What a Notorious 16th-Century Philosopher Can Teach You About Content Marketing Today

Image of Niccolo Machiavelli Statue

What does it take to get people to pay attention to your content?

I think we’ve all read a great piece of writing and thought to ourselves, “Why isn’t this more popular?”

(And hey, maybe you even feel that way about your own work!)

I obviously can’t answer the entirety of that question in a single blog post, but I will tell you that there is a trait that many popular works of writing seem to share: they are controversial.

It’s easy to see why controversy spawns from strife between two (or more) groups of thought. It leads to debate, debate leads to recognition, and more and more people trip over themselves to share their thoughts.

You can see the powerful effects of controversy in action when you examine the work of Niccolo Machiavelli, the notorious political scholar whose magnum opus, The Prince, is still hotly debated to this day.

But one has to ask: Why is such a distinguished thinker only recognizable to the average Joe from a single book?

What about The Prince makes it so memorable? How is it able to stay relevant and widely discussed hundreds of years later? More important, how can you apply these lessons to your own content?

How to avoid being forgotten

Honestly, when you think about Machiavelli … does anything other than The Prince readily come to mind?

For most people, that answer is No, even though he was a prolific political scholar with many published works. If that’s the case for you, don’t feel bad, there’s a simple reason why The Prince is so easily recognized and the rest of Machiavelli’s work is not, and that reason is controversy.

While the teachings from The Prince still stir debate even to this day (the sure sign of a truly controversial topic), you may not know that the book caused quite an uproar back when it was initially published.

It was outright banned by the Catholic church, after being officially added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and many scholars panned the book’s premise: how dare Machiavelli contrast the teachings of Plato and Aristotle!

Sounds like the book should have never found an audience with such a harsh backlash, right? And yet, the influence of the work on many notable figures throughout history is undeniable.

Not to equate the works of Machiavelli to your typical blog post, but I can’t help but notice that many aspects surrounding the book’s success seem to relate back to gaining attention online:

  1. The ideas in the book are not unique, but they are incredibly different from what was being published at the time (the debate over republicanism vs. monarchy wasn’t new, but it had never been addressed like this before)
  2. The passion of the subject matter, the pure focus on creating something that his audience needed (more on that later), the use of writing as refined thinking: all things that you’ve heard before from other notable authors.
  3. Despite the fact that it is a piece on political theory, the book is far from boring. Most readers who aren’t even interested in the subject become fascinated with Machiavelli’s thoughts.

And here’s a fun fact about Machiavelli that you probably didn’t know …

A majority of modern-day academics now consider The Prince to be a work of satire.

(Notice I said a “majority”, as the debate has become something of, yes, a controversy.)

This is because there is ample evidence that the intended goal of The Prince was to inform the public of the insidious nature of dictators, and give a candid look at the tactics that they would use to control the populace.

Many scholars argue that those in power would have already known this stuff anyway.

So, why would Machiavelli write The Prince in this way?

To me, there are two clear answers:

  1. In order to continue advocating the republican government he supported, he had to write The Prince in this ‘disguised’ style to avoid upsetting those in power.
  2. He wanted to be remembered.

Machiavelli was in danger of being forgotten, because many of those who pulled the strings were unwilling to allow something like his Discourses on Livy to see the light of day.

You, however, have a different problem: With the benefit of being able to write whatever you want, your concern is being forgotten and buried in a sea of less worthy content.

Fortunately, you can use controversy to avoid this dreadful fate and capture the attention you need to build a thriving audience online … and you can do it without making people hate you.

Here’s how …

How to cause an intelligent uproar

One of the main reasons that The Prince is so controversial (and thus so memorable) is that it creates division among two different groups of thought.

The debate over whether or not ‘The ends justify the means’ is one that has raged long after Machiavelli’s death, and that will continue to divide people for years to come (despite the fact that Machiavelli never actually said it in The Prince).

There are a few reasons why this is important for creating controversy:

  1. Division gets people invested
  2. Division triggers high-arousal emotions
  3. Division can be used in low-controversy situations (this is how you avoid making people hate you)

Let’s break this down, shall we?

1. Using division to get people invested

What’s a proven way to get people more invested in a cause, argument, or belief?

Give them an enemy.

According to the fascinating study on Social Categorization and Inter-group Behavior, the quickest way to get people to form groups is to give them another group to compete against.

The lead researcher Henri Tajfel found that when people were divided by even the most trivial of choices, they were still willing to hand out real rewards to their ‘in-group,’ and would readily discriminate the other ‘outsiders.’

As a behavioral psychology geek, this study fascinates me because it’s a proven example of why people can become so heated over arguments that seem pointless to a third party. Often, it’s the division between groups as much as the argument itself that creates the controversy.

Machiavelli’s work in The Prince created a clear divide that subsequently built two groups of thought that vehemently disagreed with one another, an essential ingredient for creating controversy.

2. Using division to trigger high-arousal emotions

As we’ve seen, division works because it turns a casual discussion into a heated debate by pitting people against each other.

But it works best when it’s able to trigger ‘high-arousal emotions’ from those who are partaking in the debate.

Recent academic research from Wharton on What Makes Online Content Go Viral shows that the content that is most likely to go viral is any work that evokes a strong emotional reaction from the reader.

Specifically, the emotions of Awe, Anger, Anxiety/Fear, Joy, Lust, and Surprise were most effective.

Content that inspires low-energy emotions like sadness is less likely to be shared, where content that inspires high-energy emotions like awe, anger, and anxiety is far more likely to be shared.

You might see an emotion like ‘Anxiety’ and think, “I’ll never write something like that! I don’t want to cause my readers anxiety!”

You’re over-thinking the execution of this strategy.

If you’ve read Copyblogger’s great guide on Magnetic Headlines, you will recognize headlines like ‘7 Warning Signs that …,’ which create anxiety in the reader but still deliver solid value.

Now you know you need to plant your flag in an argument, you know your writing needs to trigger a strong emotion … but how can you keep people from hating you for it?

(Psst … pay attention, this next part is where most people get stuck!)

3. Using division to take advantage of ‘low-controversy’ topics

Most businesses stay away from controversial content because they are too scared that it may reflect badly on their brand.

It will … if you do it the wrong way.

The wrong way is picking a random fight or trying to be ‘shocking’ in order to stir up controversy.

The right way is being the voice of reason for a topic of ‘low’ controversy, and planting your flag on the side that you can argue the best.

But why would you want to pick a topic of low controversy? That defeats the purpose, right?

Actually, it doesn’t.

According to academic research on When, Why, and How Controversy Causes Conversation, if you want to get people talking online, it’s best to avoid topics of ‘high’ controversy on your business blog.

(‘High’ controversy means things like politics, religion, and tragedies.)

Why? According to the researchers:

[Data] shows that controversy increases likelihood of discussion at low levels, but beyond a moderate level of controversy, additional controversy actually decreases likelihood of discussion.

In other words, people don’t like to discuss highly controversial topics (especially outside of the news) because it can make them look bad for bringing it up.

There are a few other things to consider …

  1. Your business blog is not the news. While the news is generally bulletproof in terms of what they can discuss, you are not.
  2. Highly controversial topics aren’t going to end up helping you create content that truly converts, so why bother? You need sales and loyal readers, not pointless page-views.
  3. Just because something is taboo or shocking does not always mean it will be heavily discussed.

In a recent podcast with Derek Halpern and professor Jonah Berger, Jonah mentions how even toilet paper can be remarkable, and Derek offers up this example as a case study for how seemingly silly arguments can go viral online.

The topic of toilet paper orientation (yes, that is a 6,000 word Wikipedia article on the subject) is hotly debated online, despite the fact that no one could possibly be offended by it.

As the research and this silly example prove, you don’t need to be highly controversial or hurt people’s feelings to create something that divides people and stirs up debate.

From Machiavelli to toilet paper and back again

Machiavelli has shown us that it often takes a bit of controversy to be remembered, and that the best way to stir up such a debate is to create division … but do we really have to start arguments about silly topics like toilet paper?

Absolutely not.

Consider these following examples of articles that took off because of the combination of division and controversy:

  1. The Biggest Threat to Your Online Marketing Efforts: Why you should never allow places like Facebook to be your main ‘base’ for building an audience.
  2. Why Steve Jobs Never Listened to His Customers: The importance of customer feedback, even amongst teams who are building unique products.
  3. Gay Sex vs. Straight Sex: Data from OKCupid on the patterns and dating habits of homosexual and heterosexual users.

All of these topics were incredibly important within their tribe, and serious discussions formed in the comments of all three articles.

The point being, you don’t provoke mindless arguments to effectively use this strategy, you simply have to challenge a certain group’s 3B’s (behavior, beliefs, belonging), stay relevant, and you’ll be on your way to creating something the whole industry is talking about.

What say you?

Now I want to hear from you. What’s your favorite piece of controversial content that you’ve read recently? What sort of division did it create? Let us know in the comments.

And to get more research-backed content on marketing, feel free to download my free guide on 10 Ways to Convert More Customers (Using Psychology).

Print Friendly

What do you want to learn?

Click to get a free course and resources about:

Reader Comments (24)

    • says

      Machiavelli is known for being a sociopath. His name is used in a lot of very unflattering business terminology these days. But there is still a lot to learn from him as Brian has pointed out.

  1. says

    Great point about his impact being based on both highly provocative emotional toying as well as deep intellectual foundations. Take a leaf through Castiglione’s Courtier, if you have the chance.

  2. says

    Gregory, great post! Lots of good observations here. I think it is human nature to tend to form groups and adopt an us against them” mentality.

    It brings to mind something I read recently.

    I’m rereading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and he had the opposite observation. When writing about controversial pamphlets he’d printed to advance the cause of one of his colleagues, Franklin noted, “Those pamphlets, as is generally the case with controversial writings, tho’ eagerly read at the time, were soon out of vogue, and I question whether a single copy of them now exists.”

    Obviously, we don’t face the same issue of our writings going out of print because of the web. But what about when the controversy dies down?

    That’s why I agree with your point that we should use low-level controversy (like Machiavelli) to spark a discussion that may be continued for some time rather than polarizing issues that will likely cause division instead of dialogue.

  3. says

    Fascinating article – especially the stuff about the ongoing controversy surrounding The Prince. You make a really good point – it takes courage to take a stand that people might disagree with, but don’t we all just love an argument? It’s an excellent way to get readers engaged – I’ve had the most interesting comments from posts on my blog that have stimulated a bit of a debate. It’s so much more fun than just having people agree with you and congratulate you on a ‘great post’ – as long as you don’t get upset about the fact that not everyone sees the world from your point of view.

    • says

      Very good point Sue.

      I’ve seen many folks argue against this strategy as not being ‘authentic’ (gosh I hate that term), but in my eyes, what’s the point in following someone’s work if they never play with your emotions? When your writing only inspires, ‘good post, I agree’ comments on your blog, is what you are creating really worth talking about?

  4. says

    Hi Gregory, thanks for an inspiring post. Another perspective on controversial content is the title of the essay or article – or in Machiavelli’s case his book. Who knows? Maybe, given Nicolo’s political and social standing, the good citizens of 16th century Florence were expecting something quite different.

    I say this because of the titles of the articles that you offered up as examples, especially ‘Why Steve Jobs Never Listened to His Customers’. It’s the seeming contradiction that get’s us. Of course he listened to his customers. It’s what he did with the information he received that set Apple apart from other consumer brands. And the author of the article knows this. The author also has a pretty good idea of what it takes to make himself heard among the many other excellent eulogies and testaments to Steve’s creative genius. Great post!

  5. Migue says

    Sartre and DalΓ­ expressed remarks along these lines: Writers must provoke. Indifference is the enemy.

  6. says

    Gregory – thank you for the stunning post. I could not agree more with your comment and source link to the groups. I’ve practiced this before, or did during my input on a University thesis.


  7. says

    Very useful information on using controversy the right way in your blogs.
    I recently read Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday which details how news blogs use controversy to boost their views. Unfortunately it didn’t offer any practical way to use controversy in a professional way that doesn’t reflect badly on your brand.
    Focusing on low controversy issues is a great tip to get a discussion going.

  8. says

    Greg, thank you for this post – it was unbelievably timely.

    You’re right: writing something just to be controversial and drive up your page views is not going to help you make sales. I’ve been attempting to convey that to some people for a while, so thank you for laying out what can help. In fact, once I share this post with them, they will probably consider it controversial. πŸ˜‰

  9. says

    Great post!

    Niccolo Machiavelli died in 1527, and we still speak and write about him today. Obviously, controversy sells and has staying power. But you must know how to write controversial content to get a reaction from your audience (and readers in general).

    I can’t think of the guy’s name, but he wrote a blog post about traveling in America or living in America (something like that) and how Americans are rude, eat too much, etc. Long story short, his blog post generated thousands of comments and shares. People either loved or hated the post. I’ll have to find it and re-read it. πŸ˜‰

  10. says

    Thanks for contributing this awesome post. I had a fun time reading it.

    I have read the book that you have mentioned. It was a controversial work.

    The fact is, some writers want to create controversy, but others just write to point out a truth.

    Not all writers can anticipate that their work will spark controversy. Read the works of Mark Twain, who dabbled in art: art as a reflection of society; holding up a mirror to conventions during that era.

    Twain wrote on topics controversial during his time, but now such topics may no longer be perceived as controversial. We have come a long way due to the social movements of the 60s. How our perceptions shift over time. Finally, truth is not only a powerful force but a bitter pill to swallow.

    Writing about the “truth” can lead to rubbing a lot of people the wrong way, but those who value the truth are sure to appreciate your point of view.

  11. says

    Interesting post. I just realized that most posts that has controversial topics especially about my country (Philippines) easily spreads throughout facebook and other social media.

    In here, people don’t want others (especially from other country) bad mouthing or criticising them, which is by the way kind of close minded. I think I should write a controversial post one day.

  12. says

    We live in an age where everyone is on a seemingly endless mission to uncover the latest tricks and strategies, yet time and time again the most effective and successful ones are the oldest ones that have been right under our noses the entire time. We hear this ringing true each time we find ourselves saying we are “going back to the basics.” No need to over-complicate things. Sometimes the best way is the oldest, simplest way. Nice collection of timeless tips. Thanks Gregory.

  13. says

    Hi Gregory,

    This is such a great post! Thank you very much for sharing this. I believe that the content that is most likely to go viral is any work that has a strong emotional reaction from the reader. Like the emotions of anger, fear or maybe happiness. On the other hand, contents that has low energy emotion is less likely to be shared.


  14. says

    Good post. I need to think on this. As a writer, my books might be a bit controversial in that they have a Christian theme, yet they do not cater to traditional Christianity and they are pretty edgy, including some profanity. I haven’t thought of creating anxiety in my blog posts, but as a public speaking teacher, I do know the power of emotional appeal.

Comments are open for seven days. This article's comments are now closed.