No offence intended! How to avoid writing content that offends people

When you’re writing content, one of the things you need to consider is whether you might offend somebody with what you write.

In many ways this is very much a problem of the digital age. Years ago, content that offended people might result in a handful of stiff letters to the local press. But now, content that causes offence can spread like wildfire through the social media, causing massive damage to your image and reputation within hours.

You’ll have seen advertising campaigns, for example, that illustrate just what I mean. Some bright copywriter pens copy that is a little bit risqué and, very quickly, it’s shared worldwide on social media, extensively complained about, reported to online platforms and banned.

So why are people so easily offended by content nowadays?

You could argue that, actually, they’re not. Yes, opinions on what is acceptable and what is not have moved on. Look back just to the 80s and you’ll find content what was considered perfectly acceptable at the time but which would cause outrage if published today. But, more likely, the problem is that the digital age has made it easier to complain (often with just one click), has made it easier to spread indignation, and potentially do much more damage than a letter to ‘The Times’ ever could.

And this is a real and serious problem for content writers and indeed anyone involved in marketing. Because today your content needs to be strong and thought provoking if it is to get any attention at all. And strong, thought provoking content invariably runs a risk of offending some too.

Look at it from the other wide of the coin too and you’ll see an additional problem: If your content is 100% inoffensive chances are it will be 100% ineffective too.

So, when you’re next writing content, how can you avoid offending anybody? Here’s a simple action plan for content writers:

* Certain subject areas are metaphorical minefields. You know what they are! If in doubt, don’t go anywhere near those danger areas.

* Learn from the bitter experience of others! If you have an idea for content that could possibly cause offence do some online searching. Look for similar content on the same subject. Then check to see if it led to any unexpected backlash.

(Just because it didn’t doesn’t mean you’re 100% safe though!)

* Use the time-honoured duck test. Obvious but often overlooked. If you find it offensive, probably other people will do too. Ask friends and colleagues for feedback too.

* Research your subject thoroughly, and take expert advice wherever possible. There are lots of places where you can get free expert advice. For example, if you’re writing content which has relevance to disability issues, there are lots of charities and other organisations who can brief you on the issues involved and on acceptable ways to write about them.

* Target your markets more accurately. Many cases of, let’s call it public outrage, occur when content for a specific audience, which will understand the context of it, are released to the world in general …. including people who don’t. Publishing content wholesale to the Internet increases the risk of this. So, try and publish your content only to the audiences for which you intended it.

* Gently does it. If you’re still in doubt as to the acceptability of your content release only an edited version of it to begin with. See what the reaction is (if any) before releasing the full version.

Lastly you need to bear in mind that publishing content that an audience might find offensive is, and can be, a marketing strategy used by some marketers. There’s something to be said for that saying that ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. Bear in mind thought that marketers who do this are often (but not always) very skilled and adept at handling the fallout. Assuming you’re not, this probably isn’t a strategy that you ought to pursue.

As an alternative consider some other proven techniques for getting maximum exposure and impact for your content, as an alternative to something that could potentially cause offence. For example, using humour is an alternative that can be very effective. You might find this article on using humour in your content useful.

Mark Hempshell is a copywriter and content marketer. More free copywriting and content tips on Mark’s website here: Mark Hempshell: Writer, copywriter, editor, content marketeer for hire.

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