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.
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:
- The threat has to be moderate to high
- The reader has to feel he is personally at risk
- 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:
- Tell them what they already know
- 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.
About the Author: Amy Harrison is a copywriter, content trainer, and owner of Write With Influence: a comprehensive copywriting training system. To access your free five-day video course with techniques for writing irresistible marketing content, click here.