How to Shock Your Customers into Converting

by Neil Patel

Last updated on August 22nd, 2017

Conversion optimization has all kinds of methods and tactics. You’ve probably read some of the same articles I have…

… improving CTA buttons, using stronger call to actions, shortening forms, etc. There’s one technique — the most shocking of all — that many CROs overlook.

It’s called shock.

This is going to be shocking.

I, for one, am tired of shock headlines from sites like Upworthy and ViralNova. Even though I’m sick of it, I’m a sucker for them.

shocking headlines

That’s a trend, but it’s not quite the kind of shock that I’m proposing.

Shock does work, and not just in conversion optimization. There are shock therapies in a variety of different disciplines:

  • Electroconvulsive treatment: For some individuals who suffer from psychological disorders, doctors may prescribe electroconvulsive therapy, also known as “shock treatment.” A swift change in stasis can bring about a desired effect.
  • Insulin shock. One former method of psychiatric treatment was known as insulin shock therapy. In this method of treatment, doctors would shock the patient with large doses of insulin in order to induce a coma, leading to treatment of psychiatric conditions.
  • Economic shock therapy is the theory that by releasing price, currency, subsidy, and trade controls, an economy can achieve a higher level of productivity, reduce inflation, and restore equilibrium.
  • Culture shock happens when individuals lose their personal sense of comfort within an unfamiliar lifestyle such as a foreign country. Culture shock culminates in the “mastery phase,” in which an individual can successfully navigate their way in a host culture, and live in a comfortable bicultural way.
  • Linguistic shock therapy. Administering small electric currents to the brain can help people do better academically, specifically in linguistic fields.

The idea of shock sounds somewhat disturbing, almost unethical. But the truth about shock is that humans are designed to benefit from the right kind of shock.

Electrical shock has its place, but so does the more commonplace mental shock. You may be shocked to discover that your cholesterol levels are high, which inspires you to eat right and exercise. You may be shocked to learn that your finances are in disorder, and jump into action with an organized budget or more spending controls.

What does shock do?

The right kind of shock in the right contexts produces the right actions.

Shock or surprise impacts the mind in a significant way. First, the brain likes the shock, and second, shock motivates us to change behavior.

Let’s look at these two points in order because taken together, they affect conversion optimization.

1. The mind likes shock.

There are many kinds of shock that can be harmful, producing trauma. There are other forms of shock that are helpful. In fact, scientists have discovered that the mind likes shock, at least in mild forms.

In a series of studies, scientists surprised patients with “unpredictable patterns of juice and water.” When the patient experienced a surprise, the pleasure center of the brain (nucleus accumbens) was activated.

Dr. P. Read Montague, a researcher on the project, wrote, “That suggests people are designed to crave the unexpected.” Our minds appreciate, enjoy, and benefit from being shocked.

2. Shock changes behavior.

There’s a second significant result of shock. A shocking event or situation changes an individual’s behavior.

Researchers at Brown University discovered an integral connection between the psychology of surprise and the psychology of motivation. Here’s what professor Wael Asaad wrote:

It’s when you encounter something that’s unexpectedly good or bad that you need to change your behavior either to keep doing the thing that’s good or avoid the thing that’s bad.

His research abstract draws this out as the primary point of the study:

Learning can be motivated by unanticipated success or unexpected failure.

The operative word there is “unexpected.” “Success” or “failure” may be better termed “positive” or “negative” since the shock may be from a source that is outside the subject’s control or influence.

Based on their study of monkeys and neural imaging, the researchers learned that “variations in outcome-related activity were linked to the animals’ subsequent behavioral decisions.”

There are the two main results of shock:  1) It’s appealing, and 2) It changes behavior. Those two features are what a conversion optimizer wants to achieve on a landing page, homepage, or conversion-focused page.

There are other benefits of shock. Consider these.

  • Shock grabs attention.
  • Shock is unforgettable.
  • Shock is intriguing.
  • Shock is compelling. (endearing)
  • Shock is humanizing.
  • Shock is entertaining.
  • Shock is viral.

The viral power of shock is indisputable. As an example of this, just consider the wild success of the shock value in sites like ViralNova, which I mentioned above.

In 2013, Jimmy Kimmel put a video on YouTube that showed a woman twerking, falling, and lighting the living room on fire.

twerk

The video instantly went viral.

As viral as the video above, it was also controversial. Shock is like that. Whatever the goals of the video — to end twerking? — it accomplished massive popularity and maybe a bit of controversy.

I’ve studied the effects of controversy on my own site, researching the way that it affects engagement, traffic, and subscriber rates. There are types of controversy that are appropriate, but others that you should stay away from.

Examples of Shock

Shock takes many forms and appears in many places across the conversion spectrum. There is no one right way to do shock. (If there were, then it wouldn’t really be shocking.) That being true, here are a few examples and types of shock.

5 types of shock

Contrarian shock.

One popular shock technique is to say the exact opposite of what most people think. As a content marketing example of this, WordStream published an article “saying the exact opposite of what eBay’s report was claiming.”

Their idea was to oppose the very thing that everyone believed. The article had this punchy title:  “Dear eBay, Your Ads Don’t Work Because They Suck.”

bad ad

After publication, WordStream claimed, “It was a big hit…because of the contrarian angle.”

Scatological shock.

“Poop! Everyone makes it.” This example comes from the Dollar Shave Club:

PooPourri takes a similar approach:

These ads are effective because they are shocking.

Health shock.

Some of the most graphic ads you’ll ever see come from, get this, public service agencies. Their intent is noble. They want to encourage you to prevent accidents, promote good health, and encourage right behavior. The ads they produce are shocking, even disturbing.

Language shock.

A lot of people are used to hearing or using four-letter words in daily conversation. What’s not so common is seeing these words in advertising copy.

That’s why using this method of shock is so attention-grabbing and effective.

Dollar Shave Club took this approach in their video — “Our Blades are F***ing Great.”

One brand takes this shock right into their brand name — Vinomofo.com.

vinomofo

They target young, hip millennials who enjoy wine. Their marketing approach nails it, salting things up with a little shock. This is not your grandmother’s sommelier.

millennials

Quirky shock.

Some shock isn’t so much eye-popping as it is eyebrow-raising. The list app, TeuxDuex, takes the quirky approach with their brand name, TeuxDeux, and various other spelling abominations:

teuxduex

I’m looking at the faux francophone words with their “eux” endings. It’s mildly surprising, if not shocking, and it accomplishes precisely the point — grabbing my attention, forcing me to remember it, intriguing me, compelling me, and making it all so very entertaining. Not teux bad.

Warnings about Shock

The value of shock in marketing has its definite limits. With a few misplaced attempts at shock, you can ruin everything that your brand has built over many years. Be cautious about using forms of shock that can be offensive, disturbing, graphic, or crass.

Brands such as Benetton and American Apparel are examples of a brand that has taken shock to its extreme. These are not examples to follow.

Even milder forms of shock such as contrarianism has its downsides. This is what Elisa Gabbert cautioned in a WordStream article:

Contrarianism isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. The reason that most people tend to take the same side on an issue is that there’s safety in numbers. Go against popular opinion and you will probably piss some people off.

Tips on using shock.

Let’s get back to the whole point of shock. Why are you shocking people? The reason is to change behavior. Shock for shock’s sake is a recipe for alienating people. Don’t do it. Instead, give yourself the gift of focused and intentional shock — the kind of shock that converts.

Make it conversion focused.

Every shocking episode needs to culminate in a call to action. For example, the video from Shave Club has a clear CTA at the end. You know what you’re supposed to do. The focus is on conversion.

As discussed above, when the mind is in a state of shock, it is more open to suggestions or commands. Use this perfect moment post-shock to toss in your CTA for the win.

Stay appropriate to your audience.

As much as you may want to be shocking, you still need to be appropriate. There’s a fine line between alienating your audience and engaging them.

B2C sites with revenue stream from ads are probably most likely to benefit from the value of shock. Data shows that controversial content drives traffic. The New York Times found that articles that elicited emotion — anxiety, awe, or anger — produced higher email sharing rates.

emotionsImage source

For ad-focused sites, more traffic and more sharing are a good thing.

Don’t overuse it.

When everything becomes shocking, nothing is. Use shock sparingly. If people expect you to become shocking, then you’ll either infuriate them or disappoint them. The shock tool is but one method in your marketing arsenal, not the only one.

Conclusion

Don’t be afraid to be shocking. Some of the greatest breakthroughs in advertising have been shocking. Shock accomplishes things.

Remember, the right kind of shock in the right contexts produces the right actions. As long as you keep shock in its rightful place, you’ll start to see the kind of results that you want to.

How have you seen shock improve your conversions?

Read other Crazy Egg articles by Neil Patel.

6 Comments

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Neil Patel

Neil Patel is the co-founder of Crazy Egg and Hello Bar. He helps companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue.

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  1. MIla devin says:
    July 20, 2015 at 4:45 am

    Neil, thanks for an interesting concept with a plenty of samples.
    1. I think that shock tactics can work great with email subscriptions or social activity. But when it comes to sales (specially with a check > $100), this tactic may look cheap and distract a visitor from making a purchase.

    2. You mentioned American Apparel as a bad example. Did you read a book “Trust me, I’m lying” by Ryan Holiday? He explains that the main goal is virality and media visibility of a brand, not direct sales.

  2. Larry G. Maguire says:
    February 13, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    Hey Neil

    This is a popular subject at the moment. Personally I don’t like these types of headlines and associated content. The headline promises the reader a lot and delivers little. The content is tabloid and unsubstantial in my opinion. It has no real value other than to sensationalise a subject for the purpose of getting traffic for traffic sake. The content leaves the reader with nothing of value. It’s cheap rubbish and represents nothing of value.
    I’d suggest that if a blogger is in the business of delivering quality, then they should steer clear of this tactic. We can’t ride two horses when it comes to content imo.
    Shock tactics promise a substantial meal to the reader but serve up junk food.

  3. Mindaugas says:
    February 10, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    As for shocking headlines, I think it is slowly losing its effect. You can use this technique wisely and not so often, but when you go through the news feed of many blogs in one place, you see that almost 1/3 of headlines are written that way. So, after some time the shock effect just disappears because you get used to them. For me personally it doesn’t have such an effect it had a year ago. I even tend to skip most of these headlines without reading.

    • Mindaugas says:
      February 10, 2015 at 12:41 pm

      By the way, great article, Neil. I really enjoyed it.

    • Kathryn Aragon says:
      February 10, 2015 at 3:29 pm

      Mindaugas, I completely agree. If the title feels overdone, I skip it.

  4. Nicepassive says:
    February 10, 2015 at 8:57 am

    As a headline writer i know how to use the shock technique. But i was even more shocked after reading this article. This was great content Neil! Good stuff.

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