“Fear Appeals” An online persuasion booster?

The art of online persuasion sometimes lies in small details. It is not only about selecting appropriate techniques to persuade your customers. It is also about correctly applying these techniques! One such technique is fear-appeals. Fear appeals (or fear-based marketing) can be an effective online marketing strategy. But only when you apply it correctly. In this post you will learn what fear appeals are. And how to apply fear appeals to increase your online conversion.

Note, this post draws on a scientific paper written by my good friend (and outstanding researcher) Gjalt-Jorn Peters.

Fear appeals

A fear appeal is a message designed to elicit fear in an attempt to persuade an individual to pursue a predefined goal (see wikipedia). Advertising based on fear appeals usually paint a picture of what your life will look like if you don’t buy their product. They usually play into existing fears (accidents, hurricanes, flooding, being under-insured, etc.). Or they try to create new fears for you you never even thought off.

The fear appeal strategy is clear: create fear, offer the solution.

The most well-know use of fear appeals is perhaps “quit smoking campaigns”. Everybody knows smoking is bad for your health. Social marketers believe that stressing the negative health consequences motivates people to quit smoking.

Online persuasion using fear appeals

Save driving campaigns are also mostly based on fear appeals. They focus on showing the severe consequences of speeding/not wearing a seatbelt/etc. The more gruesome and vivid the negative consequences are portrayed, the more people will start to drive safely (or so the Australian Office of Road Safety seem to think).

Scientific Research on fear appeals

Research has shown that these fear appeals usually do not work. Why not? Because people direct their attention away from the fear appeal message. Or they start coming up with all sorts of counter-arguments (yes, I smoke but I eat very healthy and there is no family history of heart diseases, my grandpa smoked and lived to become 90, etc.). That being said, research also identified the conditions under which fear appeals can be very effective!

Two elements which make fear appeals successful!

In order to prevent people from not taking the appropriate behavioural action upon scaring them, you should make sure the following two elements are always present in your fear-arousing marketing strategy:

  1. Threat: Use a moderate level of fear (not too extreme) and make people feel susceptible to the threat. For example, insurance companies should scare you to some extent about the risk of car crashes or “in house” fires. That’s good, you need to scare them. However, also be sure to make them feel susceptible to the risk. It can happen to you too! As soon as people start thinking: “naah, this will not happen to me” the campaign becomes ineffective.
  2. Efficacy: tell people what to do. So don’t just tell them to quit smoking or buy that insurance, also tell them how they can do that! Make it easy for people to follow up on your recommendation. Put your call-to-action right next to the fear appeal, so that when you scare them, they immediately hit the “I want to insure” button. Also, be sure to tell them how effective your solution is when they hit the button! “Our insurance covers all you need as a car owner so you don’t have to worry about it anymore!

So, the bottom line is:

Scare them and tell them what to do to avoid the threat!

5 online persuasion tips!

So, how does this translate to an online persuasion setting? First, you need to think carefully if fear appeals are appropriate for your marketing strategy. If so, then always make sure to implement the following tips in your fear appeal message:

1. Threat: be very careful what kind of fear appeals you use. Don’t scare them too little but also not too much! Make sure the threat you use is relevant for your target audience. Make sure they can personally identify with the threat.

2. Efficacy: make sure to boost their efficacy. Provide the solution and convince them this solution works! Put the call-to-action next to the threat so that they can efficiently deal with their feelings of fear. You scared them, so immediately give them your solution!

3. Make it easy: make it very easy for your customers to implement your solution. Do not only provide the call-to-action close to the threat, also make the rest of the process as easy as possible. The easier it is to order, pay for, and use your product the more likely it is they will actually buy it!

4. Cal-to-action: I stressed this already before but: provide a strong call-to-action and implement the call-to-action when you scare them. Once they are scared, they are likely motivated to do something but only if they can do something right away. If not, people start to think and probably conclude that the threat is not applicable to them.

5. Reassure and congratulate: Finally, make them feel good again by saying that they have taken the first step towards a better life. Everything will be OK again. In other words: boost their self-efficacy again!

OK, so now you know how to use fear appeals properly. Tell me in the comment section what you think of the effectiveness of fear appeals. Would you use them? Or did you use them already? What were the results?  Please do share your thoughts on fear appeals with us!

If you want to find out how this or other online persuasion techniques can be applied to your website, feel free to contact me.