Ever ordered a dish marked with three chilies (🌶️🌶️🌶️) on the menu, only to find it’s not spicy enough?
All it triggers is a tingling sensation on your tongue.
But the promised heat that makes sweat drip from your forehead and causes you to reevaluate your life (er, food) choices?
Not even close.
A lot of B2B “thought leadership” articles feel like that. In Southeast Asia, that’s often by design.
It’s not that no one here has a controversial, contrarian, or fresh thought to share. It’s that we don’t want to make our readers and clients sweat. Our culture conditions us to prioritize collective harmony, preserve face, and defer to superiors—not challenge the status quo.
Such constraints deter many B2B marketers and executives from making memorable, opinionated content that cuts through the noise and sparks conversation. But what if we turn them into creative constraints that help us write opinionated content without rattling our readers?
To marketers outside Southeast Asia, this approach may sound counterintuitive. We think it’s worth a try.
Cautiously opinionated content: a necessary oxymoron
Oxymorons, according to Grammarly, “may seem illogical at first, but in context they usually make sense” (emphasis added).
Culture is the context that makes “cautiously opinionated content” make sense.
Hear us out, because we know it’s a head-scratcher. It took us years of working with over 200 Southeast Asian businesses to come around to this way of thinking. This is partly because much of our content marketing education comes from brilliant Western marketers.
Nothing wrong with that—they just have a different context.
So maybe instead of trying to force it, we should come up with frameworks and viewpoints that work in our own context.
Factoring cultural context into content marketing
“As a society, we Asians are taught to always be humble. There’s a Chinese saying that the biggest tree always catches the wind — meaning, don’t be too outstanding. Stay under the radar and no collateral damage will come your way,” shares Adrian Tan, a fractional CMO (chief marketing officer) for HR tech vendors.
If you don’t think this kind of upbringing affects marketing, just look at these examples of opinionated content and picture a Southeast Asian executive or marketer trying to get them published on the company blog:
- You can’t trust Google by David Hansson, creator of Basecamp and Ruby on Rails
- Marketing Right Now Is #$%*ing Hard by Rand Fishkin, founder of SparkToro
- The Age of the App is Over by The Browser Company, creator of the Arc browser
You can predict the pushback they’d get:
- “Let’s not name other companies.”
- “Avoid saying anything negative.”
- “Use ‘might’ or ‘may be’ instead of ‘is’.”
What these types of feedback really mean are:
- “Let’s not cause others shame.” Among Filipinos, for example, the fear of hiyâ (shame) pervades every interaction — especially when you’re dealing with someone with more authority than you. You must avoid, at all costs, either being shamed or causing someone to feel ashamed. A mere expression of dissent or dissatisfaction can trigger hiyâ.
- “Don’t cause arguments.” Across the region, we’re generally raised to uphold group harmony. Stating a contrarian opinion can be seen as being aggressive and disturbing the peace.
- “Use phrasing that prevents us from losing face if our opinion turns out to be wrong.” The Hokkien term paiseh connotes embarrassment and sheepishness, particularly when one loses face or wants to avoid losing it. In corporate culture, paiseh collides with kiasu, the fear of missing out and losing—and this results in risk aversion.
That’s why, in Southeast Asia’s B2B content marketing scene, most “thought leadership” articles dilute opinions. A strong conviction is watered down into a meek suggestion. An analysis is slathered with hedging words and loses its flavour.
The result is often bland and informative, instead of driven by an expert’s or executive’s views and experiences.
We can’t keep going down that path. Because now more than ever, businesses have much to gain by publishing opinionated content.
How to write opinionated content that respects Southeast Asian sensibilities
Opinionated content is “the sharing of earned secrets,” says Ryan Law, creator of the course How to Write Thought Leadership Content (highly recommended, BTW).
Opinionated content is a subset of *thought leadership* content.— Ryan Law (@thinking_slow) March 1, 2021
We have a simple definition: it's the sharing of "earned secrets," the experience and opinions only you possess.
Share your earned secrets to show expertise and begin building *trust.*https://t.co/BshHkv9W4W pic.twitter.com/pvhE4imB5k
The term “earned secrets” comes from venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, who explained it like this: “You did something in your past to solve a hard problem and learned something about the world that not a lot of other people know.”
At a time when every business has a blog and AI writes articles, the competitive edge of having and sharing earned secrets becomes even sharper.
Benjamin Loh, an executive communications coach, shares pitching advice based on his earned secrets
And as the amount of published content increases exponentially, businesses will find it harder to compete for top search engine result positions.
You’ll need to differentiate your message by sharing something unique to your organization.
As Adrian points out, “Opinion is one of the best ways for traffic to grow on perhaps any platform. You can find information and data anywhere. Opinion is the stuff that’s sorely lacking.”
Below are some guidelines for B2B marketers and executives to write opinionated content for a Southeast Asian audience—keeping it just spicy enough to make a point but not cause undue discomfort.
Note that none of the tips below are unique to our region. Any content marketer or executive can use them.
But here, they’re not simply options you can disregard. They’re key ingredients for sharing a strong opinion while still respecting face, harmony, and authority.
1. Find what you agree with and add your perspective (More “yes, and”, less “no, but”)
Entrepreneurs like to talk about how they built their products after a bad experience. (“I built a digital-only bank because traditional banking is slow, inconvenient, and annoying.”)
But when they publish blogs, the sentiment becomes milder: “Banks have served customers well. We see opportunities to make the experience even better.”
The person became a company. One with investors to please, corporate gatekeepers to appease, an image to guard, and industry regulations to obey.
To fulfil your obligations to the company without diluting your opinion to the point of insignificance, consider a “yes, and” approach. This means you’re adding your substance to someone’s opinion. Instead of arguing, you focus on the ways you agree with another person’s view. You avoid challenging their authority or making them lose face.
Here are some “yes, and” techniques:
🌶️ “Yes, the popular view holds true now—and let’s explore some what ifs.”
In 2021, the docudrama The Social Dilemma spotlighted the dark side of social network algorithms. Monkshill Ventures CEO Peng Ong joined the conversation by writing about his vision for such algorithms — what he called “feed flow AI”.
After acknowledging the pitfalls of over-optimizing user feeds for revenue (yes), Peng introduced his view (and): what if feed flow AI could be used for the consumer’s good?
He continued by discussing the need for transparency about algorithms and the possibilities for businesses to use feed flow AI in a way that builds trust with consumers. These perspectives came from his long experience in working with and supporting tech startups; they were his earned secrets.
Peng’s opinion partly contradicted the prevailing view at the time of the evils of user-feed algorithms. But he didn’t frame his commentary as an argument.
Instead of saying “No, look at it this way,” he said, “I see that; now let’s broaden the view.”
🌶️ “Yes, this topic is relevant—and we should re-examine it through this lens too.”
Writing for our Deeper newsletter, my colleague, Nikki, acknowledges (yes) the allure of the subscription model for media businesses—and follows by dissecting why it hasn’t worked in Southeast Asia. She then analyses the boost subscription businesses could get in a digitally-driven, post-Covid world.
This type of “yes, and” technique reframes the topic by adding original analysis based on a geographical perspective.
🌶️ “Yes, we agree with your opinion—and here’s how we can act on it.”
In one article, Insignia Ventures Partners quotes an opinion their CEO gave to the media, about how he sees the opportunity to find startups that have developed “anti-squeeze” muscles. The article then shares advice, case studies, and a framework on how startups can build such characteristics.
It’s like saying “Yes, we agree with your opinion, and here’s how we can act on it.”
2. Frame your argument based on how it can benefit the collective vs the individual
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more opinionated group online than Web3 advocates. That’s why the argument presented by Favorite Medium, an app development agency, is kinda bold.
According to them, the way to make blockchain and Web3 mainstream is to work with governments, use familiar Web2 user interfaces, and avoid touting the fancy tech too much.
To a pure Web3 enthusiast, that view is scandalous.
Avoiding strongly worded opinions, Favorite Medium opted to show how this approach can benefit Web3 advocates and pave the way for the realization of Web3 ideals. By focusing on utility, practicality, and funding, blockchain companies can test and deploy their solutions. When more cities and companies use such solutions, the barrier to adoption lowers.
But tech operators aren’t the main audience for this article. Favorite Medium wants to appeal not only to tech leaders but also to business decision-makers. The agency does this by emphasizing the collective advantage, painting how business gains and consumer adoption in the near future will benefit Web3 proponents in the long run.
3. Preface a contrarian view with an agreeable statement
Can you decode the following statements?
- You offer food to an unexpected visitor and they say, “No thanks, I’m full.”
- You refuse your mom a favor and she tells you, “Do whatever you want.”
- You invite an acquaintance to a party and they respond, “I’ll try.”
All these statements are indirect ways of expression. They don’t get straight to the point because the speakers want to preserve face—yours and their own.
This isn’t to say B2B marketers must sugarcoat their opinions. We’re saying don’t serve your spicy take right away. Lower your audience’s defenses first by starting with something agreeable or appealing. You can:
🌶️ Acknowledge the opposing opinion and show that you understand it.
This approach echoes the persuasive strategy called Rapoport’s Rules, where you build up your opponent’s argument before counteracting each point.
Here’s the method:
How to compose a successful critical commentary:
Ho Seong Kim, the CEO of the SIM Academy (by Singapore Institute of Management), uses a similar approach to present a “somewhat radical idea”: reverse-engineering the education process so that learning would begin with the employer.
Before introducing this argument, Seong Kim echoes the need to develop “Job-Skills Integrators” as proposed by the Singapore government. He presents his own and third-party viewpoints that support this initiative.
Only then does he introduce what he finds lacking with the idea: “I still feel it seems very much targeted at reskilling the individual—rather than addressing what each organization needs.”
He then introduces his vision:
“What if there is a more efficient and effective way that ensures organisations have all the right people in place across the chain of command? This is where we are proposing a somewhat radical idea at SIM – to reverse engineer the entire education process, so that learning begins with the employer.”
🌶️ Use humor.
Adrian, the fractional CMO, is a master at using humor while expressing pointed opinions. Take this newsletter where he discusses the reasons bad managers persist. He warms up readers with a self-deprecating anecdote, then delves into the main topic without mincing words.
While not every post has a joke, Adrian’s fun and authentic social media presence has garnered him a following of over 40,000 LinkedIn followers.
Try using humor to make your audience feel good and receptive. If you’re not a natural comic but still want to make your audience smile, experiment until you find an approach that feels authentic to you. Remember that humor doesn’t come from jokes alone — for instance, it can also come from providing a completely unexpected perspective.
🌶️ Identify with your audience and use stories to build your argument.
Humans are “storytelling animals”.
Just look at how stories influence public policies and product sales. Stories help the audience relate to the speaker and even align them against a common enemy. And without this process of identification, there can be no persuasion, argues Kenneth Burke, a philosopher and major literary theorist.
In an article for mental health startup Intellect, we wanted to shift the mindsets of work-from-home parents, away from guilt and anxiety and towards self-care and vulnerability. We told the stories of a therapist and WFH parents in Southeast Asia to share the reasons these mindset shifts are needed, demonstrate how to adopt them, and portray their benefits.
While this isn’t a spicy topic, it’s a sensitive and deeply personal one, so we had to show that the opinions came from the same experiences and emotions the readers held.
Even though the article gave direct advice and cited scientific studies, most of the arguments were shaped by anecdotes and reflections on the daily lives of WFH parents.
4. Don’t make things personal; focus on the learning point instead
Back in 2018, content marketing wasn’t a well-understood concept among Southeast Asian businesses. With Content’s founder, Daniel, wrote an article to explain what content marketing is and, more importantly, what it isn’t.
Daniel included an example of an advertisement overtly masquerading as an article—a classic example of a content marketing misconception. He didn’t mention the name of the company, writer, and publication that made the article.
In contrast, whenever he showed examples of effective content marketing, he made sure to name the companies that published them.
Eugene Cheng, founder of consultancy business HighSpark, takes this tip one step further. He says if you’re nervous about mentioning what went wrong, you can instead focus on the lessons you’ve learned.
He recalls how one VC firm dropped a crypto app from their portfolio. The VC then wrote a post about the importance of investing only in industries you know and understand. They didn’t mention the app or the fact that they’d dropped the startup. They applied delicadeza by not making it personal or discussing the startup’s shortcomings.
5. Choose your battles.
With all that said, sometimes you need to state your opinion in strong and unequivocal terms. Do so if the situation calls for it. It’s a breath of fresh air.
As Adrian says, “You’re a leader—you need to make a stand and know how to defend it.”
But choose your battles.
Eugene does this by staying within his circle of competence.
“What works for me is to write about a certain sphere over and over again,” says Eugene. He also foregoes topics that are “too personal”, like politics and religion.
Choose the moments that require strong and forceful statements, like:
🌶️ When you introduce your vision and product to the world.
Before the launch of Travelstop (now WeGoPro), a business travel and expense management software, the startup published articles decrying the state of business travel solutions in Asia.
One article listed the reasons business travel solutions at the time were “leaving small businesses out in the cold” (ouch!).
Another concluded (emphasis ours):
“It’s a shame that the once-glamorous notion of business travel has been reduced to yet another chore that employees need to take on. The onus lies on companies to make business travel something that employees look forward to once again—and they’ll need better tools for that.”
🌶️ When you’ve built an opinionated product.
The company Oddle offers, among other things, a restaurant reservation system.
Nothing exciting—except that it’s completely free. It challenges the status quo of charging restaurants for every reservation made.
Oddle explains this zero-cost approach by challenging the notion that third-party reservation channels create incremental revenue. The startup says those platforms are “ultimately only useful in acting as a digital doorway” and connotes that they “[eat] away at earnings that should otherwise fully belong to the merchant.”
🌶️ When your organization or business is built around advocacy or persuasion.
HighSpark is a consultancy that teaches business leaders how to be persuasive and helps startups hone their pitches. You could say persuasion is what they sell.
So it makes sense that Eugene regularly posts strong opinions on LinkedIn, his marketing platform of choice. Here’s an example:
Can you feel the heat? The message is strong and direct. It’s also very helpful, as it’s based on what Eugene has learned through his expertise and experience.
🌶️ When you challenge a threat to your business or industry.
A time will come when you’ll need to use your voice to protect your industry and business. For instance, looming legislation might take away your competitive advantage.
This is a daily reality for transport startups, which operate in one of the most contentious industries in Southeast Asia for challenging entrenched business models. Think about how Uber gave up on the region and how Grab paid huge fines in the Philippines.
These articles on their own aren’t opinionated.
But zoom out and look at Grab’s content hub as a whole, and you’ll see how their collective content makes a very strong and specific point about how the company is making lives and cities better across Southeast Asia.
Take the first step towards opinionated content
Let’s revisit the big tree that catches the strongest wind.
While smaller trees stay safe, they miss out on growth, too.
“As with anything in life, if you cap and eliminate the downside, you also cap and eliminate the upside. And the result is that your life is no longer something you live, you’re just existing,” says Adrian.
Can’t you have it all—serve the spice and receive everything nice in return?
Well, no. No matter what you say, there will be people who will dislike it or disagree with it.
But you can make your message palatable to your target audience. Aside from the advice above, take time to reflect on your opinions and get advice from people you trust:
- Check your motives. Don’t be contrarian just for the sake of getting a reaction. Acknowledge the biases that affect your views. Challenge your opinions and examine the tiniest hint of malice or prejudice.
- Reserve your strong opinions for the issues that will have the most impact on your goal (e.g., on improving your corporate image, proving the need for your product, deflecting a threat to your business).
- Get honest feedback from a mentor or a trusted group. You can even ask someone to play the devil’s advocate.
- Have an editor review your tone to make sure you don’t come across as offensive, condescending, or rude.
Are these thought leadership writing tips the best practices you’ve learned from marketing blogs? Probably not.
Will your high school friends from the debate society approve? Heck no.
Do they reflect the principles espoused by George Orwell in Politics and the English Language? You know they don’t.
But will they make your Asian mama proud and resonate with your Southeast Asian audience? You bet they will.
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