Wharton Professor Jonah Berger has conducted some fascinating research on the role of controversy in marketing and public relations. Berger and his co-author, Zoey Chen, discovered that increasing the level of controversy can increase the volume of online conversation about a company or brand. However, the relationship is not linear. A moderate level of controversy increases conversation. Increasing the controversy even further, though, starts to dampen the level of online conversation.
In one study, they examined 200 articles posted on a particular online site, and they asked independent evaluators to rank them in terms of level of controversy. Then they counted the number of online comments posted by readers. They found that higher levels of controversy increased the number of online comments up to a moderate level of controversy (4.6 on a 7.0 scale). Beyond 4.6, however, they found that high controversy articles tended to elicit a lower number of online comments. In a series of experimental studies, Berger and Chen confirm this same curvilinear relationship.
Berger notes that high controversy diminishes online conversation because people sometimes feel uncomfortable chiming in on a highly explosive topic. Berger says, "“At the core, the key [question] is … how will talking about an issue affect how people see me?”
Berger argues that the findings do not suggest that firms should avoid controversy. However, they should consider the "sweet spot" for their firm. That sweet spot will differ among firms. In some cases, controversy quickly creates a great deal of discomfort. Thus, the controversy doesn't create the online buzz that they seek. People instead get quiet, for fear of how others will perceive them. For other companies, it takes quite a bit to reach that level of discomfort where online conversation, buzz, and word-of-mouth actually becomes suppressed.