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On The Marketing Of Fear

“The sky was all purple
There were people runnin' everywhere
Tryin' to run from the destruction
You know I didn't even care
Two-thousand-zero-zero party over
Oops out of time
So tonight I'm gonna party Like it's 1999.”

— Prince in “1999”

I've been a digital marketer for over 30 years. Yes, even before “digital” became a thing. I started on dialup BBSes, and later created my first website on Geocities and connected with clients mostly on ICQ. (Uh-oh!)

The most memorable event throughout those 30 years was Y2K. 

For the uninitiated (ahem, millennials), computers pre-2000 had internal clocks with only two digits for years. Thus, they maxed out at year 99. By switching (or resetting) to “00” on January 1st, 2000, it would supposedly cause mass disruptions.

Starting in the late 90s, everyone raced to update their computers before they turned into pumpkins at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve.

The goal was to prevent a potential cataclysmic shutdown, which was a real possibility. The fear was justified. After all, computers managed electrical grids, water systems, government offices, road traffic signals, air traffic control, etc.

People. Were. Freaking. Out.

They thought that planes would fall out of the sky. Highways would be filled with massive pileups. Cities would turn into a scene from a Will Smith movie.

At that time, I was teaching marketing and ecommerce at a local college. I remember the anxiety among faculty and staff, which was palpable as the IT department was scrambling to update classroom computers.

As we were all glued to our TVs watching to see if the Time Square ball would drop and explode into a billion pieces on New Year's Eve in 1999, we all braced ourselves and…

… Nothing.

Nothing happened. Not a single peep. Everything was just fine.

Was it all just exaggerated? Was it overzealous panic? Was it fearmongering from governments and technology companies? Yes and no.

The fear may have been overblown, but it was real. And a good thing. Because it kicked us in the pants. It helped to mobilize companies and governments to update their infrastructures and patch things up. Fast.

It could have been a disaster.

Fear can move people into action.

Sigmund Freud's pain-pleasure principle states that we have a tendency to move towards pleasure and away from pain. This principle is the core of all the decisions we make.

If you want to inspire action in your marketing, you can use either one. But if you had the choice between the two, pain will always win. Because avoidance of pain is a greater motivator. Countless marketing split-tests have proven this.

For example, when two headlines are pitted against each other, the one focused on avoiding or reducing pain will outshine the other. We buy based on emotions and use logic back it up.

We also react based on emotions, and fear is a powerful emotion.

I often see fear-mongering being exaggerated or fake. This can backfire. You don't need to create fear or exaggerate it to drive people to act. You just need to communicate it in a way that brings it to the top of people's minds.

You don't have to induce your audience into a state of panic, either. Simply highlight the pain your clients are experiencing right now.

There's also the risk of pain that might occur if they do nothing, or the pain that comes from failing to enjoy the benefits of your products and services.

Today, a common fear that has become pervasive is FOMO, the state of mental or emotional strain caused by the fear of missing out.

What's the pain caused by the fear of missing out on your offer?

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Strategic marketing consultant Michel Fortin