Neil Patel

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How to Grab Attention Using Fear (Without It Blowing up in Your Face)

use fear in marketing

Fear-based marketing strategies are controversial.

Just like most other marketing tactics, they can either work extremely well or blow up in your face.

But studies have proven the tactic to be effective time and time again.

You can implement them in your ads to increase your CTR, subtly use them in a loss-aversion pitch, and more.

The options are nearly limitless with fear-based marketing.

But simply attempting to strike fear in the eyes of your potential customers could backfire.

It could position your brand in an unfavorable light.

Thankfully, there are a few ways to use fear in marketing to grab attention without it backfiring.

You can implement this strategy without making your potential customers feel bad about themselves and your business.

The key is walking the thin line between a neutral sentiment and all out, fear-based messaging.

Here’s how you can grab more attention without it blowing up in your face.

Why using fear in your ads can increase your CTR

Standing out is the key to generating a higher click-through rate.

We all know this.

It’s especially important when you have no brand awareness.

When your brand isn’t strong, and the average user can’t recall it from a search or an ad, your CTR simply won’t be sky high.

True brand awareness can drive sales for years to come.

But strong brand awareness is a pipedream for most companies.

You need ways to stand out amongst the hundreds or thousands of businesses in your space.

Unless you’re the first company to market, you’re going to be facing some serious competition.

When it comes to ads, it’s even worse:

You’re dealing with the powerful force of banner blindness:

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People are so sick of ads that they tune them out as white noise.

The use of ad-blocking technology has increased in rapid numbers in the past few years.

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More and more mobile and desktop users are installing ad-blocking tools on their devices to get rid of annoying ads.

On top of serious trust issues, consumers cite interruption and slow load times as the main reasons that they use ad-blocking tools:

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Essentially, the odds are all against you.

It’s like playing a carnival game. Your chances of winning are extremely low.

Standard, boring ads that people see all day aren’t going to get the job done.

But there is good news here:

You have an opportunity to capitalize on fear, which most marketers aren’t using in their ads.

According to a recent WordStream study, the vast majority of ads are either neutral or positive in their sentiments.

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Only 2% of ads they studied were negative in messaging or imagery.

That means that almost nobody on various ad networks sees negative, fear-based advertising!

To add to this, AdEspresso studied 37,259 Facebook Ads back in 2015. They concluded that the majority of ads were positive in sentiment:

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The majority of ads that users see on Facebook and the Google Display/Search Network are positive or neutral.

People just aren’t seeing fear-based ads right now. And that’s a beautiful thing for marketers looking to break through the effects of banner blindness.

Take a look at this negative, fear-invoking ad from the Google Display Network:

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The company that switched from a  positive to a negative sentiment with this ad drove a 47% increase in their click-through rate.

WordStream decided to put this to the test with their own experiment.

They had been running this negatively-focused, fear-style ad for months:

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It invoked the fear that the typical user was wasting their budget, losing money, and sinking their sales.

They effectively tapped into one of the biggest fears of using a platform like AdWords:

Losing money.

After all, AdWords isn’t a guaranteed success. Making the wrong moves is a recipe for blowing your budget.

They decided to test that fear-based ad against this positive one:

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This ad was much more positive.

They provided hope with “instant savings” and getting “the most out of your ads.”

Can you guess the outcome?

The negative, fear-based ad had a conversion rate that was 18.8% higher than the positive one.

And that’s not all. The negative ad had a click-through rate that was nearly 70% higher than the positive ad.

That’s a massive difference for subtle changes in messaging.

Fear in marketing works, especially when it comes to increasing the CTR of your ads.

Why? Because, as the studies above show, people typically don’t see fear in ads.

Only a few percentage of ads are fear-based, leaving you a big opportunity to stand out and draw in clicks.

Try using a fear-based approach that isn’t too strong at first.

Test the waters to see what works.

For example, check out this awesome AdEspresso ad on Facebook:

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While it’s not overtly negative, the use of “sucks” and “scam” in the messaging draws out negative feelings.

The image does too by depicting a violent sport.

Overall, the ad invokes a sense of fear, especially for those who have purchased Facebook likes.

Next time you create an ad on Facebook or Google AdWords, try using a fear-based approach to drive higher click-through rates and more conversions.

Use loss aversion to subtly create fear

One of the biggest mistakes I see in fear-based marketing campaigns is going too far.

Some people try to stand out too much, and they aren’t subtle enough.

Making a potential customer or user feel bad about themselves should never be your goal.

There is such a thing as taking it too far, and when that happens, it can blow up in your face.

One of the best ways to walk a safe line while still using fear in marketing is to take advantage of loss aversion.

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Loss aversion is simple:

People prefer to avoid losing something rather than gaining something of equal value.

They’d choose not to lose five bucks than to gain five bucks.

Why? Because they didn’t have the five dollars in the first place. Simply failing to gain it doesn’t hurt that badly.

But in the first scenario, they already have the five bucks. If they lose it, that comes right out of their pockets.

Loss aversion is a powerful theory that you can put into practice in marketing.

This image perfectly sums up the weight of loss aversion:

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The strain of losing money is stronger than the benefit of gaining the same amount.

Applying this to a marketing context, I’ll give you a prime example of loss aversion.

Do you remember that WordStream ad we discussed earlier? It was the one where they used fear to drive an 18.8% higher conversion rate and a 70% higher click-through rate.

It said, “Stop Wasting Money In Adwords – Use Our Simple & Free Tool.”

The emphasis is on the “stop wasting money” portion.

And the main definition of loss aversion focuses on the fear of losing money rather than gaining equal amounts of it that you didn’t have before.

Remember: people would rather not lose five bucks than gain five bucks.

People would rather not lose their money on AdWords than gain equal amounts of it back.

Try pulling at the heartstrings of your users by tapping into loss aversion.

Tailor your ad copy to focus on potential losses that will happen if they don’t take action.

For example, that ad above pushes users to use their tool to avoid those losses.

And WordStream is still running this strategy today. I conducted a simple search and found this ad showing up first:

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It’s still working for them because it taps into loss aversion better than any ad I’ve ever seen.

Even their competitors are catching wind.

Here is the second ad in my search:

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Both ads focus on loss-aversion tactics to get users fearful and hooked into clicking.

These ads make users think that they are going to lose their entire budget if they don’t.

Next time you run ads, try using a loss-aversion approach to drive sales.

If you have multiple messaging ideas in mind, try A/B testing them to see what strikes harder.

I love A/B testing loss aversion on Facebook and AdWords.

Both are extremely easy to set up. Next time you run a new ad campaign on Facebook’s Ad Manager, head to the setup process and choose between marketing objectives:

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When selecting an objective, if they are eligible for split testing, Facebook will display this dialogue box before you continue:

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Click the “Create Split Test” box, and you can test your creative pieces to see how different fear and loss aversion strategies work with your audience.

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Create multiple ads and evaluate the performance after they’ve run for a few weeks.

You can do the same thing on AdWords by simply creating multiple ads in a single ad group.

Next, head to the settings page and make sure that you enable ad rotation:

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This will allow ads to show evenly over a period of time.

After a few weeks, check back to see which ad has the highest CTR and conversion rates to pick your winner.

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Split testing on AdWords and Facebook will be a great way to test your audience and the reception that fear-based marketing has.

Remember: each audience is always different, so be sure to test before dumping your budget into it.

Write fear-driven headlines for blog content

Fear-driven headlines are a gold mine.

People are always worried that they’re doing something wrong.

For example, check out this headline from one of my latest blog posts:

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The image invokes a sense of fear along with the headline.

The headline is more negative in sentiment because of the words “mistake” and “sabotage.”

Those phrases together work to signal to the reader that their current process might be negatively impacting their business.

It’s subtle, yet effective.

It doesn’t cross lines that you shouldn’t cross.

Even the most subtle of fear headlines can get the job done:

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This post suggests that your Facebook Ads aren’t good enough.

You could improve them.

And that subtle fear of missing out on better ads and performance is enough to drive tons of clicks and shares.

This post has nearly 2,000 shares.

You can even try flipping the script on typical marketing tactics.

For example, in pay-per-click advertising, people generally think that it’s better to pay less.

The less you pay, the cheaper the customer acquisition!

But personally, I think you should want to pay more.

And my headline surrounding this topic flips the typical perception or status quo of PPC costs:

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It has over 2,000 shares and 15 comments. It’s a subtle type of fear that a user might be looking at their PPC account the wrong way.

It makes them stop and consider potential downsides that could be impacting their performance.

One of my all-time favorite examples of a negative headline that works is from the Unbounce blog:

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Why your unique value proposition is killing your landing page conversions and how to fix it.

The recurrent use of “your” puts the emphasis directly on the reader and draws them in.

It personalizes the approach of fear, marketing it directly to the user.

In your next blog post, try using a fear-based headline to capture users and grab attention fast.

Here are a few of my favorite templates that I’ve used to grab attention without it blowing up in my face:

  1.  Why Your [post topic/keyword string] is [verb: hurting, impacting, killing] your [negative outcome of post topic] and how to fix it.
  2. Your doing [post topic/keyword] wrong. Here’s how to fix it for better [positive outcome of fixing the pain point].
  3.  Here’s the one [post topic/keyword] you’re not using that’s costing you [negative outcome of topic].

Try tailoring these templates for your next topic and see how well the post performs!

Or use a headline optimizer/split-testing tool like Thrive’s Headline Optimizer to see how different ones perform.

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You can even use these headlines for your next Facebook Ad campaign.

Don’t hammer home fear — end with excitement

One of the biggest problems I see in fear-based marketing is simply taking it too far.

Fear-based marketing shouldn’t scare your users beyond recovery.

It shouldn’t put your own brand in a negative light either.

Too much fear in your marketing messaging will only paint your business as a grim place that users don’t want to visit.

Sprinkling fear subtly is the best way to skate the thin line between too much and too little fear.

Writing fear-driven headlines is great.

They help you do exactly that.

But sometimes, people even take those headlines to the extreme.

They’re often unrealistic or simply too fear dense to be believable.

One of the best ways to use fear is to provide hope. Give the reader a light at the end of the tunnel that tells them everything will be okay.

Fear that simply invokes the feeling of impending doom won’t get you conversions.

Take a look at one of my recent blog posts talking about Facebook custom audiences:

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It paints a fearful picture that the user isn’t customizing their audience enough.

But it also provides hope in the form of fixing that problem.

It subtly invokes a feeling of fear, but it ends on a positive note.

It doesn’t make the user feel like they’re left behind in the dust or hopeless, which is key.

You want people to think of your brand as helpful. They should see your company as one that solves problems and addresses pain points.

You don’t want them to perceive you as one that simply points out problems.

Do you remember that Unbounce blog post we talked about earlier?

It followed a similar format to mine above.

One thing I loved about this blog post was that it followed the idea of ending with something exciting, and it included a positive takeaway:

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Softening the blow of a harsh reality is critical when using fear-based marketing tactics.

You can’t hammer home fear all day long and then leave your customers in the lurch.

Be sure to end on a positive note with your next blog post or marketing campaign or webinar.

Wherever you implement fear-based marketing strategies, always include an upside that users can look forward to.


Fear-based marketing strategies are tough.

You either perfectly master them, or they blow up in your face and cause your best customers to question your brand.

But when you do it right, fear-based marketing has the power to massively increase your CTR and sales.

If you want to take advantage of fear in marketing, you have to walk the middle ground.

You can’t get overly aggressive, but you can’t be too neutral either.

Start by using loss aversion to subtly create fear.

Loss aversion will help you instill fear in your customers without crossing any line or being offensive.

Next, try using simple fear-based images or headlines to increase your ad CTR.

Studies show that most ads are positive in nature. Do you want to stand out? Throw a little fear into the hearts of users.

Try incorporating fear tactics into your blog headlines, too. These are great for standing out in the SERPs and getting users to click.

Lastly, don’t get carried away. Don’t hammer home fear without ending on a positive or hopeful note.

Fear is great in marketing. But always make sure that you aren’t crossing the line.

Which fear-based marketing tactics have performed well for you?

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