Why ‘provocative’ should be ...


By Mark Pinsent, Managing Director, Hoffman Europe


It’s an interesting word, provocative. Many (most?) people would feel that it has negative connotations; that it’s about someone looking for an argument, spoiling for a fight. Indeed, if you look at many dictionary definitions, these do lean towards the adverse, for example, “causing an angry reaction, usually intentionally.”

Far be it from me to disagree with the creators of the world’s dictionaries (though it does remind me of a classic Blackadder episode), but I’d argue that being “provocative” isn’t always with the intention to cause anger.

Digging a little deeper, however, a definition I can get behind is, “causing thought about interesting subjects.”

Now you see where I’m coming from.

It’s not about intentionally setting out to annoy. It’s about making people think (and then, hopefully, make them take action).

Honest Abe reference

It reminds me of the Abraham Lincoln quote: “You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

Far be it from me to disagree with Honest Abe, but is that even possible these days? Particularly in social media?

Can you really “please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time”? That sounds really difficult to me. And should we even try? Pleasing “some of the people some of the time” is probably an ambitious enough objective.

“Provocative,” of course, is related to “provoke.” And when it comes to creating owned content, surely, we should be specifically aiming to provoke a reaction. Ultimately, we’d like that reaction to be a desire to dig deeper, find out more, sign-up to a newsletter or get in touch. These are the outcomes we should be aiming for our content to elicit, in some of the people some of the time. It’s no coincidence that our favourite industry news and views site landed on the word in its rebrand a while back …

And we shouldn’t be worried if some of our content provokes a negative reaction. The worst reaction to any marketing, of course, is no reaction. As an ex-girlfriend once told me, “The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference.”

It hurt, obviously, but I couldn’t help but admire her use of language (even if she was quoting Elie Wiesel).

There’s no poorer reaction to content than indifference. A waste of time and resources.

I doubt many companies include “provocative” in their owned content strategy, but it’s a useful filter through which to judge its quality.

We recently wrote a blog post for a client (names have been removed to protect my job). Within a couple of hours of it being published, a highly influential journalist had emailed the head of corporate communications with a couple of very pointed questions about the content (he felt there was an implicit criticism of the media in the post).

I’m not going to claim that in the short term this didn’t create something of a stir within the client (I may be understating that). But once feathers had been unruffled and knickers untwisted, the client’s head of content and I agreed that it was a ringing endorsement of the content we’re creating. It’s getting noticed, and it’s provoking a reaction. Let’s do more.

The danger in writing a blog post about provocative content is, of course, that it might not be provocative enough.

What do you think? I’ll be thrilled if you agree — and delighted if you don’t.

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