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Company Strategies for Blog Content That Avoids Controversy

by Tom Johnson on Oct 22, 2012
categories: technical-writing

Companies face a tough challenge – probably the most difficult challenge in the blogging arena – to establish trust with readers. In my previous post on Hiding Controversial Information, I explained the need for companies to address controversy in order to engage readers. If they don't address it, they abdicate the conversation about these topics to their competitors.

However, getting the green light from management to address a controversy or some other negative messaging issue can be difficult, if not impossible. Communication strategies from companies are usually too conservative to venture into this territory.

So let's assume, for a moment, that as the technology marketing writer, you don't have buy-in from senior leaders to write about controversial issues, negative messaging, or anything that might portray your company in a negative light. Let's say you're working in a traditional environment where managers don't really understand how trust and transparency work on the web. What do you do?

In these situations, you can take another approach to your blog articles. Whereas on my personal blog I like to ask questions and explore problems, on a corporate blog, what works well are more information-driven posts. I break these information-driven posts up into five categories: What's New Posts, Industry Trends Commentary, Tech How-to Tips, Beta Testing Opportunities, and Instructional Collateral.

"What's New" Posts

This kind of post works extremely well. If you work for a large organization, you have a lot of different products, each with separate development teams working on their own release cycles. Get in contact with these teams and find out what's new. Even if it's just a small dot release, it's an opportunity to remind readers about the product, to communicate that company continues enhancing the product.

The “what's new” theme may not follow a story format, but it's the foundation for news. You don't have to explain why you made certain enhancements. For example, you don't need to say, We redesigned our search engine because the previous search really sucked and no one could find anything. We're sorry it took so long to fix it, but I hope you'll find this new version much more functional. Instead, you can pitch the new stuff as enhancements based on feedback, or improvements designed to better help users do common tasks.

I love writing “what's new” stories because I get to break the news about something. I'm surprised how often project teams have absolutely no plans for marketing their products until I contact them and pitch them the idea of an article.

Industry Trends Commentary

Another successful strategy for corporate blog posts is the “industry pundit” angle. You don't have to talk about your own company's warts and bald spots. Instead, you can analyze industry news, trends, and other happenings, and comment openly about them.

I've mentioned this before, but I think Scriptorium is a tech comm company that does industry commentary well. With a post commenting on industry trends or issues, the industry pundit doesn't need to sell you anything. You may hardly even recognize what products the pundit sells, because you're unconsciously buying another sort of product: knowledge and trust.

The more insight and honest evaluation the pundit provides, the more trust you gain for the pundit overall. This trust then carries over to the company.

Tech How-to Tips

You may discover, from forums or other feedback, common questions users have. These technical questions provide a great opportunity for how-to posts. You can often get a lot of information directly from the help material, repackaging and perhaps rewriting it with a more friendly, lively tone.

You could begin the post by noting that you've seen a lot of questions about X, or that recently someone posted a great workaround for this scenario in the forums.

You'd be surprised how much more palatable the help information becomes when it's pulled out of a help file and inserted into a blog article. People read it, often seeing it for the first time.

You can contextualize the help for a specific scenario, dressing up dry information into something that actually seems relevant. For example, I recently wrote a blog post about modifying your directory photo on the directory. I mostly pulled this information from the application's help file. Surprisingly, it turned out to be one of the more popular posts.

Beta Testing Opportunities

We regularly have opportunities for beta testing, and when we do, I love it. First, it engages the community directly with opportunities to get involved. It's also a safe topic to write about because the beta product isn't official. In beta, products are allowed to have shortcomings and glitches, and users are encouraged to find them and note them.

Beta testing opportunities also give users the impression that they're more advanced users, the avant-garde audience for the product. They're on the frontier of the company's technology, and as a tech savvy user, their feedback is especially appreciated and valued. We do a lot of beta testing with our applications, so much that we built our own community mass test case tool to handle the feedback.

Instructional Collateral

John Doherty recently posted an article (which has received around 300 retweets so far) titled A Blog Is Not a Content Strategy. John explains that a blog alone isn't enough to attract readers. You can also attract readers through guides, videos, white papers, infographics, and other information-rich collateral. John writes:

A blog is no longer a content strategy. It can reach a certain persona, if that persona exists for your business, but many times it may not. Why create a blog when you can create, say, a travel guide that will drive people to book a room in your hotel? This content will be more difficult, including images and videos and the like, but the return will be much greater.

At Distilled, we blog twice a week, but we've seen a much bigger return from the linkbait guide ... The Excel for SEO guide ... DistilledU [an online university] ... and the video marketing guide.

(Note: Between each ellipses John includes screenshots of the material.)

I could be wrong, but all of this non-blog collateral looks awfully similar to help material. He notes two guides, an e-learning site, and how-to videos as content that is driving his SEO strategy.

We've heard many times how tech comm material can be used as a business asset to increase SEO and online visibility. If help material provides valuable content for content marketing, technical writers should be key players in any online presence strategy. It's great to see SEO writers like Doherty confirm and demonstrate this.

Remember that although help material has an appealing substance, it often needs a fancier dress for the online party. Call on the help of a graphic designer to dress it up a bit, and then stuff the core with all the insightful how-to content that lines that pages of guides and webhelp.


Although the controversy/problem angle works well for independent bloggers, especially when they aren't selling anything, it becomes nearly impossible for company bloggers to persuade upper management about the same strategy. Turning negative messaging into a positive reader experience also requires a lot more talent with tact and tone . Instead, it's a lot easier to follow these five content strategies that avoid controversy:

  • What's New Posts
  • Industry Pundit Commentaries
  • Tech How-to Tips
  • Beta Testing Opportunities
  • Instructional Collateral


About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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