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How to Create Compelling Content Using Fear and Desire

One of the core principles of content marketing is that it must offer useful information, rather than being a sales pitch. But even though it cannot sell directly, your content must persuade. It must persuade the user to take specific action.

That action does not just have to be transactional, such as clicking on “Add to shopping cart.” It could be anything that continues the user’s relationship with your organization — such as signing up for a blog or newsletter, downloading a white paper, or following you on Twitter.

But what would cause someone to take the action you want? I assert that there are only two ways to motivate anyone to do anything: you must convince them that it will help them avoid a problem, or that it will help them gain a benefit.

In other words, your content must instill either “fear” or “desire.”

To see which works best for your product or service, think of whether you are primarily in the business of problem-avoiding (that would be “fear”) or gaining benefits (“desire”).  Maybe you do both, but probably what you offer will fall more heavily on one side or the other. It’s whatever makes people say, “I’ve got to have some of that.”

How to instill fear

To develop truly fearsome content — with fangs, claws, and really bad breath — you need to accomplish these tasks:

  1. Convince your users that they are facing a problem that will cause serious difficulties for them. Present credible information about the consequences of not taking action.
  2. Consider their counter-arguments — anything that will cause them to just laugh it off with “No problem” or “Not me.” Convince them they face imminent doom, and target their concerns straight at them.
  3. Once they’re terrified, throw them a life raft — your proposed course of action. Indicate clearly the steps you suggest that they take. As a reminder, this is content marketing — your proposed solution should not include “buy our product” as your primary recommendation.

As an example, consider a company I know in the seemingly-dull business of freight management software. This company has a huge database of up-to-the minute freight costs, which it mines studiously to prepare a monthly newsletter on freight tariffs (which it sends, free of charge, to anyone who requests it).

If you’re in the freight business (and just about every company on the planet has to ship something at some time or another), you need this information. Otherwise, you might find your company paying more than your competitors for shipping — and in a business of tiny margins, that can erase profits as fast as the sweep of a truck’s windshield wipers.

So the company’s content needs to emphasize how essential it is to have access to the data in this newsletter to avoid paying more than necessary for freight. This particular company’s message is, “Subscribe to our free newsletter,” rather than “Use our freight management software.” However, in the best content marketing tradition, subscribing to the company’s truly useful newsletter can start a relationship that leads to that desired transaction goal.

Developing “desirable” content

Content that invokes desire follows a similar three-point outline:

  1. Convince your users that there is an opportunity that will help them live a better life, be more popular, make more money, or maybe just get to keep their jobs. Be sure that you have expressed the opportunity, not in terms that would appeal to you (you are almost certainly not part of your market) but rather in terms of the how it affects the people you want to reach.
  2. Again, consider their counter-arguments. They may already be well aware of the opportunity you’re offering but have already dismissed it with “it’s too expensive,” or “been there, tried that, it doesn’t work.” However, it could be that there are recent technological developments that make it work better, or your proposed solution is now easier to use, or there are fewer unwanted side effects. You may need to convince your users that what you offer merits their taking another look.
  3. Once they are seriously yearning or lusting after the benefits you’ve described, give them a lifeline — show them how they can gain their heart’s desire.

Consider a client of mine that helps mining companies locate possible ore bodies through LiDAR — a new type of radar that can, from an aircraft, “see” through vegetation and even water to provide a “bare-earth” map of the topography. It can be used to prospect for diamonds, which are found in “pipes” — long vertical rock formations that extend deep underground.

Pipes tend to be marked by circular depressions on the surface. But those topographical markers can be masked by lakes, rivers, and trees, which can make them difficult to recognize. My client’s LiDAR services can help mining companies see through the cover to locate promising topography from the air for further exploration on the ground.

The content I prepared for them, targeted to a mining industry readership, talked about the challenges of diamond exploration, how LiDAR can help, and some recent developments in LiDAR imaging and analysis that made it more useful — all with the punchline, “Take another look at LiDAR. It can help you find resources that your competitors missed.”

In many cases, it’s possible to move users to action using a combination of desire and fear. Just be sure to use these tools conscientiously (rather than sensationalistically) by keeping your purpose at the forefront of the content you are preparing — while it’s about “content,” it’s also about “marketing.”

photo credit: Carl Friesen