The pain strategy in marketing: sleezy or helpful?

My take on using marketing strategies for the good

“Only two rooms left!”
“Offer ends in 48 hours…”
“Feel like you’re exhausted and can’t find the energy to play around with your kids?”
“Covered with admin and feel like there’s no way out of this mess?”
“This is what’s wrong in our industry today and you need solution X to solve it.”

Messages out there are massively covered with a layer of pain. There’s not enough time, availability, or the negative situation people are in is mentioned extensively in copy on websites, in ads, and so on.

It’s true, lots of marketers will use pain strategies to propel people into buying their products. The focus in most messages out there is on pain, scarcity and urgency, rather than abundance.

This may sound familiar if you’ve read Robert Cialdini’s bestseller ‘Persuasion’ – a book that’s used by many marketers and entrepreneurs (and remember: if you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a marketer!!!).

Having said that… I feel there’s a shift happening.

Stressing the negative in your message: does it feel ‘wrong’?

I’ve noticed in the past, when I was still a copywriter, that many of my clients felt (partly) uncomfortable with the pain strategy. They’d rather talk about the beneficial aspects of their products or services.

Recognize this, perhaps? Are you slightly hesitant to emphasize what’s going wrong to persuade potential clients to come and work with you? Feel like this could negatively impact your brand reputation?

I get it. Especially if your mindset is that of a beautifully abundant kumbaya style – like mine – emphasizing the negative and its consequences feels super unnatural. Nobody wants to be that whiner that makes people even shittier about their situation.

There’s a number of things you might want to consider before distorting the idea of ‘pain’ completely.

 The brain wants to avoid pain and strongly responds to any danger ahead.

And the funny thing is… even when you’re aware of the marketing techniques of pain, urgency and scarcity, they still work.

Using brain facts to craft your message

Here’s a few facts about our human brain that explain why the technique works:

  • The unconscious brain (limbic system) is highly energy-efficient and will make decisions a lot quicker than our intelligent brain. This is an emotional response that happens in the blink of an eye. Before you realize it, your unconscious brain has already decided. 95% of all decisions are made like this.
  • Any rationalizations of that decision – which will arise within 7 seconds after the unconscious brain decided – are mere justifications. We tell ourselves why we simply NEED that leather coat / online course / new gadget, because it’s so useful (right).
  • Because this unconscious brain is designed to protect us from harm (survival), it will respond to danger a lot better than to pleasure alone. In fact, our brain is three times more likely to avoid pain than to gain pleasure.
By the way, I recommend ‘Why of everything’ written by Eddie Tjon Fo and Marcel Bos – super interesting and easy-to-read.
Use the pain strategy positively to make clients feel supported and understood

Just looking at these facts, you might understand why messages with emphasis on the painful situation your potential clients are in now, simply works better: the more you explain their current situation and the negative consequences of it (and the consequences of the consequences), the more they want to avoid being there.

So how can you use this strategy best, without feeling like you’re using sleezy tricks to persuade clients into buying stuff?

Here’s how I look at it.

1: You’re not selling shit; you’ve got something that’s of value to others.

(And if you are, you better start selling good stuff that genuinely helps people.)

What you have to offer, makes people’s life more fulfilling. You’re adding value. How beautiful is this? You’ve got something that improves their health, wealth, relationships, confidence, business and that means you’re making a difference.

It’s perfectly fine to help people understand how you can help through your message, by making them aware of their current situation and its consequences. This way, you’re helping them move forward.

I repeat: you’re helping them.

To help your kind of people, sometimes you need to give them a little nudge. For example, by creating some sort of urgency and limiting your offer. If you don’t, there’s no need for them to decide now and chances are they’ll decide NEVER. Deciding never might leave them in the same situation they’re in now, or they’ll possibly end up with an inferior alternative.

2: Mentioning people’s current situation creates recognition, which makes people feel safe, understood and seen.

People recognize themselves in the message and therefore that they’re not alone. How great is it to realize that you’re not the only one struggling? That there’s other people who feel like you do? To know there’s someone who’s gets where you’re coming from and can actually solve this problem?

Exactly. All human beings want to feel understood. And by mentioning their current situation – possibly a painful one, but at the minimum a place of need – you can show you understand them. They’ll feel incredibly connected to your brand. That’s exactly what you all want.

3. You can complete your message by emphasizing all the great stuff you can bring

There’s no ‘or’; there’s ‘and’. Even when you stipulate the pain points, you can still explain all the great stuff your product or service can bring to people’s lives.

In fact, show them the world of possibilities! Show them how your amazing, valuable solutions can make life better. Depict those situations in your images and in your copy. Tell the story, take them to that imaginative world, so they can envision the future and put themselves in this picture.

Yes, there’s abundance! Yes, we live in a world of joy, prosperity, possibilities and fun. That’s exactly how I experience life. For me, life is like a playground in which we all get to experiment with the beauty of life.

In all abundance there’s the human side too: the fear, the vulnerability, the blockages, the pain. Mentioning that in your message does not make you negative. It does not make you a sleezy marketer. It makes your brand’s message human, empathetic, relatable, real.

Hope this helps you to rethink how you can use marketing techniques for the good!

Much love,