The Right and Wrong Way to Use Controversy in Subject Lines

The Right and Wrong Way to Use Controversy in Subject Lines



The Right and Wrong Way to Use Controversy in Subject Lines

A couple of years ago a load of emails dropped in my inbox proclaiming “Social Media Doesn't Work”.

It was one of those big product launches. You know the ones where a bunch of gurus cross-promote each other's products in turn to create the sense that everyone is talking about the product and that this is the one you must buy (until the next one comes along).

This one was being promoted with the line that “social media doesn't work” and a link to a video that would explain why.

So, of course, I clicked. Who could resist a controversial subject line and topic like that?

What was the great revelation about social media not working?

Well, apparently, social media doesn't work…wait for it…drumroll please…”if you don't do it right”.

Yep. That was the stunning revelation. Apparently if you don't do something right it doesn't work.


As my kids would say: weaksauce.

I'm sure the product did well thanks to all the big names with big email lists pushing it. And the course might even have been decent too.

But that's an awful way to do email.

Here's a more recent example.

Subject line: “I don't want you to come to my event”


“I don't want you to come to my event. I don't want you to get… (basically a list of good stuff you'd get from the event)

Unless YOU want to that is.

blah blah…”

So in other words, I really do want you to come to my event. So much so that I'm going to list all these great things you'll get at the event. But I don't want to look desperate so I'm going to wrap it up in something saying I don't want you to come.

Then I'm going to say “unless you want to” as the payoff for the subject line.


Controversy is a powerful weapon. It can get your emails opened and your blog posts read like no other strategy.

And it can generate a visceral response even before your audience has read the first words of your content. Get it right and the adrenaline will be coursing and the blood pumping through your readers' veins as they devour your words.

So you OWE it to them to make it worthwhile.

Not some weak “unless you do it right” or “only if you want to” crap.

If you're going to use controversy in a headline or subject line, you'd better deliver. You'd better actually have something controversial to say.

I'm not a big user of controversy. But every now and then I'll write something that challenges the accepted wisdom in marketing.

Not super-controversial I grant you. But controversial for marketing.

Something like Why networking doesn't work (for me).

That article explains the downsides of networking, why I choose not to use it as a marketing strategy and why I think there are better options for people like me.

It's not some weak “unless you do it right” nonsense.

It's something people can genuinely disagree with. And they did – I got a whole bunch of emails as a result :O

If you're just saying something that sounds controversial in a subject line or article title to get people to read, but your article isn't controversial at all, then you're just being manipulative.

If you're going to be controversial, have the guts to do it properly.

[Tweet “If you're going to be controversial, have the guts to do it properly.”]

If you write a controversial headline, but in the article you just deflate the point, or you write something that no one would really disagree with, then you're letting your readers down.

How do you think they're going to feel if you get their blood boiling with a subject line only to find that you didn't mean it at all? It was all a trick.

“Oh, that's clever, I fell for that, well done”.

I doubt it.

They're going to feel cheated. And that they can't trust your future headlines.

Not good.

The right way to use controversy in a subject line is to lead in to genuinely controversial material. Not as a trick to get more readers.

Ian Brodie

Ian Brodie

Ian Brodie is the best-selling author of Email Persuasion and the creator of Unsnooze Your Inbox - *the* guide to crafting engaging emails and newsletters that captivate your audience, build authority and generate more sales.

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