Being Negative Can Yield Positive Results

As I noted in “Four Copywriting Tips That Can Skyrocket Response” newsletter publishers are unusually sharp marketers. Here’s another lesson from that world. But it applies to all types of products and services.

Occasionally, a client bristled at a promotional concept I suggested, protesting, “That’s too negative!”

But to justify the high price of specialized information, it’s essential to demonstrate a compelling need or sense of urgency. That often means emphasizing a problem, threat, danger, or fear—and offering the publication as a solution.

Indeed, minimizing risks and preventing and solving problems is a common function of information products. So this tack is natural and logical.

Example: A direct-mail package I wrote for a newsletter covering the medical equipment industry screamed: “FDA Re-Regulation Alert!” The copy warned of escalating problems for manufacturers—problems they could be regularly warned about by subscribing.

Fear is a stronger emotion than greed. This is why a “scare” approach, if appropriate and if handled deftly, can be so powerful. Promotions for financial newsletters pull well when they suggest an impending threat to the investor’s wealth.

More examples of this technique: “The Biggest Mistake Executives Make.” “Is Your Tax Shelter a Time Bomb?” “The Coming Widget Industry Shakeout: Will Your Company [or: Your Job] Survive?

Do the products or services you write copy for lend themselves to this approach? The principle applies to, among others, financial services, insurance, home security equipment, and many charitable causes.

Of course, in some situations, it may be wiser to take a positive approach. And even with a predominantly negative thrust, your copy should also point out the upside: benefits, opportunities, savings, or profits the product will help generate.

For example, when I wrote a successful package for The Retirement Letter with the teaser “Is Social Security Doomed?” my copy quickly shifted from the threat to the income and wealth that the prospect could achieve by making the right financial decisions—with the newsletter’s help, of course.

Finally, bear in mind that too much emphasis on fear can be counterproductive, alienating the reader and creating paralysis rather than a purchase. Early toothpaste ads flopped because they depicted too explicitly the consequences of a lack of proper dental hygiene. You must be adroit and know just how far to go.

That’s my positive case for a negative appeal. If you ever encounter resistance to this strategy from your client or boss, you might respond, “Scare tactics are nothing to be afraid of!"

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: February 15, 2011

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