Being Provocative On The Internetz

August 3, 2009
By Lisa Barone in Social Media

My friend Stuart Foster wrote about the downside of being provocative today. If you haven’t read it, you should. Because as more companies decide to engage in social media and in the blogosphere, the points he brings up become increasingly more important.

If we’re being honest, he mentions a lot of things that I’ve personally been grappling with for awhile now. And I know I’m not alone.

This weekend Sarah Lacy took to her blog to announce that she’s had enough. She’s tired of being a target and she’s removing the personal side from the Sarah Lacy brand, leaving us with just the work stuff. There aren’t too many posts these days that stop me in my tracks and force me to think, but that post did. And don’t get me wrong, I’m no Sarah Lacey lover. I’ve given her shit and I’ve supported others who have done the same. I think a lot of what she’s complaining about she’s brought on herself. But even so, I understand the battle she faces. It’s the price you pay for being “provocative”. You give people permission to poke and throw things at you. And that can be exhausting. And scary.

And Sarah’s pain is exactly why most companies are afraid of social media. They don’t want to be kicked and called out in public. How do you combat that?

You get the hell over it.

Here are some truths I’ve picked up over the years:

  • Whether you actively engage or you’re just in social media from afar, you’re going to be kicked.
  • Whether you choose to be provocative or safe, you’re going to be kicked.
  • Whether you try to be friends with everyone or to seek out enemies, you’re going to be kicked.
  • Whether you’re pretty, ugly, social, awkward or anything else, you’re going to be kicked.

Everyone is both hated and loved on the Internet. Accept that and use it.

Being “provocative” on the Internet really just means daring to be genuine. It means not subscribing to the same bullshit that everyone else does. It means taking a stand and fighting for the battles that actually matter to you. It’s about crafting ideas or stories in a way that is sometimes uncomfortable for other people. It’s about challenging people to get out of their damn boxes. That’s what it means to be “provocative” on the Web.  To be different. And real.

Being “provocative” doesn’t mean creating controversy for attention. It doesn’t mean forcing it. It doesn’t mean disagreeing just for the sake of disagreeing. I think Stuart really nails the point here:

Being provocative isn’t about being controversial. It’s about being ahead of your time, solving problems in new and interesting ways, and creating awesome brands and products.

As third-grade easy as that sounds, it’s not easy for most brands (or people). And that’s why people who are truly provocative (in SEO think Michael Gray, John Andrews, or when she remembers she has a blog – Rae Hoffman) stand out. It’s why we notice them. Because they’re not sheep. They’re real.

As a brand, you should strive to be Stuart’s definition of provocative. Will you piss people off from time to time? Will people misunderstand you at some point and get all butthurt and offended? Will you lose customers? Yes, you will. But you’ll also attract the people who will be most loyal to you. The folks who will be your biggest supporters. You’ll weed out the people who have no business filling out your Contact Form in the first place, and you’ll cut out the amount of unqualified leads you’re sifting through.

But prepare yourself, because it’s hard to maintain that level of provocative, especially if your brand is you. It’s draining. It takes a toll. And you’ll have people who don’t understand what you’re doing. At some point, you’ll inevitably want to pull a Sarah Lacy and take your ball and go the hell home. But don’t.

There’s value in pushing people and challenging them. There’s value in associating your brand with something other than group think. There are plenty of downsides to being provocative on the Web, but the alternative is to say nothing. To be one of those companies that speaks in political correct bullshit because they don’t have the balls to say anything real.

Personally, I’d rather be “provocative”. At least then people know I stand for something.

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