Whether you need to get someone to buy your service or sign up for that email, you are likely using one of two approaches: pain or pleasure. To clarify a bit more, customers are looking for pain avoidance or pleasure from their purchases.
And, as John Burgstone and Bill Murphy, Jr. state in Fast Company, “All things being equal, the more acute the pain or problem, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to offer a compelling solution.“ Meaning, it’s a lot easier to get someone to take action on their pain than it is to get them to pursue pleasure.
Pain refers to having a problem of some sort. You need to get your car fixed. You need to get more customers for your business.
The folks over at Wordstream, a tool to help manage paid search campaigns, put together an article where they highlight four types of pain their buyers go through: finance, productivity, process, and support. By meeting needs at each pain point, they demonstrate that their product is a good solution for the overworked marketer.
In doing research for this article, I was surprised to see how many writers focused on the pain side of things while only briefly mentioning pleasure. Focusing on pain is clearly and deliberately related to a solution, so the “pitch” is certainly simpler.
That said, pleasure has the opportunity to inspire or create positive emotions in an audience. Rebekah Paul wrote that brands can use pleasure to create experiences to inspire you, make you laugh, make you say “wow,” or make you say “aww.”
If you think about it, this is the approach we see larger brands take with TV commercials all the time. How many Super Bowl commercials focus on these kinds of emotions? Practically all of them!
In 2019, Amazon was one of the big advertising winners with this video:
Notice that this is not a factual statement of Alexa’s capabilities (straight information) nor is it an appeal to how painful shopping in stores can be. Amazon goes straight for humor and succeeds.
Why is it that we see bigger brands focus on this more than smaller companies? I would offer that it’s because brands can afford to play the longer game.
This isn’t just a matter of whether a large or small company should brand itself. Branding is a critical way to stand out, but smaller companies may not be able to afford it. Smaller companies have a difficult time building up a brand story of humor and fun. These companies often need to fall back on direct sales tactics.
Soured on Pain Avoidance
I grew up in a religious environment. I’ve spent a lot of time in an environment where an organization works to persuade or reaffirm a group of people to believe in a certain way.
I still spend time in religious environments and want to include them in my family’s life, but I’ve definitely come across settings that I feel are an abuse of the organization’s stated goal. Using pain avoidance as a motivational factor in a religious setting cuts dangerously close to piling guilt up on people. I’ve seen firsthand how damaging that approach can be. It makes me angry, and it can cause me to push back on wanting to be a part of anything remotely similar to those environments.
When it comes to using pain avoidance as a way to get someone to buy something, I feel like a huckster selling snake oil and salvation.
Negative personal experiences aside, there are ways to use pain avoidance ethically. Businesses exist, in large part, to help solve problems. Identifying the problem or pain that the product solves is necessary in clearly communicating to a customer.
Pain avoidance as a tactic is all about the marketing intent. Is the business trying to persuade or manipulate? Does the customer feel better from the interaction, or is he feeling instant buyer’s remorse from the interaction?
The point here is that it’s less about pain avoidance or pursuing pleasure. Manipulation is possible on either side of this divide. One is not automatically better than the other.
Expressing potential consequences is necessary for someone to be able to make an informed decision. Overselling those consequences (in religion, in insurance, in any scenario) is where the potential for manipulation lurks.
The Power of Pain-Solving
In their Fast Company article, Burgstone and Murphy state, “There is simply more staying power in pain-solving businesses.”
Think about it. If the economy goes bad, I’m going to hesitate to buy that next Xbox game or go to the movies with the family.
I’m not going to pause any of my essentials (rent, utilities, etc.), and I am still likely to take care of new pain points that pop up along the way. If my air conditioning in my van went out, I’d pay it (that’s practically an essential here in Louisiana).
All of us have a proven loss aversion, meaning we have a stronger impulse to protect what we already have.
Seth Godin’s Marketing Experiment
In his book This Is Marketing, Godin tells the story of accompanying a team to India to sell reading glasses to a group of people that would have to pay much more for these same glasses in other venues. When the shopping experience was presented in a way that Americans would expect (glasses out on the table in all colors and styles for people to try on), the group converted sales roughly 35% of the time.
Godin removed the glasses from the table and instructed the sales personnel to let the customer try on a pair and then tell the customer that he or she could keep the glasses or give them back. No options of different colors. No review of all the styles. Just try them on and pay, or give them back.
Godin’s story demonstrates how marketers can use loss aversion tactics to manipulate or help people. If his team was there just to make as much money as possible off of a low-income region, then loss aversion would be a manipulative way to force people to pay out. Godin and team’s efforts were there to help enable people, and the loss aversion tactic reinforced the real need for the glasses.
Deciding on the Right Approach
I really appreciated the transparency of Karl Llewellyn of a company called Sanctifly in writing about their marketing approach. “Do we use our social media messaging to focus on the desire to feel good, in our case ‘a healthy alternative for your airport downtime’? Or, should we use the pain approach to messaging ‘how bad commercial flying is for your overall health’?”
As a digital marketer, my answer is usually, “Let’s A/B test the messaging to see what resonates!” That said, A/B testing isn’t always the right tool, especially if the market is too small.
The good news about using something like digital media to convey a company’s messaging is that you can try some different tones in your messaging (especially if you’re only advertising a message to a small segment).
Short-term Solutions for Long-term Gain
I work with a variety of healthcare organizations through our P3 Platform, so I’ve been paying attention to conversations like the weekly #hcldr chat on Twitter. Colin and Joe keep a running blog where they tackle a number of healthcare issues, and their weekly discussions have been incredibly educational for me.
One of the topics that I see in #hcldr is how to motivate people to take care of themselves more regularly. If the healthcare industry is supposed to create healthier individuals, then only dealing with the treatment side of things once something has gone wrong is to miss out on a big part of the equation!
Trying to get people to be healthy is a lot harder than it seems.
Corporations and insurance companies create wellness programs to give financial incentives (better benefits, lower costs) to individuals with varying degrees of success.
Other systems attempt to gamify the fitness process to celebrate various fitness milestones.
In both cases, the short-term win (savings or small celebrations) is designed to create a long-term benefit: better health.
Attack the Burger?
In writing about companies that use pleasure, Rebekah Paul specifically points out Subway as a group that is promoting health benefits as a long-term win. Couldn’t you do something where you talk about the gross feeling that greasy burgers give you? Yes, you can take Tums, but you could also skip the burger.
There are two ways to market products. Subway’s method has certainly worked, but I have to wonder if they tested a campaign where they attacked the other brands before committing to appealing to customers’ health.
People are doing what they can to improve their own wellbeing. I want to see this become a shift in shopping behaviors, but we (with myself first in line) need nudging to get pointed the right direction. (I haven’t read Nudge yet, but I hear that it is exactly focused on this very idea. Let’s both add it to our reading lists.)
Picking the Right Tactic for Your Message
Pain avoidance or pursuit of pleasure? Both can be used for good or bad. The deciding factor is your intent.
I’d love to hear your take on these ideas. Specifically, do you think short-term pain-avoidance solutions can create sustainable long-term benefits? Can we be “tricked” into doing what’s right for ourselves?