When Fear-Based Marketing Stops Working, Try This Instead

by Christina Gillick

Last updated on November 29th, 2017

fear-based-marketingIf you have any copywriting training, you’ve probably been taught to find the emotional “pain button” of your prospect … and push it until they’re practically begging for your solution.

While this technique is actually quite effective to capture attention and get sales, if you’re using it too much, you may be hurting your repeat sales and referrals.

Remember, it’s cheaper to get another sale from an existing customer than it is to find a new customer. And a referral is often more likely to buy than someone who stumbles upon your site.

So how can you capture attention, get sales, and build a happy, trusting customer base that keeps coming back for more?

By using a more positive message. Let’s take a look …

The Problem with Using Fear-Based Marketing

fear-based-marketingFear is one of our strongest emotions—it’s an important evolutionary development that helps us survive. Unfortunately fear is also primarily a negative emotion.

Negativity can make your potential customers:

  • Feel sad or depressed.
  • Adopt a victim mentality.
  • Think solutions—like your products—are a waste of time.
  • Develop skepticism and distrust.

These negative feelings can quickly lead to a prospect hitting the “back” button. No one wants to read something that makes them increasingly sad, upset, or fearful. And, if they get the “why bother” mindset, there’s very little you can say to save the sale.

On the other hand, when you take a positive outlook in your marketing, your reader is more likely to become a customer:

  • The more they read, the better they feel.
  • They see your product as a positive solution to their problem.
  • It’s easier for them to feel acceptance and trust, creating a deeper connection between the two of you.

Doesn’t it make sense to take a positive position in your marketing? Especially when you consider that you don’t have to change your message in order to avoid negative, fear-based marketing …

Why do so many marketers leverage fear?

fear-based-marketingFear is possibly the easiest emotion to use in your marketing. Fear is everywhere and it’s engrained into our society.

News stations use fear everyday—and it gets them great ratings. But … their trustworthiness is also at an all-time low.

A recent Gallup poll states that only 8 percent of Americans have a “great deal” of trust in the news media. And only 32 percent said the have a “fair amount” of trust in the news media.

So, if you’re looking to create trust with your potential customers, consider taking a more positive stance in your sales copy and marketing.

Making Fear Positive

To flip your message from a negative to a positive, you need to find a positive way to say essentially the same thing.

Let’s look at an example. Here is an emergency survival product that uses fear as it’s emotional motivation:

As you can see, the writer didn’t waste any time trying to capture attention by scaring potential customers into reading the sales letter.
And … the rest of the promotion is the same.

Remember, this type of marketing does work—especially for first-time buyers—so you should take your goals into consideration …

If your primary concern is getting more first-time buyers (and you’re not worried about building long-term relationships) the fear-based sales letter would probably work best for you.

However, if your main goal is to build a happy, trusting customer base that keeps coming back for more, try testing a more positive message …

So how can we flip this message to a positive one?

First, let’s look at the headline:

“How to Survive When America Finally Collapses”

That big problem is clearly meant to cause fear so the reader will keep reading. Here’s how they could say the same thing in a more positive way:

Now You Can Confidently Survive Any Disaster …
Even If America Collapses

Now let’s look at the subhead.

“It’ll Pit Neighbor Against Neighbor…
Gangs Will Sweep the Streets Looting and Terrorizing…
and Closing in on You and Your Family”

That’s scary!

Let’s look at a possible subhead to sell the positive aspect of this program:

Here’s a Proven Strategy to Ensure Your Family’s
Safety During Social Unrest And Time of Chaos

Now let’s tackle the lead:

“Dear fellow prepper,

My name’s ________.

And I need your undivided attention right now…

Because if you’re like me then you must think about what’s going to happen when America finally collapses and falls apart… and goes down like the Titanic.

You know you need to protect yourself and your loved ones when the nightmare becomes a dark, harsh reality… because your family is counting on you to make all the right decisions.

So if you understand that… if you know you can NOT let them down and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to survive, then this is the most important letter you’re every going to get.”

This lead sounds pretty dire and negative. Not much hope or positivity there. Take a few moments to consider how you could write a more positive version to test.

Your positive version might say things like:

  • I want to share something really important with you.
  • In the event of a disaster your family is counting on you to protect them. Here’s how you can do that …
  • If you’re ready to learn how to keep them safe, this is one of the most important letters I could ever send to you …

See how we can keep the same general message, but find a nicer, more positive way to say it. This adds hope to your copy even if you’re selling something based on fear—as most survival products are.

Of course, remember when you make changes to working copy, be sure to test the new against the old.

Also, keep in mind that a long-term relationship with a customer can be far more valuable than a one-time, fear-based purchase.

Have I left anything out? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.



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Christina Gillick

Christina Gillick is a direct-response copywriter. She helps her clients create loyal customers and raving fans through relationship building copy and marketing. She is also an entrepreneur and founder of ComfyEarrings – The Most Comfortable Earrings on Earth.


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  1. Dave Watt says:
    April 5, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    Thank you for an inspirational article! I work for an HIV service agency and am often supplied with fear-based messages to promote services. Your ideas on filpping to a positive messages are exactly what we need. Thank you for clearly stating th reasons why this will help achieve better results! Our anti-stigma campaign uses only uplifting message to promoting testing and treatment for HIV. I will use this article to show the harm that fear based messaging can bring. Thank you!!!

  2. Alexander says:
    October 10, 2013 at 11:01 am

    What a brilliant way of looking at this age old problem! Controversal articles always get good traffic but if done wrong, it can backfire in a big way so some careful thought is needed before writing shock copy! Nevertheless, I like the approach here, still getting the reader “worried” and thus fully prepared to read the rest of the article in search of an answer, but done in a “feel good” way. Great stuff.

    • Christina Gillick says:
      October 20, 2013 at 1:25 pm

      Hi Alexander, Thank you for the compliments and your comments!

  3. Al says:
    October 9, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    1) Was this a made up letter or was this actually written to promote an emergency survival product? 2) Was it meant to promote guns? Because 3) It kind of made me think I need a gun! Sorry, a bit off topic… But that’s where my mind immediately went – fear, panic, hopelessness… whereas your rewording of the post made me feel confident, secure, and safe. I’ve never liked fear-based marketing, but it may work well for some businesses. It really is all about capturing the right emotions of your customers, and when panicked, I feel that very few people think clearly enough to read and focus on your post!

    • Christina Gillick says:
      October 20, 2013 at 1:23 pm

      Hi Al, I completely agree with you. To answer your questions: it’s a real letter promoting an emergency survival product – a whole system (if I remember correctly). 🙂 Thank you for commenting!!

  4. October 9, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Using a positive approach right off the top of an email message addressed to existing customers (even after just one purchase or action) is a great way to offer a warm greeting and boost the reader’s confidence. Ex: ” Dear – – – , You’re smart to have subscribed for one free month of service. Now we’re offering …”

    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

    • Christina Gillick says:
      October 9, 2013 at 11:38 am

      Great advice, Sarah! I love it! Thank you

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