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Should You Be Confrontational as a Marketer?

Fear is a primal motivator. But in an eComm world dominated by the bright and beautiful, can you leverage its power for the good of your business?

Aaron Orendorff
April 22 2019

“What’s the goal of email marketing?”

Joanna Wiebe’s question hung in the air. Blame it on being starstruck by a copywriter of her stature or the simple human desire to avoid the line of fire, but all that followed was an uncomfortable silence.

“Okay, let’s make this a bit easier. What was the goal of the last marketing email you sent?”

Again, silence. Then a voice.

“I suppose,” began Jordan Simas, previously a growth marketer at Shopify where Joanna’s event was taking place, “my goal was to figure out what pain my audience was already experiencing, show it to them in the subject line, and then jab them with it over and over inside the email until they got so uncomfortable they had no other choice but to click my call to action.”

Slowly, a smile stretched across Joanna’s face.

“Yes!” she exclaimed, “I might not have said it quite like that, and there are other approaches than fear and pain. But yes! And not just for email. To convert — to get someone to take action — marketing has to jolt people out of their inertia by a force stronger than that inertia. Unfortunately, most marketers are afraid to pick a fight.”

A Brief History: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”

Whether or not you’re familiar with Joanna Wiebe or Jordan Simas isn’t the point. The real question is: Are they right?

Should marketing be confrontational? Should you be afraid to use fear in your advertising, or should you embrace it, wield it, and drive it home?

The relationship between fear and marketing has a long and storied history.

In 1931, Robert Collier — one of the founding fathers of modern marketing — put it like this:

“There are only two reasons why your reader will do as you tell him to in your letter. The first is that you have made him want something so badly that of his own inertia he reaches out for your order card to get it.

“The other is that you have aroused in him the fear that he will lose something worthwhile if he does not do as you say.”

In his 1966 classic, Breakthrough Advertising, Eugene Schwartz identified fear as one of the driving “mass desires” that fuels all successful marketing:

“Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people, and focus those already-existing desires onto a particular product. This is the copywriter’s task: not to create this mass desire — but to channel and direct it.”

More recently, Joe Sugarman — the first marketers to use toll-free numbers and process credit card orders by phone — echoed the same sentiment:

“Fear is one of the great motivators that will cause us to take action. Give a person a reason to act based on the fact that they may lose the opportunity to buy something and they will usually act in a positive way toward your offer.”

And lastly, Dan Kennedy — the writer behind campaigns for brands as diverse as Proactiv and Tony Robbins — called fear, in the form of the problem, agitation, solution (PAS) template, “the most reliable sales formula ever invented:”

“Once the problem is established, clearly and factually, it’s time to inject emotion… Tap their anger, resentment, guilt, embarrassment, fear — any and every applicable negative emotion.

Of course, stacking up quotes from marketing legends only gets us so far. Perhaps a better question than “Should marketing be confrontational?” is “How can you infuse fear into your eCommerce marketing?”

The Case for eCommerce Antagonism

In the friendly, shiny world of eCommerce — particularly in industries where social media dominates — fear, confrontation, and antagonism can feel incredibly out of place. That’s why I’d like to look at three very recent examples of fear in action.

‘Is Your Best Friend in Pain?’

Big Barker, as you might expect, operates in the highly competitive pet industry. The company sells veterinary-endorsed, American-made beds for large breed dogs:

The marketing copy continually confronts dog owners with two realities: (1) the dangers of beds made with sub-par materials, and (2) the myriad health issues large dogs experience.

Big Barker’s crowning content piece is an infographic article titled: Is Your Best Friend in Pain? Joint Pain in Big Dogs.

The content works through statistics on the:

  • Most common and serious conditions
  • Symptoms of big dog joint pain
  • Average cost of care by size
  • Preventative measures
  • Bedding solutions

The page, which ranks high on Google search results for the phrase “joint pain in big dogs,” culminates in this CTA for Big Barker’s “Big-Dog Guide to Alleviating Joint Pain”:

It’s a fantastic piece of confrontational eCommerce content that deals with fear in an ethical and effective way. It also leading visitors directly into Big Barker’s email-led sales funnel. But can we apply that same principle to the even more competitive people-bedding industry?

‘Mattress Stores Are Greedy’

Throughout 2016-2018, a series of mysterious billboards — all bearing variations of the phrase “Mattress Stores Are Greedy” — went viral and made some waves:

The billboards’ URL led to mattress company Tuft & Needle and dovetailed with both paid social media campaigns as well as an ominous six second YouTube ad:

The initial campaign was so successful that it continues to this day, while Tuft & Needle keeps the spotlight on customer frustrations with traditional mattress stores and the buying experience:

Not only that but its onsite pop-up — “The 12 reasons you haven’t bought from us… yet” — leads to a page that directly confronts the 12 most common objections to buying mattresses online as well as getting in bed with an industry upstart (pun intended).

‘It doesn’t even have to be hot out. My armpits are always wet.’

Having begun with Joanna Wiebe, it’s only fitting we end with her, too. To test her commitment to confrontation, Joanna and the team at Copyhackers set their sights on a page they’d already optimized with a 108% lift in revenue: SweatBlock

Their task? Apply the problem, agitation, solution (PAS) formula to an otherwise emotionally positive homepage.

You can read about the thinking and research that went into this test, but the outcome was the creation of two variations that centered on fear. In Joanna’s words, “From there, we started to bring in much of the page that had already won.” Here’s what changed:

  • We revised the hero to more seamlessly connect the new PAS top with the rest of the page.
  • We added more proof points, like “4 million towelettes sold.”
  • We removed the 4-step “demo” because I wasn’t entirely sure prospects needed to see that in order to buy. It may be worth testing the addition of it later.
  • We changed the use case area (i.e., where we wrote about nervous sweating) to a 4-column area. This area didn’t make it into the final version we tested.

The first of the two variations looked like this:

Image via Copyhackers (full-pages of the three variations can be seen here)

The result?

  • Variation B (PAS, woman) produced a paid lift of 49%, with 99% confidence
  • Variation C (PAS, man) produced a paid lift of 46%, with 99% confidence

And remember, that was tested against a page that had already achieved a 108% lift in revenue.

Walking the Line

Going the way of confrontation, antagonism, and pain is dangerous work. Walking the fear line in marketing demands two non-negotiable ingredients: first, the hell you’re offering salvation from has to be real and, second, so does the salvation your product is offering.

When those two come together, jabbing your audience over and over until they get so uncomfortable they have no other choice but to click isn’t only effective — it’s an act of genuine kindness. Just be sure to use the power of confrontation wisely; otherwise, you may find yourself with an uncomfortable confrontation all your own.

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