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Emotion in Marketing: Using Fear and Hope to Hook Your Audience

Charles Samuel

The year was 1999. While the dawning of a new century (and new millennium) should’ve been met with more unbridled excitement, people around the globe were too busy stockpiling nonperishable foods and other useful items that hold up well in makeshift bunkers.

No, there wasn’t a threat of alien invasion. No anticipated zombie apocalypse on the horizon. Instead, it was the “Y2K bug” that kept people up at night. And for good reason—when the year 2000 rolled in, computers would stop working, bank accounts would be wiped out in an instant, and payroll systems would stop recognizing employees. That was the fear, at least.

IT Crowd: Turn it off and turn it on

And while marketers have historically found ways to double down in moments of disruption and social fears, “Y2K” felt different. It involved computers and the internet, two things gaining user adoption at a truly global scale.

The brands that succeeded during this time were the ones that figured out how to make true connections with their audiences. They tapped into people’s fears but provided a sense of hope. Tactics included sending reassuring letters to customers and highlighting their own Y2K compliance in marketing efforts.

Fast-forward to today. Using emotion in marketing has never been more important in a post-pandemic world grappling with social unrest and increasing global tensions. The key to reaching your audience well lies in how you bridge the psychological divide.

Why psychological triggers matter

Psychology makes the world go ‘round. (The American Psychological Association did not pay us to say this.)

Marketing is all about psychology. There are design strategies intended to woo your website visitors, copywriting strategies aimed at driving specific actions, and email subject line strategies focused on making people open that email amid a deluge of inbox noise.

There are a few major psychological components to digital marketing today:

  • The norm of reciprocity. The old adage of giving away value for free is backed by psychology. It’s how today’s marketers generate some of the best leads. When a brand is giving away value, users don’t feel so bad dropping their contact information just to get a whiff of it.
  • The loss-aversion principle. Research has shown that people would rather avoid a loss than gain something of equal value. Losing a hundred bucks hits us harder than finding a hundred bucks. To play on this emotion in marketing, brands craft messaging that tells people what they’d miss out on or lose if they don’t take a specific action.
  • The decoy effect. Ever see software pricing pages with three tiers and the middle option is highlighted? That’s the decoy effect in the real world. By introducing a third less-attractive option, it makes a bundle or a “balanced” tier seem like a better deal.

When deployed the right way, psychological triggers can help brands effectively connect with their audiences. Just make sure to focus on the right kinds of audience emotions.


Using fear as a motivator

We’re not talking about horror movie fears. (Although those can also be tremendous motivators.)

Homer Simpson exorcism

Audiences today, like in eras past, have fears and worries that make them shop around for solutions. Consumers have fears—like not being sure where to set up a Roth IRA or how to get into investing online. But brands have fears, too. For example, not having enough content writing firepower can drive brands to look into fractional marketing services.

Brands can tap into fear in their marketing by reframing it as a customer pain point. Whether you’re dealing with consumers or other businesses, ultimately what you’re trying to sell is a solution to pain points. This is where content marketing comes in:

  • Make users product-aware. Your marketing channels should communicate how your product or service meets your audience needs head-on. They’ve got problems? You’ve got the antidote. It’s your job to let them know through properly cadenced communication.
  • Make users problem-aware. Sometimes your audience already knows the exact problem they’re dealing with. Often, they don’t. Before you start telling them about your solutions, your content should articulate the problems they don’t see. Are they used to using pen and paper when database software can streamline a lot of it for them? Are they manually doing activities that automations can handle instead?

Brands should also lean hard into real-world fears when thinking about how to laser focus their marketing. Financial fears and market trepidation can be a huge motivator for brands in the space who can speak the language of investors and assuage their concerns.

The real-life worries stemming from the global pandemic made the Y2K panic feel comical. These were actual problems: People were actually getting sick and businesses (and entire industries) were actually getting shuttered. But the brands that succeeded during this storm were the ones that used fear in marketing—by responding to it.


Using hope as a motivator

The drawback of only discussing fear and pain points in your content marketing is that your brand could end up sounding a bit negative and preachy: Don’t miss out. You’ll lose that by not doing this. We know you’re worried. Successfully using emotion in marketing means balancing out that fear with hope.

Ben & Jerry’s is a great example of a brand that does this well. During times of social unrest, they don’t just talk about why things feel unsettled. Instead, they discuss how they plan on leading the charge to dismantle societal evils.

Dismantle White Supremacy

Their efforts have been largely praised as authentic and necessary. To take a page out of their book, here’s how brands can tap into hope in marketing:

  • Create a vision of a better tomorrow. We know, we know. Your audience has problems or is facing serious dilemmas. This is true across industries and cultures. Go beyond that with your content marketing by ensuring your brand promise reflects the kind of aspirations your users would want to see.
  • Walk the talk. This is especially important because of what we know about millennials and Gen Z: They can sniff out phonies from a mile away. Brands that are overly salesy run the risk of being disregarded by younger audiences—the exact demographic who will probably be customers in the future. Be sure to back up your brand’s claims about making the world a better place. Younger audiences care.

Use your content to tell a story

The reason old-timey sitcoms trigger eyerolls today is because they’re a bit cheesy. Apologies to the Leave It to Beaver fans of yesteryear, but overly optimistic content is a tough sell in a world that’s more gray than it is black or white.

When thinking about content marketing today, it isn’t enough to anchor your brand to fears and hopes and deliver that content to the masses. Instead, the best marketing campaigns understand the buyer journey and weave together a story that follows them around online. To do that, you need to start with a few basics:

  • Know your audience. Think about your buyer personas and map out their fears, aspirations, and channels they engage with. Create emotive content that reaches them at these different touchpoints. But also be relatable, use humor, and be real. A sizable chunk of successful marketing campaigns include pop culture references in their messaging.
  • Make them take action. A first-time website visitor probably isn’t ready to buy something right now. Create effective calls to action by connecting where your user is in their journey and what you’d like them to do.
  • Nurture them (everywhere). Nurturing in marketing isn’t just about setting up emails to drop into inboxes every once in a while on autopilot. Retargeting ads should also be a part of your nurture strategy. Reinforce your message—around both the fear and hope—in ads targeted to folks who have already engaged with your brand.

And the proof is in the pudding: Leads that are nurtured make 47% more purchases than leads that aren’t.

Nurturing plants in garden

By creating content for every point in the journey, you’re making sure you reach your audience no matter how big or small their fears or hopes are. Start by meeting your audience head-on with problem- or product-aware messaging. Eventually you’ll be ready to connect them with more sales-ready content.

How to start

Fears and hopes are incredible motivators. They help drive real change in the world. Technology and digital security rapidly changed after the Y2K turmoil. And work-from-home apps have become faster, better, and stronger since global lockdowns turned a lot of us into people who wear pajama bottoms to video conference calls.

But fears and hopes can also be debilitating. Some fears are so big they can be daunting to conquer. Some hopes are so big they can feel unattainable.

Content marketing exists so brands can move users from that place of uncertainty to finding a solution that works for them.

By building a content strategy that leverages emotions and audience psychology, you can make sure your messaging resonates no matter how circumstances change over time.

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