Fear is certainly an effective motivator. For the sake of our very survival, the human brain is hardwired to act—and act quickly—when confronted by frightening situations or ideas. So it’s no wonder advertisers and marketers have long relied on fear-based narratives and messages to move product. “Buy this car with the high safety rating or risk losing your entire family if you get into an accident.” “Vote for this presidential candidate or his opponent will make our country vulnerable to terrorism and destroy the economy.” “Get the latest version of this gadget, or all your friends will laugh at you when you pull out last year’s model.” “Use this mouthwash or your bad breath will drive away potential mates.”
Clearly, it’s an effective strategy, or advertisers wouldn’t continue to use it. But does fear have a place in content marketing?
For brand storytelling to make an emotional connection, content marketers must understand what motivates their audiences—what they want, what they need, what they value. And yes, what they fear. With consumers, this might be the fear of missing out (FOMO) or being left out, fear of loss, or fear of being unprepared. With business buyers, this might be the fear of being outpaced by competitors, fear of becoming irrelevant, fear of losing customers, or fear of trying something new.
Identifying these fears and determining how they relate to your brand is the easy part, and it’s important information to have. But addressing them in the right way is where things get complicated and risky. Blatant scare tactics (like shockvertising) can come across as cheap, manipulative, and even insulting to your audience’s intelligence. The better approach is to acknowledge their fears in an empathetic and helpful way that says, “I know you’re worried about this, and you’re not alone. But you’re smart enough and strong enough to overcome this challenge, and here’s some information that can help.”
Simply put: The effective use of fear in content marketing isn’t about scaring your audience; it’s about empowering them to overcome their fears. And that usually requires a more positive spin.
Fear is one of the four basic emotions, according to research from the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow. Along with happiness, sadness, and anger, fear is biologically-rooted, whereas the myriad of other emotions we feel stem from these basic emotions and are developed more for social reasons than for the sake of survival.
Fear is primal and therefore powerful. But the reaction it will elicit can be hard to predict. The brain might choose to fight—to take action and change behavior—or to take flight and avoid the issue altogether.
For decades, psychologists and social scientists have studied the use of “fear appeals” to promote products, services, ideas, and causes. And while most of these studies have found fear to be an effective way to get a message across, it doesn’t always have the desired effect.
According to California State University researcher, Kaylene Williams, whose work was published in the Research in Business and Economics Journal, the effectiveness of fear appeals depends on the level of tension they evoke and whether they provide solutions. She concludes:
Fear appeals work when you make the customer very afraid and then show him or her how to reduce the fear by doing what you recommend. However, too much fear can lead to dysfunctional anxiety. In general, there is a direct relationship between low to moderate levels of fear arousal and attitude change. Weak fear appeals may not attract enough attention but strong fear appeals may cause an individual to avoid or ignore a message by employing defense mechanisms. Importantly, extreme fear appeals generally are unsuccessful in bringing about enduring attitude change…That is, high tension leads to energy depletion and negative mood.
Similarly, research from the American Psychological Association found that fear appeals work, but—and here’s the kicker—they’re more effective when recommending a one-time behavior, versus repeated behaviors.
What does all this mean for content marketers?
Fear might drive your audience to take action, but positivity is more likely to help them form an emotional connection with your brand and to keep them coming back for more. After all, most of us tend to avoid what we fear and cling to what makes us feel happy and/or safe. Several recent studies have found that people are also more likely to pass along positive messages on social media than they are to share bad news.
For example, Wharton School of Business researchers Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman conducted two separate studies to determine what types of emotional content are more likely to go viral. The first examined which stories from The New York Times homepage are most widely shared. Their findings:
Content that makes readers or viewers feel a positive emotion like awe or wonder is more likely to take off online than content that makes people feel sad or angry…What our findings mean for practical purposes is that if you’re trying to create content that will make a big splash, making the message positive is likely to help, and emotionality is key. Of course, more interesting, practically useful, and surprising content is also more likely to go viral.
In a second study, the pair asked 800 scientists to summarize a recent major finding from their work and then asked 7,000 “laymen” to read one of these summaries and rate how likely they would be to share it with others. The results:
Our findings in this very different setting mirrored what we had observed before—that more positive and more emotional content is more likely to be widely shared, as is more useful and interesting content. In this research, we could even study subtle differences in the way two co-authors of the same finding described it and how those differences influenced its share-ability. We saw that describing the very same research in a way that enhances its emotionality, positivity, and usefulness increased its likelihood of being shared.
The lesson for content marketers: When you put a positive spin on emotional content, and provide useful advice, your audience is more likely to engage with your message and help you spread it.
So, go ahead and figure out what keeps your readers up at night, what challenges they fear, what losses they most want to avoid. Use these insights to inform your ideation and content strategy. But when you start crafting your message, don’t go for cheap scares. Rather than telling stories about doom and gloom, tell empowering stories with helpful takeaways they can use to overcome their fears and challenges.