Your Team Sucks – How to Create “Flag Planting” Content That Doesn’t Make Everyone Hate You

Get new articles sent to you. 

This is a guest post by Gregory Ciotti, founder of Sparring Mind, the behavioral psychology blog.

I’ve always said that if you want to create content that gets shared, you need to be pushing people’s buttons.

The kind of blog post that gets noticed is the one that generates real “emotional arousal” from the reader: your blog shouldn’t read like a vanilla, vapid, and needlessly dry Wikipedia article!

The problem bloggers run into: How to create content that evokes an emotional response, without pissing everybody off!

Today I’ve got a great content creation tactic that will help you solve that exact problem!

The “Flag Planting” Content Method

Of all the methods to get people fired up about a piece of content, I’ve yet to find one as effective as what I’ve termed the “flag planting” method of content creation.

When people are forced to pick sides, emotions are automatically triggered: look at how sports fans behave, they often state that, “We won yesterday!”, when referring to their favorite team, despite the fact that they aren’t a team member.

And yet, they feel like a team member because they’ve chosen a side, and if politics or soccer riots are any indication, aligning yourself to a “side” evokes VERY strong emotions.

The question is: why bother?

Well, in a recent Wharton School of Business study entitled “What Makes Online Content Go Viral?”, researchers Jonah Berger & Katherine Milkman determined that content that evokes a high emotional arousal is the most likely to get shared.

Flag-planting allows you to create this emotional arousal by picking a side and “fighting the good fight”, which is sure to result in people who agree with you leaping to your defense.

On the flip-side, those who disagree with you will want justice, and they will end up giving verbose explanations as to why they disagree, or posting an outraged rant slandering your good name down in the comments section.

Why would you want to do this?

Well, truth be told, utilizing the “flag-planting” technique can be dangerous, and you definitely don’t want to do it for every blog post.

The reason why it’s risky is that we all know it’s not going to work if you pick a side on a boring or totally obvious topic:

I don’t care what ANYONE thinks, I’m here to tell you that pizza is delicious!

In order to make this tactic work, you need to be picking a controversial topic in your niche, or making claims that may be controversial to the community surrounding your blog’s topic.

Luckily, I’ve found a way to regularly create content that allows you to engage in flag-planting, all the while avoiding many of the risks involved…

Before we get into that though, let’s look at creating flag-planting content ‘al natural’, with a great example of why pushing buttons can be incredibly beneficial.

Marcus Sheridan Speaks His Mind

The following is a great example of flag-planting content even though there wasn’t a “black and white” outcome to the issue at hand.

What I mean is, there wasn’t an A/B option in this situation, but the blogger in question (Marcus Sheridan of The Sales Lion) managed to stir up a buzz by planting his flag steadfastly in one “camp” of opinion.

In his blog’s most popular post (400+ comments), Marcus outlines the apparent hypocrisy of the 2011 Blog World Expo.

In the post, Marcus is very critical of how things were handled in the last keynote, citing that the lack of focus, vulgarity, and the absence of professionalism shown by some of the speakers “acts” was not doing justice to bloggers who wished to be taken seriously in a young and budding industry.

Particularly, Marcus laid blame on the organizers rather than the panel itself, claiming (with a well reasoned argument) that so much of the content of the last panel just wasn’t appropriate for the event, and a huge disappointment.

Furthermore, Marcus claimed there was hypocrisy because another presentation containing the word “douchebags” was censored due to ‘lack of professionalism’, despite the fact that the final keynote seemed to be where it was lacking (thus, the hypocrisy).

Marcus himself has talked about how popular that post was for him, and it’s no surprised that it stirred up buzz: he took a side and laid out a well reasoned argument for his strong opinion, which is the essence of a great flag-planting post.

No surprise, the comment section is reminiscent of a political debate, with sides in support of and in disagreement with Marcus:



Did he write the post just to get the traffic for creating drama?

Of course not, if you’ve ever seen Marcus interviewed you’d know that his passion about blogging is genuine: this post was definitely from the heart.

Given that, it’s hard to deny the benefits of picking a side on something you feel strongly about and “letting ‘er rip”.

Sometimes you just need to lay out your stance and stick to your guns: you’ll see from the comments of Marcus’ post that a lot of people felt the same way, but just didn’t speak up until Marcus made the first move.

How Can I Avoid Pissing People Off?

I mentioned above that there is a way to utilize this method on a more regular basis without creating an angry mob around your brand.

How is this possible?

Through a method I like to call the “vanguard evidence” technique.

Essentially, when writing a flag-planting post, you can utilize evidence to support your case as the icebreaker to your entire article.

I’ll give you a great example to showcase what I mean.

Derek Halpern wrote a piece called the “Content Is King Myth Debunked”, where he outlined his thoughts on why content isn’t king, and that it’s design that has the biggest effect on the trustworthiness of a site.

Big claim to make, and one that undoubtedly was going to push some buttons.

Firmly planted in his “camp”, Derek was smart to direct attention away from his own opinion and onto his evidence.

For that, he used a study called “Trust and Mistrust in Online Health Sites”, which was a research study that showcased how people judged the trustworthiness of a website mostly by it’s design/layout, rather than it’s content.

Essentially, Derek was able to state a strong opinion in a flag-planting post but was also able to direct the actual debate to be focused around a piece of evidence, rather than his own personal opinion.

You Can Do This Too!

You don’t need to be into psychological research like myself or Derek Halpern to quote studies as your evidence.

All you need is some source of information on a buzzworthy topic that you’re about to write about.

People trust information even if it contains only a few additional sources because there is a strong faith in data for most people, whereas faith in the opinions of others can be quite low.

Data doesn’t intentionally lie, people do.

Check out how Copyblogger set up a post called “Is Pinterest Traffic Worthless?”.

Here’s another post by Josh Kaufman (author of The Personal MBA) on on paying for college and grad-school, describing the false assumptions that many people have.

In both of these examples, the aim was to get people fired up, yet the potential wrath of naysayers was re-directed towards “emotionless” evidence rather than creating a me vs. you feeling.

In the Copyblogger post, analytics from the Copyblogger Media sites were used to justify many points.

In the Josh Kaufman post, numerous articles from the NYTimes and The Economist were used when making the biggest claims.

In both, the authors stood their ground on their opinions, but you can tell from the comments (even the dissenting opinions) that the discussion was based around “arguing the evidence” rather than arguing with each other.

That’s the key with these posts, even though you won’t be able to please everybody, utilizing 3rd party (or even personal) evidence in the form of data or other types of information, you can direct conversation away from being a mudslinging fest (like in a political campaign) and create a comment section that has the feel of an orderly debate over information, rather than over personal opinion.

Over To You

What do you think of this tactic?

It’s been incredibly useful for me in building Sparring Mind, since I focus on psychological studies.

How do you plan on using it for your blog’s topic?

Gregory Ciotti is the founder of Sparring Mind and the marketing director for Help Scout, the invisible email support software for startups and small-business owners. Get more from Greg on our customer service blog.

10 thoughts on “Your Team Sucks – How to Create “Flag Planting” Content That Doesn’t Make Everyone Hate You

  1. Pingback: 7 Ways to Write Epic Shit — Think Traffic

  2. Michael Alexis

    Hey Gregory – love a) the vanguard evidence technique, and b) that you named it. I don’t know if someone has written about how naming your techniques helps position you as an expert – but Derek, Ramit and Marie Forleo all do it with great effect.

    Thanks for including the interview.


  3. Gregory

    Great post Gregory (and Stanford).

    I am a newbie to blogging and have been thinking about some controversial post lately, yet not sure how to approach them. This insight about utilizing reports and fact versus my opinion is spot on and timely. I had been thinking that any attention is good to build an audience, but didn’t want to chance being labeled in a negative, completely biased or unprofessional light. Now I have some guidance on the how to go about it.


  4. Jessica

    I like the term “flag planting” – it’s so true. Controversy stirs up emotions and really gets you noticed. Great examples, well thought out post!

    Jessica, content writer/copywriter

  5. Pingback: Copywriting Thursday – HOWTO write content that sells, plus controversy without hate — Internet Marketing Gourmet

  6. Marcus Sheridan-The Sales Lion

    Gregory, thanks for the case study here man. I love you message, and it’s one that I often think about– thought leadership, taking a stand, and knowing how to debate without being a total jerk in the process.

    BWNY was an interesting event indeed. I wrote that post with all the passion, feeling, and control I could muster– and it really was in many ways the tipping point for my brand as things from that point on have exploded.

    Thanks again and nice job,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes