Let’s start with a warning.
This post is about the only copywriting formula you’ll ever need: fear. Like any psychologically informed method of persuasion, fear is ripe for abuse and manipulation.
I’m going to assume one thing: you will use this copywriting formula for good … not evil.
That means the problem your business solves is a real problem and your solution is equally real. In other words, this post isn’t just about using fear effectively. It’s about using it ethically.
Every piece of content you create has to do two things: (1) rescue its audience from their own personal hell and (2) deliver them unto their own personal heaven. Great copywriting is about salvation … not sales. If you’re not in the business of actually helping people, stop here.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into it …
The Power Behind the Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need
Fear is a primal motivator.
In fact, according to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, it’s the most primal:
Fear, in evolution, has a special prominence: perhaps more than any other emotion it is crucial for survival (502).
Because up until the last few centuries of human experience — barring a hardwired “neurology of fear” — that rustling in the bush behind you was the last thing you ever heard.
A split second delay was all it took and “rustle, snarl, gulp.” No more you. No more offspring. And no more subpar genetic code.
To get an idea of just how extensive this our neurology of fear is, here how Dr. Goleman describes it:
When [the amygdala] sounds an alarm of, say, fear, it sends urgent messages to every major part of the brain: it triggers the secretion of the body’s fight-or-flight hormones, mobilizes the centers for movement, and activates the cardiovascular system, the muscles, and the gut.
Other circuits from the amygdala signal the secretion of emergency dollops of the hormone norepinephrine to heighten the reactivity of key brain areas, including those that make the senses more alert, in effect setting the brain on edge.
Others rivet attention on the source of the fear, and prepare the muscles to react accordingly. Simultaneously, cortical memory systems are shuffled to retrieve any knowledge relevant to the emergency at hand, taking precedence over other strands of thought (40-41).
Of course, whether or not you really grasp the science isn’t the point.
The point is fear motivates … more powerfully, more persuasively, and more physiologically than any other emotion.
So what does fear have to do with copywriting?
Psychologists refer to the dominant role fear plays in day-to-day decisions as “loss aversion.”
The basic principle is simple: people want to avoid loss more than they want to acquire gain. We are more motivated by the threat of losing than we are by the prospect of winning. And, of course, aversion and avoid are just synonyms for fear.
But more directly, fear trumps hope. Every day of the week, and twice on Sunday.
The copywriting, content, and marketing implications of this insight are enormous. And smart marketers have been taking advantage of fear for years.
The Structure of the Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need
Enough about psychology. What is the only copywriting formula you’ll ever need? It’s called the “Problem-Agitation-Solution” Formula.
In The Ultimate Sales Letter, copywriting legend Dan Kennedy explains:
When you understand that people are more likely to act to avoid pain than to get gain, you’ll understand how incredibly powerful this first formula is.
I have used this basic formula to structure super-effective sales presentations for live salespeople in every imaginable business, from security systems to skin-care products. I’ve used it for over 136 different industries, and not only for sales letters, but also for salespeople.
It may be the most reliable sales formula ever invented.
Here’s the structure:
Define the problem in the simplest way possible, often in a single sentence. All you want is your reader to nod in agreement and then slip effortlessly into the next lines.
Set forth the problem in clear, straightforward terms. You need to say here only enough to elicit agreement.
While they may agree, the problem is a problem, it’s full-orbed horror isn’t real. This is where it has to come alive … hellishly.
Once the problem is established, clearly and factually, it’s time to inject emotion. … Tap their anger, resentment, guilt, embarrassment, fear—any and every applicable negative emotion.
You should have readers mentally wringing their hands, pacing the room, saying, “This has got to stop! I’ve got to do something about this! What can I do about this? If only there were an answer!”
Only after hell, comes heaven.
The third step is to unveil the solution, the answer—your product or services and the accompanying benefits.
The problem (pun intended) is most marketing skips step two: agitation.
We identify the problem and go right into the solution without ever stopping to drive the home how truly hellish the problem is.
Our copywriting falls flat. It doesn’t connect. It doesn’t impact. It doesn’t move. And it doesn’t sell.
This is a huge opportunity you don’t want to miss.
In step one, focus on simplicity and agreement.
Show your audience that you understand their fear and (if needed) prove that the problem really is a problem by providing facts.
Get in. Get out. Move on.
In step two, focus on emotion and volatility.
Having established the problem now it has to get real. Realer than real. This means pressing hard on …
The Secret of the Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need
I like to call the secret the “It Get’s Worse … Much, Much Worse” Principle.
What really blew the doors off of the incredible power of fear was a recent I Love Marketing interview with Jon Benson, developer of the $10-billion-revenue-producing Video Sales Letter (sometimes called the “Ugly” Video Sales Letter).
Not surprisingly, Benson defines Kennedy’s second step as “The Big Problem.”
Again, most of us do a fairly good job defining the problem writ small.
What we don’t do is tell our audience that the problem is bigger—much bigger—than they ever realized.
As Benson explains:
This is the part that I see fail. . . . You’re so close to the forest you think that they already know that [blank] is a problem.
They don’t know that. They have a vague idea that it’s a problem. But they have no idea how big it is.
So your job is to tell them everything that could go wrong when this problem remains in your life.
To illustrate, Benson uses weight loss. First, he identifies the problem: you’re overweight, unhealthy, and unhappy.
But (of course) it gets worse … much, much worse.
How much worse? Benson presents two fear-inducing stats. One, he outlines how obesity costs you more money than you ever realized. Statistically speaking, obese people perform 40% less in the workforce. This is probably due to prejudice, and it’s certainly unfair, but it’s still the reality.
Two, he explains how obesity is also costing you more time than you ever realized. Over a twenty-year period, obese people will spend nine months more than their healthy counterparts walking to and from their cars in grocery store parking lots. This isn’t a dig on how often overweight people go to the store. Not at all. It’s simply about speed.
Applied to our copywriting formula …
Step one: here’s the problem.
Step two: but, oh, it gets worse, much, much worse.
To drill down and drive home your audience’s deepest fears, here are …
The Questions to Fuel the Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need
First, your audience’s fears…
1. What does your audience hate… about their life, about their job, or about your particular type of product or service?
2. What problems does your business solve? Is your audience aware of these problems?
3. What are the two to three biggest headaches these problems create?
4. What are the real-world consequences of these problems? In other words, how can you quantify, in real numbers, their hates and headaches?
5. What are your audience’s two to three biggest daily frustrations? What do they wake up groaning about? What makes them angry?
6. Even more to the point, what “disease” does your business—i.e., your product, your service or you—“cure”? What are its symptoms?
7. What is your audience afraid of? What do they go to bed dreading or stay up all night churning over?
8. What is your audience embarrassed or insecure about? What are they hiding? What do they hope “no one notices?”
9. What are two things your audience would “wish away” if they could?
Second, their fears about you…
10. What’s the most awkward, confusing, or inconvenient thing about your type of business?
11. What about your type of business does your audience trust least? What are they suspicious of or have a really hard time swallowing?
12. What’re the two to three biggest barriers to becoming a customer?
13. Lastly, what nightmare or hell (be as vivid and emotive as possible) does your business save its customers from?
The Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need?
Naturally, there are plenty of other formulas out there. Buffer’s Kevan Lee lists 27. And Copyhacker’s Joanna Wiebe lays out damn near all of them in her 11k-plus words masterpiece The Ultimate Guide to No-Pain Copywriting.
But the truth is this copywriting formula is the basis of all the others.
Because fear really is the most primal human motivator. So please, use that power for good … or you just might end up with something brand new to fear for yourself.