From Controversy to Conversation
May 8, 2019

Notes from the Show

In this episode, we join Serenity Thompson, Managing Partner of A23 Advisors, to discuss using controversy to create dialogue and engagement in a digital media driven market:

  • How to grab attention by saying and doing what nobody else is
  • How controversial topics push the envelope and increase engagement
  • Using data to constructively take a position and make a point


Intro: You’re listening to Dare to Differentiate, a podcast for business owners in crowded industries who want to learn how to rise above the noise. In this show, we focus not on doing everything for everybody, but on doing a few things for the right people with excellence. So, if you’re ready to leave the herd, then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get into the show.Intro: You’re listening to Dare to Differentiate, a podcast for business owners in crowded industries who want to learn how to rise above the noise. In this show, we focus not on doing everything for everybody, but on doing a few things for the right people with excellence. So, if you’re ready to leave the herd, then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get into the show.

Susan: Welcome, everybody. I’m Susan Tatum, and my guest today is Serenity Thompson, who is the Managing Partner at A23 Advisors, and she’s got some really interesting things to talk about today. I’m excited to get into it. But, before we do that, hello, Serenity. Thanks for being here.

Serenity: Hello, Susan. Thank you for having me.

Susan: Why don’t you take a few minutes and tell us about yourself and what you’re doing and what A23 does.

Serenity: Oh, happy to. So, I am the Managing Partner for A23 Advisors. We are a boutique consulting firm that tries to push the boundaries of a conventional advisory. We are a street smart, book smart, digitally fluent, pop culture friendly, enthusiastic, and present extension of your team. Our clients are Series A startups, midsize firms, and large corporations with special projects. In addition to being the Managing Partner, I head up one of our seven practice areas. Those practice areas are branding, marketing, operations, commercial, product development, UX, and human capital. I heard up the marketing practice, and in that capacity, I am working with travel tech clients, health tech clients, and martech clients basically as their Chief Marketing Officer, so, really building their campaigns, development marketing strategy, looking at where they can use resources efficiently and create the results they’re looking for, whether that’s building pipeline or acquiring users, anything in between. We work in the full marketing funnel.

Susan: With your clients, do you implement also for them or are they hiring you as like an outsourced CMO?

Serenity: I am working in the capacity of an outsourced CMO and we do have six executive-level advisors in our group. We also have a pool of associates who work as the executional arm to our services. So, that comes in very handy for startups who don’t want to invest quite yet in staff for marketing or sales. They would rather invest in engineers to build out their product. Another first hire might be human resources to help them staff for the rest, so we do act in an executive strategy role all the way down through brass tacks of executing, measuring, and optimizing marketing.

Susan: Very cool. We were talking about differentiation and focus, since this is the Dare to Differentiate podcast, and you had a really interesting take on it, and you were calling it “from controversy to conversation” and I’d love to know more about that.

Serenity: Oh, I’d love to talk to you about it. You know, we’re all on this quest to differentiate our brand and our offerings in a crowded space, no matter what space that is. There’s a lot happening online, in print, in life, and our job is to make our voices heard. So, I really like to look at marketing as finding that position – and oftentimes, it can be seen as a controversial position –  and using that to start the first conversation that you need with your target audience and then applying account-based marketing to take that down through pipeline generation and ultimately deal close and hopefully advocacy.

What that means to be is you need to do something nobody else is doing. You need to say something that nobody else is saying to grab attention from the get-go. Mitigating risk and fallout when you’re really taking a strong stand is something, no matter what you’re saying, no matter what your marketing campaign is, you’re going to be putting some thought behind that. So, it’s okay to take a strong stand on a position, and I’ll give you some examples and we’ll flush this out a little bit more. It’s okay to take a strong stand because, as a smart marketer, you’re already building in your Plan A, Plan B, Plan C to make sure that all your bases are covered.

Let me talk a little bit more about this idea of controversy. You know, controversy pushes the envelope. Controversial topics in a digital media-driven market push the envelope and we can see from these topics high engagement. We see shares, commenting and broader syndication. We don’t want to look at this as a gimmick. We’re not trying to be gratuitous in our controversy. We are looking for topics that people want to weigh in on, that people want to pay attention to. Our target audience cares about these topics and have emotional responses to them. And that is the strategy I like to use at the very top of the marketing funnel to make my brand’s voice heard.

Susan: So, right from the start, you’re looking for that thank that you can say or that thing that you can do that will immediately set you apart from everybody else who’s out there in the marketplace?

Serenity: Absolutely. I don’t want to use a gimmick to gain more readers or viewers. What I want to do is connect a topic of importance to my audience back to me brand and then message to it to generate revenue.

So, what are these topics? What are these controversial topics? What’s the framework? Controversial marketing and controversy in your marketing may span a wide range of types of content. An allegory might be controversial: A wealth supermodel solving or diffusing racial-driven violence with a soda, for instance, come to mind. The product might be controversial: Guns, for instance. The intent might be controversial: Selling pharmaceutical prescription drugs to treat several specific types of conditions when those aren’t the ones it’s been approved to do. So, those are all controversial types of content, but those are the ones you definitely want to stay away from

Susan: I was going to say, this is not what you’re advocating, right?

Serenity: Those are the ones you want to stay away from. For B to B and B to C companies, what you want to do is push the envelope with creative, intelligent thought. You want to put a stake in the ground, firmly state your position, or take a side backed with data and a sense of levity and put that out there. So, when we are thinking about and brainstorming about what it is we can say in this top-of-funnel content to piece the white noise of the internet, to connect with our target audience and present our brand in a way that makes sense using emotion, you’ll come up with a lot of different ideas.

I think that, coming back to levity, that’s a good cue. Think about what people like to talk about. What has sparked a lot of viral content? Cat and dogs. There’s a great example, right? People have an opinion on what’s cuter, what’s the best, and it’s not going to offend people. People like to talk about what animal is better because they all have an opinion about it, but it doesn’t involve negative emotions; it’s not very important. You might, in your brainstorming, come up with food. That’s very controversial.

We just had BagelGate, coming out of BagelGate, you know? People in St. Louis slice their bagel like bread and nobody knew. We didn’t know this outside of St. Louis and the entire Twitter-verse wanted to talk about the pros and cons and we all learned that this presents more sides to spread the cream cheese on, you know, which is important to know. But this is a huge controversy, and taking it further, that’s the type of controversy that works. Politicians weighed in on BagelGate. Celebrities and the NYPD weighed in on BagelGate. And Panera Bread’s name was all over it because that was the photo that was posted of sliced bagels. So, this is the type of controversy that you’re looking for. A headline from this BagelGate, by the way, was “Bread Sliced Panera Bagels from St. Louis Spark Outrage.”

Susan: So, when you say “levity,” what you’re saying is that it shouldn’t be a life or death situation; it should be something that’s just kind of fun to talk about?

Serenity: Exactly. You want that exact level of controversy because it will not harm your brand. Another example would be if you are a software company that provides customer service or CRM software and you might talk about, you know, “The customer is rarely right,” and give examples of that and ask for people’s opinions, to share those moments when they were right and this clerk was right and the customer was not. That’s interesting. Find data to illustrate something about your offering.

In recent memory, we did a campaign where we found that 70% of millennials use their work trip to hook up with people.

Susan: Okay.

Serenity: Right. And that caught some attention and that gave us an opportunity to talk about our business travel offering.

Susan: Interesting.

Serenity: Yeah. So, your aim is to get people interested in what you’re doing with low-level controversy taking a stab and taking a position on a topic that matters to your audience. In the process of building out a controversial marketing campaign, you’re going to have some hints that the topics hitting a controversy button, your leadership or your client might say, “Hmm, I don’t like the sound of that. Are you sure that’s the right thinking? Do we really want to talk about that? Won’t we get blowback? What if that backfires? I don’t want to polarize people. Is that good for the brand?” All of those are indicators you’ve hit a hot button and you should keep talking about it.

Susan: Interesting.

Serenity: Find the data to constructively take the position and make a point.

Susan: Obviously, this is very effective on social media. Does it also flow through to other types of marketing that you might be doing?

Serenity: Definitely PR.

Susan: Oh, yeah.

Serenity: Yeah. When I work with startups, that’s often what they want. They want PR and sales. So, controversy and account-based marketing is a great formula for them because journalists as well are trying to deliver a story that breaks through the white noise of the internet, and they want to have data and facts that provide a new take on an old topic or an interesting take on a new topic and you can use this position, especially when it is backed with data, to pitch your target media. And, of course, your target media is going to be developed based on what your target audience is reading and they’re doing and places they’re going to.

So, it’s very useful in PR. To that end, since you would ultimately want it to be published, you would want a journalist to create a story out of your controversial position, you want to stick to facts at all times. The controversy itself will create an emotional response, so you don’t need to infuse it with emotion. That’s an agenda. That would be hidden agenda on the brand’s part and you don’t want that you want to stick to the facts and let the emotion from people give life to the story. You want to use a credible data source when you’re creating these campaigns and these pitches, so, ideally, your data will include first party data from your own research, you know, whether you engaged Neilsen and commissioned a study that you kind of designed in collaboration with them, or your first party data from your software. Ideally, that is what your thesis will be built on, or your hypothesis.

Susan: If I don’t have that first party data, can I use a credible third party?

Serenity: I think so. You can. It’s not going to be as impactful because, at least for journalists, they’ve probably seen the third party data before. It’s out there. They found it, you found it, it’s out living on the internet a life of its own. So, it’s best if you can combine it. If you’re short on first party data, to maybe do a poll on Facebook or on Twitter, any kind of data pint you can gather and combine that with other third party data to create a pitch based solely on data that already exists that was fielded by another group isn’t going to offer a ton of credibility for you.

Susan: That makes sense, yeah.

Serenity: Yeah. It’s all about the credibility because, you know, you are doing something that is going to create an emotional response, so credibility is everything, hence sticking to the facts as well. You want to list all your sources in your media pitches and any kind of printed matter you put out there, any kind of digital asset you put out there. List all your sources and the links. If you are asked for your raw data, if it’s first party data, you’ll need to be able to present that. So, you also want to go through all your calculations because anyone you provide your raw data to will do this as well so that you have a foolproof story.

Susan: Or you’ll screw up your trust.

Serenity: Absolutely. Absolutely. Triple- and quadruple-check everything for mistakes, and then, you know, that backup plan comes into place sometimes that I mentioned earlier. You always have to have a backup plan and a backup plan to your backup plan. In all marketing, no matter if you’re using controversy or not, you’re always going to have a backup safety net because minor things become controversial to people, like punctuation.

Susan: Oh, right. Yeah.

Serenity: You know, that easily, that’s blowback for bad grammar.

Susan: So, we’ve got the controversy and we’ve got people, we’ve got some buzz going on. How do we get from there to the conversation?

Serenity: Absolutely. Well, I think that all marketing is supposed to leave to revenue. Either directly or indirectly, we’re trying to create revenue with our marketing, but people don’t really respond to polarizing content with open wallets, right? So, we’ve created controversy and now what we need to do is reengage with those who participated in that controversial story, whether it was through a share or a comment or driving back to our website to learn more about us from a publications, running of a story, any of that. We want to have our remarketing in place. And that’s where account-based marketing comes in.

Susan: Serenity, just in case there’s somebody listening that doesn’t know what remarketing is, can you explain that to us real quick?

Serenity: Oh, sure. Absolutely. That would be using pixels or using cookies or using some other sort of web-tracking activity software to them send out new marketing materials, whether it’s banners or new offers to people who have engaged with content.

Susan: So, would that be also true for a business to business company that has a classic inbound marketing funnel on their website?

Serenity: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And I think that B to B marketers especially need to start thinking in terms of account-based marketing and remarketing to finely tune that broad net that we’ve really been casting historically in marketing campaigns, saying something through a megaphone to everyone, which is what we’re kind of doing with controversy marketing. To see who’s interested, hopefully we’re layering on a little more intelligence through hashtags and who we’re choosing to pitch controversial stories to so that basically this net we’re casting is already within our target audience, and then by remarketing to them, we are further concentrating our sales and marketing resources to the few clear set of target accounts and then we can employ messaging to resonate with those accounts and start the conversation.
Susan: I think account-based marketing is something that gets thrown around. It’s almost like a buzzword, and I think different people use – I’m not sure that we all have the same idea in our heads about what account-based marketing really is, so can you enlighten us to that?
Serenity: Yeah. Account-based marketing is an alternative B to B strategy. It concentrates all your sales and marketing resources on a very defined set of target accounts and then employs personalized campaigns to those accounts. It is a conversation with the account. You have an account list, you identify your target account list, you divide your target account list into meaningful segments. Maybe that’s by title, maybe that’s by group within the enterprise: the marketing group versus a human resources group. You create personalized marketing for each of those segments. Now, that’s your marketing mix. It could be ads, it could be direct mail, it could be a phone campaign. It would be all of that. The sky’s the limit and all marketing tools and tactics are available to you while you’re creating personalized messaging for each of those segments.

And then you’re mirroring the language on every channel that you’re trying to communicate through. So, this is where personas come in. You have created personas for each of these groups and you’re now engaging in conversation on that personalized level. And then you just start those conversations.

Susan: To me, when I use the term “conversation,” which I do with our work with LinkedIn, getting our clients into conversations with their ideal prospects, that is an actual one to one conversation kind of like you and I are having right now. But it sounds like when you use the word “conversation,” it’s a little bit different from that. Or do I have it wrong?

Serenity: No. I think that I’m using it in terms of one to few and a one to one, yeah. So, with account-based marketing, you are dividing up an account based on various factors – I mentioned role or group within the organization – and talking to them about what’s important to them. Yeah. For the C levels, it’s usually something around profitability, efficiency, performance.

Susan: Revenue.

Serenity: In a general sense. Very general here. But you also want to create conversations so that when that C level says, “Hey, we want new technology that’s going to help us manage our hotel maintenance,” for instance, and then they pull in the various teams needed to find the software, assess the software, implement the software, all of those conversations you’ve been having with those other people in the form of email, phone calls, direct mail, remarketing through Facebook have created an effect where now your brand is on the tip of everybody’s tongue and it’s a logical choice that you become part of the consideration set for the purchase if that makes sense.

The conversation might be one to few if I’m trying to make my brand known and get the buy-in from the engineering group of the IT group, and it might be one to one when I’m talking to the CIO or the CFO, but all of that is account-based marketing. I’m talking to each of them about things that are important in their account.

Susan: And, in some cases, your objective is really familiarity so that when the brand name comes up in a discussion, as many people as possible are familiar with it?

Serenity: That’s right. Here’s kind of the case study of taking it from that controversial topic down to this point at which we’re diving into right now. There was a study fielded about cleanliness of hotel rooms and there was a commonly held notion that five-star hotels were cleaner and more germ-free than two-star hotels. Research proved that to be wrong. Two-star hotels in this research were indeed far, far more free of germs than the five-star hotels. That sparked a great debate –

Susan: I bet.

Serenity: With hoteliers as well as with guests, and if I’m a hospitality maintenance company or if I’m in the business of hospitality tech that optimizes quality control across my hotel portfolio, you know, I want to take my next step with all of these people who have a position, especially if they are on the hotelier side, and re-message, re-engage. “Did you see that story? Well, here’s how we might help alleviate that issue for you.” Then you kind of take them through the marketing communications and the campaign that you’ve pre-planned in your strategy and brainstorming and you take it down to the point at which you are entering now, ideally, a consideration for a purchase and you are recognized by all of the teams. And then we can start having the assessment conversation and things like that.

How do you measure ABM and what are impact metrics? How do you quantify what I’m talking about here? We want to look at reputation, right? So, based on content consumed, social media activity, and then key stakeholder engagement, when you have those things in effect, you’re doing account-based marketing right and can take it to the next level, which is relationship: Conversations with sales, new client contacts. Your stakeholders become advocates. Now we’re having a business conversation. We were having a reputational level conversation before; now we’re having a relationship conversation.

Susan: Right.

Serenity: And then we take it further to, “Now, let’s have the revenue conversation. We’re going to put you down for a potential deal.”

Susan: Yeah. You’re in the pipeline now. Yeah.

Serenity: Now we’re opportunity. Perhaps the deal size increases, and hopefully we win. And hopefully we have an advocate at the other end who then wants to look at what else we have, what other solutions we have to help.

Susan: Well, this is really interesting, Serenity. You’ve really opened my mind about controversy marketing. I had never thought of it in the way that you brought it up, as using it in a real way to differentiate yourself and not just trying to be flippant about it, that’s it the kind of thing that a business to business brand that’s maybe a rather large investment could practice without damaging the brand. I think it’s really interesting, and I thank you for coming and talking to us about it.

Serenity: Yeah, Susan. Thank you. It was great to dive in and really think about how to use it effectively.

Susan: Yeah. So, if anybody wants to get in touch with you and find out more about the controversy marketing, how would they do that?

Serenity: You can email me at [email protected] That is completely fine. I would love to talk about controversy further. I’m doing quite a bit of work on the topic and love to get other peoples’ feedback, what worked and what didn’t. And you can learn more about A23 Advisors in general at

Susan: That’s with the number 23? 2-3?

Serenity: That’s right. A-2-3.

Susan: All right. Well, thank you very, very much, and I look forward to talking to you again soon.

Serenity: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Susan.

Susan: Bye-bye.

Serenity: Bye.

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