The Business of the Brain on the Internet: Marketing Scare Tactics And Your Business

11/01/2016 09:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What do advertisers, politicians, and mischievous kids on Halloween all have in common? They all know that fear has a powerful influence over human behavior. Life is full of scary scenarios and marketers spend tons of time using those scenarios to scare us into buying their products and services.

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But just because fear is a powerful influencer, doesn't mean it is always a good marketing and sales strategy. As a small business owner, there are a few questions you should ask yourself when considering whether to use marketing scare tactics to sell a product or service:

1. What makes fear an effective selling tool?
2. Is fear an appropriate selling tool for your product or service?
3. If you use fear to sell, is there a risk of a potential backlash?

Let's breakdown each question and look at some examples.

1. What makes fear an effective selling tool?

There is little doubt that fear-based appeals are generally effective at influencing attitudes, intentions, and behavior. But why is fear an especially effective sales tactic?

The explanation goes back to the science of evolutionary human psychology. The basic story goes like this: since our primitive ancestors frequently confronted physical threats and we are here today only because they were really successful at solving the problem of self-protection, human beings developed certain self-protective strategies that continue to play a role in our decisions and behavior.

One self-protection strategy relevant to our question is increased safety in numbers. In our lizard brains, isolation means that we are vulnerable to predators. Sales teams know how to trigger that part of our brain by making us think that certain products will help us avoid isolation from others, for example, because of bad hygiene. So we see deodorant and toothpaste ads persuading us that if we don't buy this particular brand, our friends and romantic partners will abandon us. These social proof appeals work, but are they appropriate for your product or service?

Another self-protection strategy is known in behavioral economics as loss aversion. The idea is that when people evaluate an outcome, the potential losses are more salient than the potential gains. As a result people tend to favor actions they perceive as avoiding a loss over actions they perceive as acquiring an equivalent gain. For instance, we prefer not losing $5 to finding $5. Some studies even suggest that losses are twice as psychologically powerful as gains. This means that you should remind prospects just what they stand to lose, but should you only focus on losses?

2. Is fear an appropriate selling tool for my product or service?

Given the above, it's not hard to figure out which industries lend themselves best to using scare tactics to sell. In certain industries, like insurance and public health, scare tactics are marketing's bread and butter. But while it's hard to imagine how to sell insurance without talking about scary things that you need to insure against, in other industries using scare tactics to sell is more of an option. So should you go there?

In the end, the decision to use fear to sell your product or service comes back to your core values. Do you want your company to be known using such tactics? Probably not. But if you are selling a product or service that you truly believe can help people, there's nothing wrong with strategically reminding prospects how they can avoid problems down the road.

Consider the following tips for using fear to sell:

Fear can help prospects realize the cost of inaction. Often prospective clients are so wedded to the status quo, they can't really see how badly things are going. Suppose you sell virtual assistance services to small businesses. Your ideal clients are small business owners experiencing overwhelm. Should your ramp up their feelings of overwhelm by telling them that their business will FAIL if they don't hire you? Or should you simply ask, "How long can you keep up this pace?" You can help clients feel the cost of inaction without increasing their blood pressure.

Emphasize the personal consequences. This works best if you have specific stories of prospective clients who decided not to use your services, but who later regretted it. Maybe they thought your pet grooming services were too expensive until they had to pay for a vet visit to have their sweet puppy's ingrown toenail removed. Simply remind them of what might happen if they don't buy without exaggerating.

Play up what they stand to lose. Thanks to loss aversion, people react more strongly when they feel they are about to lose out on something. Outline what your prospective client's company stands to lose if they don't do business with you.

Here are a few others tips to inform your fear-informed marketing strategy: Research finds fear appeals to be effective, especially when they contained recommendations for one-time only (versus repeated) behaviors and if the targeted audience included a larger percentage of women. They also confirmed prior findings that fear appeals are effective when they describe how to avoid the threat (e.g., get the vaccine, use a condom).

3. If I use fear to sell, is there a risk of a potential backlash?

Whatever product or service you are selling, you are solving a problem for your customers. But keep in mind that there are two sides to problem solving. You can focus on the feelings and emotions people experience when they have the problem or you can focus on the after effects of having their problem solved. Again, if you don't want to be associated with negative feelings in the minds of clients, your marketing should play up both sides.

Using marketing fear tactics to sell does require a bit of subtlety. If you go too negative, you risk potential backlash. Never use overblown claims about the harms and dangers of not buying from you. You risk offending clients and potential clients who will take to social media before you know it to smear your brand.

Also, keep in mind that there is a fine line between presenting losses and shaming people into accepting an offer. This always comes to mind when I see a particularly negative message in an opt-in box on a website. There's nothing that makes me less inclined to take action than a pop-up that looks like this:

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When it comes to Spring Insight's marketing, I generally steer clear of fear tactics. We are a happy company (our logo is a cute purple flower, after all). We obviously like to paint the picture of all the sunny things that will come your way if you work with us. So, we tend to emphasize the gains. But that doesn't mean we don't also dabble in reminding you of potential losses. To see our marketing strategy in action, take a look at our marketing services page. Whether your marketing style is more fear or happiness driven, we are here to help. Contact us today.

What do you think about using scare tactics to sell? Seen any recent examples of where it's done well or poorly?

Let me know on social media (TwitterFacebook, or Google+).

Erika Dickstein is a Web Strategist located in the DC metro area. She specializes in working with small businesses on creating strategic goal-oriented websites. You can connect with her at www.springinsight.com.