Laura Petrolino

Use Reverse Message Strategy to Drive Consumer Action

By: Laura Petrolino | March 19, 2018 | 
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Use Reverse Message Strategy to Drive Consumer ActionFear-tactics don’t work.

This isn’t my opinion. It’s science.

From an evolutionary perspective, we are conditioned to freeze in the face of fear.

Just as a gazelle freezes when it senses it’s being stalked by a lion. Or a deer freezes in the middle of the road when it sees the headlights of an oncoming car.

It might not be the best strategy for us, but it’s what we are wired to do.

What does this mean for you as a communicator?

If your goal is to motivate action (conversion, sales, an action for a cause) through fear-tactics, you need to rethink your message strategy.

Your Message Strategy is Key to Prospect Motivation

We all know an effective message strategy is key to communicating with your target audience in a way that matters.

It must have the 4Cs: comprehension, connection, credibility, and contagiousness.

(And I also always add a fifth C: consistency.)

This is especially critical in our digital world where messages are seen from many platforms (online and off) and consumers often travel through several different pathways to get to your brand.

But what do you do when the message you need to send has a negative undercurrent to it?

  • Maybe it forces them to deal with a difficult topic—one they’d rather avoid.
  • Asks for help on an issue that feels overwhelming or hopeless.
  • Requires a behavior or perspective change.
  • Or challenges their underlying worldview.

Not all messages are rainbows and unicorns.

So what do you do to avoid the natural tendency to turn away from something when it brings up something sad, scary, or drastically outside of our worldview?

That’s when reverse message strategy come in handy.

Consumer-Focused Message Strategy

I do a fair amount of volunteer work in animal advocacy—a field where often the stories and messages are negative in nature.

From stories of animal abuse or neglect to mugshot photos of animals in need of homes to the negative terminology used around animals in shelters and rescues.

Terms such as “homeless animals,” “abandoned pets,” or “death row dogs” are thrown around without much thought. And, often the calls-to-action focus more on pleas versus benefits, such as “stop overpopulation,” “prevent euthanasia,” or “save from death.”

It all paints a negative environment of unwanted animals and an overwhelming problem, which can’t ever be fully solved.

The result?

  • Animals in shelters face many stereotypes, which lead people to believe there is something wrong with them—that they are unwanted or damaged.
  • The burden is put on humans to save these unwanted creatures. Adoption is positioned as a plea, not an opportunity.
  • Animal advocates feel overwhelmed and helpless and fade away from activism and volunteer work because they feel like their efforts don’t make a dent.

This causes people to turn away, to feel overwhelmed, and to focus elsewhere.

Do You Motivate or Terrify Your Prospect?

Think about this negative message strategy from a perspective of marketing your product, service, or cause.

Do you focus your message strategy on how your organization solves a consumer pain point? Addresses a problem? Makes a difference? Improves lives?

Or does it focus on the negative? The dangers of the problem? What will happen if they don’t act? The enormity of the issue?

If it’s the latter, realize that while you can scare people into talking about a problem, you can’t scare people to take action to change it.

Which is your priority goal?

Frantic buzz and chatter or consistent action aligned with your goals?

Reorient Perspective with Reverse Message Strategy

How can organizations that deal with difficult to discuss topics, change perspectives and motivate action?

Reverse message strategy.

Reverse message strategy flips a message on its side to change the way the consumer approaches it.

One of my favorite examples comes out of the Oregon Humane Society and Leopold Ketel. 

I’ve been a fan of their fabulous “End Petlessness,”  campaign ever since it came out a few years ago.

It’s one of the best examples I’ve found of how a slight messaging perspective change can completely change the way your consumer thinks about and associates with your product, service, cause, or in this case…future pet!

All they did was change who the victim is in the buyer’s story.

Instead of it being the animal at the shelter. An unwanted animal who needs to be saved by the consumer. The victim becomes the buyer themselves. A person who needs a pet to make their lives complete.

This small shift changes everything.

Now contrast this positive, fun reverse message with the well known (and mocked) ASPCA ad with Sarah Mclachlan.

How to Use a Reverse Message

There are many reasons you’d want to use a reverse message strategy:

  • You are in an industry where you need to get people to pay attention to an uncomfortable or “scary” topic. This might be something such as insurance, legal issues, taxes, estate planning, guardianship, or protection devices and services.
  • You are in an overly saturated industry and need to make your product or service seem fresh to stand out from the crowd. A great opportunity here is to take your point-of-differentiation and flip the messaging to place emphasis on it.
  • You are in a field where you need to change a consumer behavior.  A reverse message strategy can help your brand message resonate better and position your product in a way the consumer can relate and feel comfortable.

The thing about reverse message strategy is it requires YOU to flip your mindset in the same way it allows a consumer to flip theirs, but that means it isn’t easy or intuitive to do.

Practice Perspective Change

We get so used to seeing things from one viewpoint, it can be very hard to see it from another one.

But that’s exactly what you must do to be successful at reverse messaging strategy.

You need to work to see the opposite of the status quo.

To every negative, there is a positive. It’s your job to find it and help your consumer refocus on that positive and how they can be part of it.

Sometimes the best way to do this is to list out all the scary, negative, infuriating things industry your topic of industry. And then one-by-one flip them around to focus on the positive and empowering aspects to drive action.

Take a topic such as climate change.

Instead of messages focused on the scary things that will happen to our planet should current levels of pollutants and emissions continue, focus on the small changes we can do to keep our planet safe.

Then empower your community the ability to act and ways to do so.

This doesn’t mean you ignore the bad or fear of the situation. You don’t do that at all. You are honest about the reality, but position it in a way that empowers vs. scares.

Perspective Change Effects Your Message Strategy

There are normally several ways you can flip any one message.

Play around with what might work best, and the variety of ways different flips affect the tone, perspective, and overall context of the message.

Consider how the change:

  • Appeals to a certain target or niche market?
  • Allows affects your brand voice?
  • Opens up a new opportunity? Or closes down an opportunity?
  • Affect the customer expectation?
  • Stay true to brand?

And then consistently work to find the good. Because the good is what motivates action.

image credit: Oregon Humane Society

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

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