Why the Smartest Businesses Are Turning to Troll Marketing

Marketing is hard.

Consumers are bombarded with so many marketing messages that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a brand to stand out.

Yet, every company wants their marketing messages to be memorable, effective, and impressionable.

This is easier for big, multinational corporations that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing, but not so easy for startups and small businesses with limited budgets and reach.

What can entrepreneurs and small business owners do to amplify their marketing messages and what can they learn from big Brands?

Studies show that emotion is the best way to get attention. As we previously wrote:

When we understand that emotions inform our decisions through their linked associations, it becomes easier to see how you can use this information when planning your marketing strategy. While every consumer is unique and each has a unique set of emotional associations, we can nonetheless make certain generalizations.

For example, most people like to feel positive emotions like happiness, connection, and pride. Most people dislike sadness, loss, fear or regret. So, linking your product with positive feelings or showing how it can eliminate negative emotions is a compelling sales tool.

Normally, marketers focus on positive emotions when promoting products and brands.

Today, however, the most successful brands are experimenting with something different.

They’re combining positive and negative emotions in a trend known as troll marketing.

How Troll Marketing Works

Troll marketing is when companies put something controversial on their digital channels.

Usually, it takes the form of a tweet, though as you’ll see in the examples below, the tactic isn’t limited to Twitter.

The idea is that the controversial content will quickly strike-up conflict and draw attention to the post.

The goal is for something to become viral and attract attention.

Troll marketing can sometimes cut through the noise more easily.

Also, the rising popularity of memes allows troll marketing to easily translate to younger audiences (like millennials).

In an article about social media marketing, we talked about the many different ways brands are competing for millennials’ attention:

The social media generation is the most media-saturated group of consumers the world has ever seen. From childhood, they’ve been exposed to tv commercials, pop-up ads, banner ads, radio ads, and billboards. It should come as no surprise that amidst the constant barrage of advertisements, millennials have learned to see through the hype.

Christopher Mims, the author of the tech blog “Keywords” for the Wall Street Journal, calls trolling the covert media message:

Trolling is so ingrained in the internet that, without even noticing, we’ve let it shape our most important communication systems.

And he’s right!

When brands troll their younger audiences, people view the brand as a funny friend or the voice they just have to correct. And since these messages tend to go viral, it’s a good chance that new audiences can be reached.

In some cases, these troll messages are intense roasts.

These types of messages are usually responses to consumers trying to troll brands.

For example, Wendy’s, the fast-food chain, is known for their sassy Twitter responses:


Image courtesy of Bored Panda

But roasts aren’t always the go-to strategy for companies practicing troll marketing. It’s just another example of the freedom brands are starting to adapt to marketing.

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You should assess the risks/benefits of troll marketing

With the newfound freedom, it’s not just marketers who are changing their frameworks. Reputation managers, often hired by companies to keep messages clean and public approval high, are struggling on where to draw the line.

Anthony Johndrow, from RepEcon Advisors, says that troll marketing is just the beginning of a new wave of digital marketing messages. Commenting on Reebok’s choice to take a stand on a political controversy, Johndrow says that the rules of brand limits are changing. Normally warning his clients to err on the side of neutrality, Johndrow wonders if that’s a tactic of the past:

Companies are experimenting in many respects. I’m wondering if what we’re seeing right now, at least in social media, is ‘maybe we could have a little bit of an edge, or get into a little bit of a fight,’

However, not all marketing experts agree with Johndrow’s change of heart or the choices some brands are making on the internet. Dave Fleet, Senior Vice President of Digital at Edelman, says brands need to weight the risks and rewards carefully: 

Brands need to take a long, hard look at themselves before engaging in this kind of approach. For those with a playful identity and whose audiences are used to this kind of tone, the risk is lower, and this approach can break through the clutter.

Because startups and small business brands are less known in the marketplace, the risk/benefit assessment needs to be even more careful.

Effective troll marketing can help a small brand gain a huge following, but a mistake can easily kill a brand.


Examples of effective troll marketing

If witty messages are dramatically uncharacteristic of a company, they’re going to seem fake and out of place.

As a result, audiences will see through it as a mistake, or worse – ignore the message altogether.

The trick is to either build off of an already cheeky voice or slowly transition into one before pulling any digital media stunts.

The best brands practicing troll marketing are doing this already, even though some of the bigger companies (like Wendy’s) are known to respond to rude customers in a matched tone.

For Wendys and other brands, this works.

But for most other companies, balance is key.

When it comes to balancing and using troll messages, here are two of our favorite examples:


To celebrate the end of 2017, Spotify created reflection videos and statistics that their users could review in the last few weeks of the year.

But their New Years campaign didn’t end there. Spotify took the data they compiled and turned it into giant billboards.

The twist? The “2018 Goals” ad campaign made fun of their consumers’ music habits and took troll marketing beyond the internet.

The campaign was a huge success, gaining mass consumer and media attention on publications like Adweek.


Image courtesy of Spotify

By balancing humor and data, Spotify broke through the noise and maintained a clear message.

Spotify CMO Seth Farbman commented on how Spotify jumped into trolling its customers:

It was like, you just couldn’t get a break. So we thought, “What do we do about this?” We decided, “Let’s look forward instead of back, and let’s inject optimism and humor where we can.” Not to make light of things, but to lighten them up a bit. It was as simple as that. The creative team here at Spotify came up with the idea of goals. How do we think forward? To take some of that nutty stuff and say, “I’m going to push against this, or be better at this.”

The billboards were funny and often retweeted.

But with all of the humor aside, Spotify satisfied a few huge goals.

They showed the world how diverse and quirky their consumer base is, they demonstrated their data capabilities, and they further proved their fun personality as a company.


Netflix followed a similar strategy that Spotify did, using the end of the year combined with statistics to poke fun at their customers.

While Netflix chose to stay entirely online with this strategy with an infographic posted to Twitter, they also singled out some of their favorite but weird stats.

But not everybody like Netflix’s use of data and humor.

Some customers cited concerns about privacy and data specificity in response to the tweet, sparking a debate that gained more social media attention as well are think pieces in various publications.

Netflix responded with a corporate statement that their data was not individually cherrypicked.

Ultimately, the critics couldn’t overshadow the virality of the tweet.

In this situation, Netflix was a strong example of how brands can still smooth over negative emotions even after cheeky comments.

In the end, it’s up to each individual company to decide whether or not troll marketing is the right strategy for them.

In some cases, the virality isn’t so good, like with T-Mobile and Verizon’s argumentative Twitter exchange over T-Mobile’s #UnlimitedMoves campaign.

But in other cases, like with Spotify or Netflix, the trolling is done just right and fits well with the current social media trends.

As we previously wrote:

Brand consistency involves the communication of messages in a way that doesn’t take away from the core brand proposition. While certain aspects of branding might change, the core message shouldn’t change.

So if trolling and cheeky responses don’t take away from who you are as a brand, the light is green.

But if they don’t fit right in and it seems like a direction your company should move in, freshening up your brand or even rebranding may be a good idea – and that alone can spark some attention.

Sometimes, just changing your tagline or logo can help better match the new voice you’re trying to use, and can reach the next demographic you’re trying to target.

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