You’re building something special. People don’t tend to fight against and argue against ideas and people and organisations for no reason. They do so because they’re a threat.

If you’ve created a threat to your enemies, you have also generally created something special for your allies and the people on your side. In Moz’s early days, back when we were called “SEOmoz”, we got all sorts of hate. It was actually a pretty good sign that we were doing something right – that we were building something special.

* Share data is from BuzzSumo; link data is from Ahrefs.

Note: This edited story, reprinted with permission, is based on an episode of Whiteboard Friday, Moz’s long-running weekly series that explains issues around SEO and digital marketing.

About the Author
Rand Fishkin

Rand Fishkin

US educator and author Rand Fishkin is a leading authority on SEO. The business he co-founded in 2004, Moz, produces popular SEO tools and has 600,000 active community members.

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