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You know what I hate more than anything? I hate the people who won't let me hate.

Here's why Polyanna Positiveness is a bad thing for content marketing.

Of all the objections that I hear as a content marketer, one really sticks in my craw: "It's too negative".

And I hear it ALL the time.

I'm now convinced that there's a marketing book out there somewhere – "20 Rules of Copywriting That Sells!" or whatever – and rule number eight is something like, "Never to be negative". Or maybe it's "Always Be Positive."

After years and years trying to defend my apparently negative stories, messages, headlines and titles, I now know what I need to do. I need to hunt down the guy who wrote that book and beat him to a bloody pulp with a real stone replica of the Ten Commandments. The ones that start with Thou Shalt Not, rather than the new revised version ("Try to covet something other than they neighbour's ass/wife.").

It's a favourite fantasy that I snap into in meetings whenever my credentials for membership of Planet Positive have been questioned. In it, I've tracked the bastard down to Florida where he's retired on the royalties of That Damn Book. I sneak up behind his poolside lounge chair, pull out my stone tablets and start smiting rhythmically, "No. No. No.".

It's a nice image.

But before you start feeling sorry for the guy, keep this in mind: he and his infernal book have single-handedly set marketing back decades.

Because, and there's no positive way to say this, the guy is just plain wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Here's why negative works:

Negative is the direct way to attack inertia

Our biggest, toughest job as marketers is to combat inertia, to get people to stop doing what they're doing and start considering change. Fighting off those pesky competitors is a tiny challenge compared to this. Inertia is the great, gnarling giant that stands between you and glory.

To overcome inertia, you must show people what's wrong with the status quo. You can tie yourself into knots trying to do this without ever using the words, "no", "bad", "wrong" or "stupid" but you will be taking the long way around when the short, direct way is better. And that's stupid.

Negative is how you sell the problem

I don't know about you consumer marketing wusses but on the mean streets of B2B, a sale often starts by naming and evangelising the problem that your solution addresses. And problems are negative things.

Salesforce.com, one of the most audaciously successful software-as-a-service companies in history, built its entire business on two words, one of which was "No".  Two billion dollars later, their "No Software" slogan is still part of their logo.

Negative taps into your prospect's frustration

Again, this may sound weird to you B2C dandies, but in B2B you need to choose who to market and sell to. And top of the list are people who are frustrated with the things they're doing now.

They're frustrated. It's a negative emotion. And you've got the answer. Don't shy away from saying, "You should be fed up with the crap you've had to put up with for so long."

Salesforce.com attacks on-premise software with every bone in its body. That resonates with people who also hate the limitations of software ownership.

Negative taps into your passion

You're passionate about your products and services, right?  If you're not, the tone of voice of your marketing is the least of your problems. But if you are, this passion is fueled by a deep loathing for the alternatives and substitutes for your offer.

Our brilliant client Procurian helps big companies buy indirect purchases (travel, office suppliers, marketing agencies -- no-brainer stuff). They do this because they hate waste. Yes, hate is negative (get over it) but its also energizing.

Negative invites curiosity

In this Pollyanna world where X-Factor contestants 'live their dreams' because they 'never stop believing', it's bloody refreshing to meet someone who 's not afraid to say, "this sucks".  It titillates. And who doesn't fancy a bit of titillation now and again?

We once did two versions of an eBook for a client. One was called "Ten Mistakes in Yadda Yadda", the other "Ten Tips for Yadda Yadda."  The Mistakes version out-performed the Tips version by more than 50%.

People want to know about the pitfalls in the road they're traveling along. They want to avoid them. They want to laugh at the ones they navigated around and feel superior to the suckers who fell into them. It's fun.

Remember, we're the species that slows down to rubberneck at traffic accidents. It's nothing to be proud of but it is something to exploit mercilessly. And that's what we marketers do best.

Here's the catch...

At this point, you're probably thinking I'm the kind of guy who roots for Ebeneezer Scrooge instead of Tiny Tim. (And you'd be right -- he's a far more interesting character than the bland, boring Cratchits).

But here's where my belief in negativity stops.

Because, while I'm a big believer in apparently negative stories and messages and headlines and titles, I do not like negative brands -- like Ryanair, the only company I've ever seen that's grown rich on contempt for its own customers.

Here's the difference: you can and should say negative things. But your company personality – your brand – should never be a negative one. Nobody likes sarcastic cynics.

Salesforce.com is a relentlessly positive brand and culture. That doesn't mean they don't hate the inefficiency that on-premise software creates. With a passion.

See the difference?

We can say negative things without being negative people.

And nobody will gather up their skirts and leap up on their chairs. It's okay. Really.

So when someone in your company says, "I don't like the headline. It's too negative," you've got two options: send them a link to this post or take out your stone tablets, leap across the table and strike a blow (or ten) for common sense.

In the words of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, "If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me."

Image: The author's daughter in one of her moods. 

Doug Kessler

Published 11 December, 2012 by Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler is a founder and Creative Director of B2B marketing agency Velocity and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

19 more posts from this author

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Hugh Billings

Seldom has a truer word been published in jest...

almost 4 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

I don't think there is anything wrong with saying "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" every once in a while. Being annoyed/pissed off/frustrated about something is often what spurs people to make a drastic change; you definitely got that right. Life and business aren't all sunshine and rainbows and it's nice to know we're not alone in that thought. Now that we all agree that things can suck sometimes let's figure out how to make it not suck!

almost 4 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Exactly, Nick.

What could be more positive than taking arms against a sea of troubles?

almost 4 years ago

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Barry Feldman

I hate this story. But it's bloody brilliant. Or maybe I should say it doesn't suck. Sucks for me though.

Makes me want to hunt down the whining weasel who wrote it and pound him with that tablet. Why? I penned a story on this very same subject scheduled to run in the morning on Social Media Explorer.

On the positive side, maybe two veterans ranting against the Polyanna helps pound the point home.

almost 4 years ago

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Anderson

You have expressed negativity in a nice way, you filled value for that word great way of indicating in the article Good !

almost 4 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Sorry Barry!

Together we can beat back the Mickey Mouse army.

(And thanks Anderson).

almost 4 years ago

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Adam Flynn, Marketing Manager at iTradeNetwork

Am I allowed to say this is my favourite article of the year? Of course! Because I positively hate bad b2b content.

almost 4 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Thanks Nicola! You're getting the hang of it!

almost 4 years ago

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DaNaze Dalby

Generally I don't comment on subjects as I am not an expert and read articles to learn as much as I can.
That being said, I had a job selling advertising for a radio station many years ago. Sometimes we ran ads that seemed negative and many people didn't like the ads and would call and get pretty upset and demand a change or that the ad be taken off the air. Being concerned, I spoke with the owner. His comment was that he didn't care. Really! How could he not care about his audience and advertisers calling to say they were upset over an ad. His response was simple. He stated that it didn't matter if an ad was good or bad, liked or not liked. People listened. They heard the ad! They heard it enough to call and complain. He got the attention he wanted and listeners responded. Based on that experience, I would say you are right. There is a good way and a bad way to present negative. The end result is to get the audience to 'hear' and respond.
Thanks for restating what I learned quite some time ago.

almost 4 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Nice one DaNaze. Thanks.

There's also a great post on this very point from Barry Feldman over on Social Media Examiner:

http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com/media-journalism/all-positive-all-the-time-is-positively-boring/

Marketers Unite!
You have nothing to lose but your rose-tinted glasses (which, let's face it, make you look like Elton John anyway).

almost 4 years ago

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Barry Feldman

@DaNaze You're boss might have thought, but not said, "when you turn some people off, you turn some people on." I've been stealing that line for so long now it feels like my own. Here's another one: the riskiest ad is the safe one that offends no one.

almost 4 years ago

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