There are a lot of tactics to attracting attention on the Internet. You might use pay-per-click advertising, banners, backlinks from trusted sources, a visible presence on social media sites.
But attracting attention is only the very first part of the game. Whether you’re on the Web or using more traditional media, you don’t just want to capture attention–you want your readers to do something.
There’s one tool that works better than any other to move people to action.
Pain, glorious pain
Happy people are hard to persuade. They feel good about their sex lives, their complexions, their parenting skills. There’s no painful lack in their lives, so they don’t seek anything that might solve that lack, or make it hurt less.
Unfortunately for universal human enlightenment but fortunately for marketers, happy people are a myth. Most of us walk around most of the time in just-tolerable discomfort about one thing or another, with the emotional equivalent of a low-grade toothache.
Just in case we’re one of the lucky few who isn’t wired for dissatisfaction, the advertising industry uses every wily trick it has to create dissatisfaction, assisted by TV news, urban legends, social isolation, and other breeding grounds for fear.
If I could wave a magic wand, I would get rid of all that fear and pain, and then I’d have to find something legitimate to do like build houses or wait tables. But since I can’t, there’s always work for me as a marketer, persuading someone in pain to buy something that gets rid of pain.
Is pain-based marketing unethical?
Smart salespeople know that you can convert a suspect (someone who’s heard of you and might buy something one day) to a customer by asking questions to increase their level of perceived pain. Probing questions. Even, if handled deftly, uncomfortable questions.
As the salesperson (or sales letter, or Web site) keeps asking and asking, the prospect gets more and more miserable with the discomfort of his current situation. The reassuring salesperson nods empathetically and sizes up how much the sucker’s got in the bank to solve this mess. Before you know it, our prospect is the proud owner of a timeshare/investment-grade gold coin/junk bond.
This is probably sounding a lot like something out of Glengarry, Glen Ross. But marketing to pain isn’t, by nature, unethical in any way. The expression "find a niche and fill it" should really be "find a source of unresolved pain and remove it." One of the smartest marketing strategies is to find an audience with a bad problem and sell them a product that actually fixes it.
Good nonprofits are some of the most successful users of this technique. It works beautifully on me. I was in a lot of psychic pain (losing sleep, unable to concentrate at work) about the AIDS orphan crisis in Africa. I logged into WorldVision and "adopted" a child in Lesotho for $35 a month. Very cheap solution to my pain.
(Yes, my pain will return in a week or two when I realize that $35 is a tiny drop in a vast bucket. That’s the nature of the thing, and it’s ok. WorldVision will keep marketing to me, giving me the opportunity to up my donations and make more impact. They’ve already got my pledge for an additional $20 a month to help children who have been hit by terrible trauma–children rescued from the sex trade, famine, and civil war.)
Paint two pictures
When you use pain to persuade, your first task is to make two realities very clear.
First, you need to move the prospect out of denial and into full–maybe even miserable–appreciation of his pain. Convey the reality of his pain in detail.
One handy technique is to tell a first-person story. "I was in so much back pain I lost my job." "I was so worried about money that it nearly cost me my marriage." "My family was on food stamps and we had to eat the neighbor’s goldfish." Etc.
First-person stories are good because you can really get in there and wallow. The more humiliating the detail, the better. It doesn’t work as well when it’s a third person story, which can come across as exploitative and manipulative.
It’s an odd trick of the human psyche that most people simultaneously empathize with severe pain and at the same time get a mild charge out of our superiority to it. That’s what makes us slow down at car wrecks, even as we disapprove of all those awful rubberneckers. We’re a disgusting species, but occasionally there’s hope for us.
The second picture is, of course, the blessed relief. The freedom from back pain. The freedom from financial worry. The freedom from acne. The freedom from a job that would make Dilbert quit. Whatever.
The types of pain
Unless the relief comes in the form of easing literal physical pain, we’re generally talking about emotional benefits. It’s interesting how often the underlying pain is abandonment and the payoff is connection. Then again, abandonment/connection is just about the first emotional struggle we engage in as tiny babies, and it still hits us hard.
Other possibilities are humiliation/confidence, drudgery/freedom (which boils down to humiliation/confidence), and of course the Internet marketer’s favorite, poverty/wealth (also, at heart, humiliation/confidence).
The two pictures are usually presented with pain first and relief second, but not always. There are two absolute necessities:
- The prospect can hold the two pictures, pain and relief, side by side in his mind.
- The path to move from pain to relief is clear and believable.
Prevention doesn’t sell
More than 100 years of advertising testing have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that most people will not buy prevention of future pain, only relief from existing pain.
For example, Pepsodent toothpaste was one of the great advertising successes of the 20th century, and one of the first multinational brands. It was sold not as a prevention of painful tooth decay, but as a beautification tool removing the "cloudy film" that was a blemish on attractive teeth. Did people know they had the pain of "cloudy film" before they saw the advertising? No. But once they were shown this pain, they ponied up their fifty cents a tube to get rid of it.
Don’t forget that fear and worry are existing pain. If your prospects are worried about something today, they will buy a solution that takes that worry away. And, I blush to say, if you can make them worried about it today, that works too.
Start noticing when you’re being sold pain. 98% of television, publishing, and of course our friend Internet marketing, exists to pick off the scabs and show off your pain in a fresh new light.
If you use this technique (which, of course, you will), try not to do any evil with it, ok?