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Of VCs and Politicians: Does Fear Really Sell?

The recent US elections and a workshop on attracting venture capital have me wondering: does fear really sell?

During the workshop, called “Financing Your IT Startup”, there was a slide that described how to build your “elevator pitch”, a 30-second presentation of your opportunity to a potential investor to see if there is any interest:

1. Describe the problem: Find the pain of your target market. The stronger the pain, the better the opportunity;

2. Propose a solution: Present the most important benefit for the client, in a non-technical way. Present your solution in a way that appeals to the investor’s greed.

I’ve seen this description before, and taught it in my workshops. But was the first time I noticed the combination of the ideas “pain” and “greed“. Which made me wonder about the validity of these emotions as motivators.

There is a part of our brain, the amygdala, that when stimulated generates the primal emotion of fear. This “lizard brain” helps to keep us safe from threats to our life: saber-toothed tigers, snakes and the like. Stimulate that brain center, and the response is to take immediate action: fight or flight. These reactions don’t require planning – imagine if we had to figure out an escape route when threatened by a grizzly.

An important school of thought in the advertising trade says that the strongest motivators to get people to listen you are those emotions that poke the lizard brain: fear, greed, lust, envy, sloth, gluttony and vanity. Television advertising is probably the best example, since it uses the two most important conduits into our brains: sight and sound.

It’s obvious that fear-based marketing can make the sale. But does it make for a good long-term strategy?

I see four problems with fear-based marketing:

1. It sets impossibly high expectations: Appealing to fear to motivate people to buy from you carries the unsaid assumption that once they choose you, their fear will completely disappear. Fear might get people to buy what you’re selling…the first time. But it poisons loyalty because it sets expectations so high that your clients are guaranteed to be disappointed. If there is even just a little bit of fear, uncertainty and doubt left after they buy from you, the buyer will consider the transaction as failed.

2. They will buy but not buy-in: For a sales transaction to be of real value for the buyer, they have to want you more than you need them. If you are using fear-based marketing to bring the client to you, they will expect you to “rescue” them from the fear stimulus, i.e. you need to do all the work. You will get the sale, but not the loyalty. The client will not be as committed. This point is related to the previous one about high expectations.

3. It can trigger uncontrollable reactions: The fight or flight reaction is difficult to control. You may succeed in triggering action, but then your prospect may turn to a competitor with a lower price, or otherwise more convenient. Or it may trigger a “play-dead” response, the fear emotion being so strong that your prospect goes into “analysis paralysis” and fails to make any decision at all.

4. Too much fear numbs the lizard brain: The problem is that by hitting the lizard brain again and again, it becomes numbed. Politicians  have been appealing to our lizard brains for so long that the danger to them now is that we are becoming immune to their fear-mongering: we just assume that all politicians are crooked liars and that’s that.

Fear-based marketing doesn’t have to be heavy-handed. You may be doing it without even realizing it. A couple of years ago, an insurance broker convinced me to take out a “supplementary income” insurance policy, providing me with an income stream to replace my primary income in case I was injured or otherwise unable to work. Being self-employed, one of my core fears is not having an income in that kind of circumstance. I bought the policy, but it didn’t make me feel any better, because I realized although the premiums were coming out of my bank account each month, the probability that I would be able to collect on the policy was seeming smaller and smaller. I ended up cancelling the policy after two years.

The broker who sold me the policy had the best of intentions, he is a very nice person and were are still friends. But there was something in his sales presentation that triggered the fear response in me, to get me to take something that was not in my list of priorities at the time, and push it to the top, crowding out other priorities. The end state of this is that I was not satisfied and the person who sold me the policy ended up not being satisfied either. A lose-lose transaction.

If you are cutting your price for a limited time to create a sense of urgency, you’re engaging in a light level of fear marketing. Any kind of tactic to provoke a buying response is related in some way to fear marketing.  Provoking action never pays off in the long run.

Selling is the highest form of leadership: it is about influencing the actions of the prospect, in such a way that they willingly engage in a mutually beneficial trade with you.  Where fear-based marketing focuses on triggering reactions, influencing is about encouraging a considered, conscious response.

Appealing to higher motivations may take longer. You will probably not attract the mass market. However, all you need to succeed is to attract the 1% of people who connect with your values and your message. The advantage of appealing to needs and wants that are higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, such as social, esteem and self-actualization, is that you will generate valuable trust and loyalty. This puts you in a position to attract clients who value the benefits you provide and who are willing to fully invest in what you offer.

Base emotions such as fear, anger, lust and envy sell by grabbing your prospect by the throat and shocking them into choosing you, but at the cost of being only “fair-weather” clients. When someone comes along with a more shocking trigger, they will desert you and go to them.

This is why I don’t think I want a Venture Capitalist to invest in my project because I triggered their lizard brain. They may possibly abandon me to turn to some other shinier opportunity that triggers another, stronger reflex. Or they may turn around and use the same kind of fear motivation to manipulate me into taking action that is not in the best interest of my project.

Same thing with politicians who use fear to scare electors into voting for them or simply not voting at all. Lizard-brain leadership only focuses on short-term survival and not on long-term progress (evolution?).

To tap into long term loyalty, focus instead on higher needs and wants. Focus on the 1% of your target market who values the benefits you provide and who are willing to fully invest in what you offer, and you will build the trust and loyalty that will guarantee you long-term prosperity.

For more information

Image credit: Webjedi via Flickr. Taken at the “Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear 2010-10-30
Direct link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cmu_jedi/5130296358/
Used under Creative Commons 2.0 licence

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