3 Steps to Scare Your Audience Into Action (And Still Sleep at Night)

scary image of Underwood typewriter with scary-looking figurine next to it

If threatened, we move into action.

At one time your ancient ancestor jumped because an animal was about to eat him. Today, that motivation can be just as strong for someone with arachnophobia seeing a spider.

Great copywriting compels action, so it’s no surprise fear is used in marketing.

But to do it well (and still be able to sleep at night), you need to know a few things about scaring your reader into action.

Here they are …

Why fear is used in marketing

You don’t have to look very far to see advertising messages based on fear:

  • Fear of missing out
  • Fear of losing something
  • Fear of future threat

Of course benefits are important — and in copywriting you’re taught to layer benefit on top of benefit to prove the value of your offer.

But there’s no denying that agitating the problem with a message of potential threats if the reader doesn’t accept your offer is powerfully persuasive.

Very simply, fear is used in marketing because, when used properly, it works.

The part of the brain that kept us alive from animals looking for a meal is not only alive and well, it makes most of our “gut instinct” decisions.

We still look for facts, figures and features … but as the old saying goes, we buy on emotion and justify with logic.

Of course, it’s not as simple as just threatening your audience. You need to use fear in a way that gets results without compromising your integrity.

How to use fear ethically and effectively

It goes without saying that to use fear effectively, you have to highlight a potential threat your customer is afraid of.

But of course, it’s never that simple.

There are a number of studies about the effectiveness of “fear appeals,” which are persuasive messages designed to compel action by explaining what can happen if the information is ignored.

One study by Kim Witte, a Health and Risk Communication professor at Michigan State University, explained why some messages were effective and others weren’t.

Basically, a successfully persuasive message relies on the presence of three elements:

  1. The threat has to be moderate to high
  2. The reader has to feel he is personally at risk
  3. The reader needs to believe preventative action is simple

For example, a smoker being persuaded to give up the habit might have a real fear about damaging his health, yet still resist change.

While the threat might be moderate to high, our smoker might find evidence to reduce the feeling that he is personally at risk: “My dad smoked 20 a day for 50 years and never had a problem.”

The smoker may also believe that taking the action needed to prevent the threat is too difficult: “I’ve tried quitting before, and it was an angry nightmare. I’m not going through that again!”

So when crafting your fear message, you need to make sure all three parts are there in equal measure.

1. Make the threat significant and vivid

Of course, the first step is really knowing what makes your customer tick. You have to know their worries.

So it’s worth taking time to review your customer profile and uncover their concerns.

And it has to be a big concern. If it isn’t, Witte explains:

When the perceived threat is low … there will be no further processing of the message.

Which means if you don’t get your reader’s attention with the problem, it doesn’t matter how many benefits you use later on … your copy will be ignored.

So think about the big fear of your audience:

  • Are they afraid they’re not going to make sales?
  • Are they terrified of public speaking?
  • Are they worried they’re not in the right career and will regret it later in life?

It’s got to be something that really keeps them up at night and hits them in the stomach.

But picking the right fear is just the first step. You’ve got to make sure that in your copy, this fear is vivid and personal to them.

Instead of saying:

Do you worry you’re not in the right job for you?

You could try:

Fast forward 30 years. Will you look back over your career with a smile? Or regret?

Will you be wishing you’d had the courage to follow your heart and passions?

Of course the key to writing vivid and personally specific copy lies in really knowing your audience, their situation, and what they’re facing in life.

Once you’ve identified a potential threat that spikes your readers’ fear radars, you need to show them this threat is very real and personal to them.

2. Make the threat personal and probable

It’s no good simply telling your customer to be fearful. We hear warning messages so often we’re immune to them.

So one way to cut through the noise and make your message stand out is to:

  1. Tell them what they already know
  2. Show them what they don’t

Let me explain…

Tell them what they already know

One way to make a reader receptive to your offer is to include examples, illustrations, and facts in your copy that he can easily agree with.

For example, let’s say you offer social media training to businesses.

You might start by introducing the truths about their situation. For example:

  • Businesses who deliver short updates often will flourish on social media
  • The most successful and popular updates are based on customer needs
  • Having a consistent message across channels increases customer conversions

Getting your readers to nod along to statements they know are true builds empathy and trust by proving you understand their situation.

But from there, we switch and start to …

Show them what they don’t know

In the above example, we’re saying to our customers: “This is what you know you need to do to get what you want … right?”

Then you need to show them how what they’re doing is in contrast to this.

In our example above, perhaps you know that your target market is:

  • Using social media sporadically
  • Posting updates focused on the company rather than customer needs
  • Delivering an inconsistent message across different channels

Now you “show” them what they don’t know: that their current actions are holding them back and putting them at risk.

There are a couple of ways you can illustrate this.

You can either identify it through description: “A lot of small businesses struggle with social media because of some very common activities. Are you making any of these mistakes?”

Or you might decide to create a self-assessment guide, or an online test or quiz, that illustrates where they might be vulnerable to danger:

  • How fast is your website compared to the industry standard? Find out here …
  • A 10-point security checklist for your website — have you covered everything?

By getting your reader to agree with you in the first step, and own their actions in the second, you’re proving that they’re in the danger zone … making them personally at risk.

3. Make the threat beatable with your help

After highlighting the threat and showing your reader they are at risk, your offer is the final piece of the puzzle in the fear message.

Your reader has to believe that with your product or service, they can prevent the threat.

One way to do this is to position your offer as being very different from a) what they are doing today that puts them at risk, and b) the products they have tried in the past.

Let’s look quickly at the sales copy for the Copyblogger’s Authority Intensive conference, which meets the first two criteria above.

  • Threat is significant and vivid: not seeing results from content marketing, being left behind using outdated techniques, or struggling to find clients
  • Risk is personal and probable: even if you’re attending content marketing conferences, you’re probably still at risk because most events are not structured to help you learn and implement

So why is preventative action simple with the Copyblogger product? Because Authority Intensive is different:

“It’s been carefully designed from inception to provide a complete content marketing strategy broken into four integrated “bundles” of tactics. This approach provides you with exactly what you need to take your business to the next level with effective online marketing.

The sales page basically says: “Hey, I know what you’re afraid of, and I know what you’re trying to do today, but you need to listen to me because it won’t work that way. Here are the reasons why and here’s what you can do instead.”

Suddenly, it’s not just another conference.

It’s the conference to attend if you really want to prevent the threat of struggling with your business.

So how might we do something similar with our social media product?

“Other products might give you a general overview of social media. But if you spread yourself thin trying to learn them all at once, you’re more likely to make mistakes and struggle to build the consistent presence needed to attract and convert clients. This program is different. We don’t move you onto one platform until you’ve mastered the first, showing you how to build a sustainable social media strategy that gets results.

Just follow this three-pronged approach

The next time you’re thinking of using fear in your marketing, make sure that:

  • The fear is real and big enough to get your customer’s attention
  • Your customer believes it could happen to them
  • Your customer believes they can prevent the threat

You can’t afford not to use fear in your copywriting.

Are you nervous about making your reader uncomfortable by talking about the dangers ahead?

Are you missing out on sales by not nudging your reader into the danger zone?

Let me know in the comments if you’ve decided to take a risk by using fear in your own marketing.

Flickr Creative Commons Image via George.

Print Friendly

What do you want to learn?

Click to get a free course and resources about:

Reader Comments (34)

  1. says

    I prefer to create urgency instead of “fear”. They might seem similar, but not really. I would rather like my customers to see me as a friend instead of a fear monger. Just not really my thing.

    • says

      Hi Scott, I understand what you’re saying.

      I see these steps as a way of getting a customer’s problem out in the open and helping them assess the impact of it, and whether or not they need to do anything about it.

      Urgency can often occur because there is a situation a customer doesn’t want to be in and as a result is compelled to take action, which is what I wanted to highlight.

      Thanks for commenting .:-)

    • says

      Urgency is a really good one that my friends tell me works really well. It ties in with “FOMO” – Fear Of Missing Out.

  2. says

    Outstanding “three-pronged approach”:

    You’re afraid of…
    It will happen to you because…
    But together we can conquer it!

    Oh, and the bit about vividness–making it REAL–was excellent.

    I write for a curriculum developer and we just put together a post about crowded classrooms and overwhelming workloads. I’m going back through that post and really pushing the fear angle as well as the salvation side.


  3. says

    I prefer to go the route of offering extra added value, rather than building a sense of fear.

    I have to agree with Scott. I want my articles to ‘solve customers problems’ by offering valuable, actionable content to my readers.

    Building a ‘fight or flight’ response, is not really my style of writing.

    • says

      Katherine, that’s all well and good … but people don’t necessarily buy because you’ve demonstrated value; they buy because you’ve tapped into their emotions.

      And perhaps the word “scare” is being taken a bit too literally here (blame the headline editor). It’s not like Amy wants you to jump out from behind a wall with a Richard Nixon mask on and yell “Boo!” (figuratively speaking). It’s about generating that fear of missing out on something great, something that will, as you say, “solve customers’ problems.” Otherwise you may be on the wrong end of that fight or flight response … which is a quasi-acknowledgement of potential value, but not the true acknowledgement, which is actually taking action (or making a purchase).

      • says

        Exactly, this isn’t about scaring the whatsits out of people for the sake of it, it’s about highlighting the very real consequences of what can happen if the problem is ignored.

        That is adding value to my customer. If I know I can help them prevent a situation they don’t want to be in, but I don’t tell them, I’m not serving my customer the best I can.

  4. says

    Wonderful post. Very nicely done.

    I only have two fears. That of losing something I have or not getting something that I want/need.

    That coupled with your 3 pronged approach sounds pretty powerful to me.


  5. says

    A lot of people have a tendency to cover their fear and imagine they don’t exist. They allow their feelings to cloud the cold, hard realities and decline to concede they’re apprehensive about anything. A fear-based marketing message like the above published can help individuals acknowledge actuality and face their feelings of fear.

    • says

      Thanks John, a good friend of mine likes the idea of using this approach to bring out issues into the conversation to be explored by the customer.

      That way they’re making a more informed decision about whether they should buy or not.

  6. says

    You’ve hit on something that could be very effective here but I agree that you have to come at it from the right way in order for it to work. The copy is definitely important and your example of how you present the problem is wonderful:

    “Do you worry you’re not in the right job for you?”


    “Fast forward 30 years. Will you look back over your career with a smile? Or regret? Will you be wishing you’d had the courage to follow your heart and passions?”

    • says

      Thanks Jennifer,

      Working with clients, I know that if I ask them what’s really concerning their clients they will give me beautifully specific descriptions.

      This automatically changes the copy from generic messages heard elsewhere to something that speaks directly to their customers.

  7. says

    I’m so tired of the ‘fear’ thing that I’ve even turned off my television. And, I feel so much better. There’s got to be a better way than to increase the stress level of our audiences to get them to listen/buy something.

    • says

      Thanks Nancy!

      I know what you mean about turning the TV off, I don’t even own one any more.

      Even with the Feng Shui services you offer, there is a genuine situation your customers want to move away from. You mention they’re suffering from ‘issues with extreme energy flows”

      I’m not saying you have to make that the basis of your marketing, but listening to your customer and identifying the problem and the situation he or she no longer wants to have, would be part of the sales conversation / copy.

  8. says

    Thanks for a great post.
    I find it insightful, well researched, and concise.
    Great writing. A great read.

    Call it scare, fear, threat or pain – it just plain works. Fear just does it’s job, so to speak – regardless of how how the idea of ‘using’ fear resonates with us personally. In that sense it’s rather like gravity – whether you’re aware of it or not, if you step off a tall building you’re like to fall down, not up.

    That much I know, but your post (and the Tim Reisterer video referred to on your website) give it down to earth practicality. Great value.

    I agree we better be careful about when to use fear. But I feel most important is the intent behind it. If your true motivation is something you would want to tell your family and friends about (like providing value to others), then the use of fear is not only legitimate, but can be a powerful differentiator. If your intent is manipulative, then instead of using fear, maybe ask yourself why you fear being open and honest about the business you’re in.

    • says

      Hey Beat,

      You hit the nail on the head with motivation and intent. I have no problem talking to my customers about what can happen if they don’t improve their content writing, or copy because I care and don’t want to see them in that situation.

      I think what makes people feel uncomfortable it pushing a product and creating a fear out of thin air to force people into action, which would be unethical.

  9. says

    Like others have already stated, I dislike using fear to convince people to buy things. I’m tired of it being thrown in my face in everyday life from companies I don’t even care about, and I’m sure that many people online are tired of being bombarded with the idea that “if I miss this, I’m doomed to eternal failure.” In fact, I know they’re tired of it; there are blog posts out there talking about how to resist FOMO (fear of missing out — yes, it’s a real psychological thing).

    HOWEVER… I think other commenters like Jerod pointed out a key difference: fear doesn’t have be the same thing as a pain/frustration point. I’d much rather focus on the pain my readers/customers are suffering from, instead of “scaring” them into a fearful state. Additionally, I think the idea of fear only works with some people, because others are learning how companies are using it to try to trick them into buying things (like taking a step back and asking, “do I REALLY need this right now?”). You have to learn first whether or not the fear route will work on your audience; if not, it seems dangerous to implement it.

    I would say next time a Copyblogger author writes about this topic, they should clarify the difference, but then again, this has started a lively conversation in the comments. :)

    • says

      Thanks for contributing Bree – am loving the conversation :-)

      People are tired of extreme messages such as: “if I miss this, I’m doomed to eternal failure” because the threat is probably disproportionate to what is actually going to happen.

      If you go over the top, you’re going to put people off rather than connect with their needs and concerns.

      I love your free gift on your site:

      “10 Warning Signs You Need a Freelance Blogger!”

      It uses a headline with fear that there is something your readers need to be warned about.

      I bet it works really well, and it means you get to connect with more people you can help.

      • says

        Thanks, Amy! Yes, I agree, and sadly I think a lot of marketers are still pushing that absolute fear/”doomed to eternal failure.” They should probably do their research.

  10. says

    Hi Amy,

    Thanks for this excellent post. I believe that those who grasp the concept of what type of fear to use and how to use it properly have a huge advantage. As you mention, we buy on emotion and justify with logic. Sure, we may want to convince someone that they need what it is we’re trying to sell, but we do that by instilling something that triggers an emotional response upon which the justification will come later.

    I like particularly how you break down and clearly explain each step, using examples. There are lots of golden nuggets in this post. I shall be making a note of it for future reference for sure.

    Kind regards,

    • says

      Thanks Glenn!

      I think words like ‘fear’ and ‘scare’ make people jump to conclusions that it has to be extreme to work. But as you say, our buying decisions are based on emotion.

      Some of the best sales pages I’ve seen (and bought from) are tuned into their customer’s fears, describe them specifically, and justify logically how they can solve them.

      To me, that just shows they’ve take the time and respect their audience enough to find out what it really bothering them and how they can help.

  11. says

    I enjoyed this and found it useful. I understand that people are saying they don’t want to write based on fear, but I think the point being made is that people are driven by it. It’s a valid point.
    Thank you for this,

  12. says

    I can see how this works in direct selling copy, but is it something you should use in “content marketing”? Or, should you make your content more “direct”?

    • says

      Hey Walter,

      You can easily apply this to content marketing, whether it’s a series of posts of how to avoid a situation, or as with Bree’s free gift which highlights if you’re in danger of needing a freelance blogger for your business.

      Think about ways you can highlight a customer’s problem and show them you can solve it and apply it to free reports, evergreen content or your blog.

  13. says

    The foundation of marketing drive of insurance, health and security industries is made on highlight the fear factor then diverting it towards their product.
    But you elaborated the topic with regard to content marketing where online communication is an advantage and disadvantage both. You can’t support your idea with facial expressions and occasional grunts to make your arguments powerful. It’s advantage is that you just need to hold the reader on your content first then make him fear and finally make him by offering the best solution.
    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful post.

  14. says

    And what great timing, too!

    I’m currently busting my ass trying to find the right approach to writing a well converting sales page. This post couldn’t come in at a better time.

    I knew about pain really being the motivational factor for a lot of high impact decisions. It has motivated me to make a lot of hard choices, especially when the pain of a current situation is more severe than the pain of change.

    But … I never quite figured out how to really aggravate the pain to the point that even I (as the writer) would be in a moment of silent thought, thinking; “Hell no. I don’t want that.”

    Now I have a practical guideline – a checklist as you may – to see if sales page copy is hitting the sweet(or sore) spot.

    Off course the same goes for writing killer blog posts, too.

    Thanks a bunch,

  15. says

    HI Amy! I think this is a great approach and one that is actually pretty new to me. I love how you stated that is has to be something that really keeps them up at night and hits them in the stomach.Wow This is so powerful.

    To let show them as you say what they don’t know Sweet!! Just let them know what is holding them back and putting them at risk and them hand over the solution.. I am so on this, Thanks for sharing, Chery :))

    P.S. I did land on your blog today Via Kingged.com where I also shared and kingged this post..

  16. says

    Interesting points. I’ve just switched my major into marketing as I’ve decided it will be more useful for my new business so the idea of creating fear in a customer is rather interesting and helpful.

  17. says

    Really interesting perspective and example with career happiness. I can see how these rules can be applied to content marketing and content driven business. Do you think they can be as effective in more sales oriented businesses? Might they be too forward?

  18. says

    I think you make some excellent points here. The style of writing also has such a huge impact on the effectiveness of the copy.

    I think that this can definitely also be applied to blogging as well.

Comments are open for seven days. This article's comments are now closed.