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Cyber Security Marketing Strategies: Why Messaging with Fear Doesn't Work

Cyber Security Marketing Strategies: Why Messaging with Fear Doesn't Work Blog Feature

January 13th, 2015 min read

If you're looking for ideas for your next cyber security marketing campaign, it's easy to fall back on a fear-based approach. After all, the state of cyber security is a little frightening these days. In 2015, for example, the average cost of a data breach for a company in the United States was $6.5 million.

It's very common in cyber security marketing to use fear as the motivator for change. Most companies fall back on this tactic as they often don't know any better. It seems like this would be the best way to get your audience to understand why cyber security products or services are needed.

However, we are here to warn you, scaremongering tactics rarely work in cyber security marketing strategies — and here's why.

Fear Doesn't Work

Example: Truth Campaign

The Truth anti-tobacco campaign has been trying to stop young people from smoking since it was established in 1999. Many of the Truth campaign's ads have used scare tactics by showing the negative effects of tobacco use in the attempt to dissuade teenagers from taking up smoking.

However, when it comes to anti-tobacco campaigns, fear-based marketing and warnings about health dangers seem to be futile. Instead, the Truth campaign launched a new initiative in 2014 called "Finish It" with a more uplifting message, asking teenagers to help end smoking among their generation.

Researchers discovered that inspiring their audience with messages about positive collective action could be more effective than displaying shocking images or statistics.

Example: Health and Fitness

The health and medical industry very often tries to use fear of disease and death as a motivator to get people to change their everyday habits. For example, doctors might tell their patients that if they don't lose weight, they'll increase their risk of diabetes and heart attacks.

However, in most cases, this does almost nothing to help people make the desired changes, and, for some, prevents progress at all. One recent study in the United Kingdom found that in one-third of cases, people avoided visiting their doctor because they were afraid hearing bad news. This fear was especially strong among people with unhealthy lifestyles, such as smokers and heavy drinkers.

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What can inspire people to change their behavior? Instead of frightening them, appeal to what your user base cares about. In some cases, this may be their appearance. The desire to have an attractive body is often more persuasive than the fear of negative consequences from unhealthy behavior.

It ultimately comes down to what matters to the audience listening to your message. If your message doesn't appeal to what they care about, well then they won't care about your message.

Why Doesn't Fear Work?

It's a simple fact of our genetic makeup that we're drawn to things that make us happy. This impulse is so strong that it outweighs our desire to avoid negative consequences. As human beings, we weigh positive outcomes more heavily than negative ones in our decision-making processes. In addition, it's easier to visualize a potentially positive outcome than to visualize the idea of evading a negative outcome.

Time after time, marketers and behaviorists have found that fear-based messages simply don't influence behavior in the way we'd hope. There are numerous interconnected and interrelated reasons why this is the case.

Here are just a few:

  • Successful fear-based marketing makes people afraid. As a result, the audience needs to manage its fear. It's easier to manage this immediate fear than it is to manage the underlying threat, especially by reassuring yourself with platitudes such as "It's not that bad" or "It wouldn't happen to me." When this immediate fear is controlled, the audience usually forgets about or no longer feels a need to manage the underlying threat.

  • Fear-based marketing is easy to ignore. Many fear-based marketing campaigns focus their attention on an event that will probably not occur to any one particular person, such as a smoker developing lung cancer or a drunk driver causing a fatal accident. People who engage in risky behaviors such as smoking and drunk driving may discount these scare tactics because they haven't yet seen any negative consequences from their behavior. In addition, the power of fear-based messages grows weaker and weaker as people are repeatedly exposed and desensitized to them.

  • Fear-based marketing often has the opposite of its intended effect. Using scare tactics in marketing can alienate people by making them feel judged and lowering their self-esteem. According to the terror management theory of social psychology, people who are reminded of their own mortality or vulnerability use defense mechanisms in order to cope with their anxiety. In one study, binge drinkers who were given information about the risks of their behavior were more willing to binge drink after reading the information.

  • Fear-based marketing most often is associated with long time horizons. When trying to change bad habits, we are usually encouraging someone to stop because of a negative consequence which could be months, years or even decades in the future. As human beings we are preprogrammed to prioritize short term or immediate outcomes over long ones. Thus, the thought process becomes, "I'd prefer to focus on the desirable feeling I'll get tomorrow over considering the terrible feeling I'll get a long time from now." 

What If Fear Is the Only Option?

If you must use fear in your marketing campaign, there are ways to apply it without scaremongering or being manipulative. In certain situations, using fear to get the audience's attention can be very effective, but it should be followed by a reassurance that the fears can be resolved.

In general, keeping your message positive is a better bet for your cyber security marketing campaign. Positivity helps your potential customers connect with you emotionally and see you as a solution to their problems, rather than somebody who simply reminds them of their problems.

However, if you want to use fear as a motivator, there is a right way to do it, and it isn't what you think. As we've discussed above, trying to make consumers afraid of something bad happening is a questionable marketing tactic at best. Instead, the best way to use fear in marketing is to make readers afraid of missing out on something that is really awesome.

You can use deadlines, expiration dates and exclusive offers to create a "positive fear" that motivates your audience to take action.

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