Let’s face it, your content’s not really up to scratch, is it? We’re sure you’ve looked at competitors’ websites and realised that what they’re doing is much more interesting, relevant and readable – and their Google Analytics results are probably far superior to yours too. Have a quick check of Alexa rankings, and they’re bound to be ahead of you – we almost guarantee it.

How many of you quickly headed to the Alexa website after reading that first paragraph to check? It just goes to show – there’s no need to be overwhelmingly positive when it comes to copywriting.

In advertising, an emphasis on positive messaging was once thought the only way to sell – from the “great new taste” of Coca-Cola to “clean, smooth and fresh” Chesterfield cigarettes.

Today, savvy advertisers and marketers – influenced increasingly by psychology – have realised that while feel-good messaging is great for closing a deal, people often buy out of frustration, anger or fear. These are the so-called ‘pain points’ that businesses, products or services try to solve.

Humans have an in-built negativity bias which affects our social judgements, attention, learning and memory and, crucially, our decision-making.

This is gold for content creation. People are hardwired to look out for and fear the worst. Tap into that with your copy, your headlines and your strategy, and it’s possible to drive real engagement with your audience.

The fear

What’s so deeply buried in our collective psyche that turns negative to positive? A pro-cyclist pays £6,000 for a Specialized Venge ViAS because their competitors are constantly improving their spec, not necessarily to go faster. Your co-worker doesn’t buy her new laptop for its elegance and capacity, but because her old one’s been struggling.

According to the business psychologist Ray Williams we’re subconsciously threatened by the bad, not attracted to the good. Writing in Psychology Today, Williams notes: “Our negative brain tripwires are far more sensitive than our positive triggers. We tend to get more fearful than happy. And each time we experience fear we turn on our stress hormones.”

Channel their anger: Tapping into fear and frustration leads to effective marketing

Fear, frustration, threat: all negative emotions that can drive engagement toward your brand and content.

There is one catch to using negative news to sell your product or service. Your marketing must provide answers to the negative phenomena focused on. Understanding customers’ pain points is one thing; your content must also establish how your business provides the best solution to their problems.

Headline news

In the 1920s, The Times ran an obscure piece entitled “Small earthquake in Chile: not many dead”. This apocryphal headline earned its writer an in-house prize for dullness and a position on page 28 of the paper. But what if “small” were really “big”, and “not many” were “20,000”?

In that case, the story would earn front page rights.

Bad news sells. People respond more readily to negative headlines than to positive. And while bland, bread ’n’ circuses feelgood might connect on some level, a negative undertow will always be highly effective, touching a hidden nerve and driving us to react.

How negative you go when you’re blogging for business is your call. But try excoriating the vices instead of extolling the virtues. “Ten common mistakes” resonates on a subconscious level, while “ten good reasons” is compelling but lacks bite.

When we wrote ‘Nine ways to ensure your email marketing campaign is the worst ever’ for Winbox, it garnered four times as much attention on LinkedIn as all their other posts until that point. The headline was compelling – cutting through and attracting clicks. Again, the content itself doesn’t have to be negative (this one was certainly tongue-in-cheek), but flipping a headline on its head can be the difference between a skip and a click.

Negatives into positives

Marketers and advertisers suffer from a reputation: oily, slick shysters who will say anything for a quick buck, no matter whether it’s true or false. Branded content faces a similar issue. It’s branded, so obviously it’s going to present your business in a positive light, right? Well, one way round this is to present the failures as well as successes. Articles like “Things we learned from making mistakes” humanises businesses, and show brands learning from their errors, while also lifting the lid on their process: one of continuous development.

Another differentiator is to take a contrarian view on your industry; dissecting the negatives or commonly held beliefs about things. This can be disruptive, and set you aside from the reams of ‘me too’ content out there. A considered rant is not for everyone, but it can be hugely effective. Peter Thiel has made billions in business by challenging popularly-held views.


Two other commentators with the chops to make wisdom of the most opinionated bombast are Mark Ritson and Bob Hoffman. Few pundits would accuse the CEO of Adidas of “talking bollocks”, but Ritson makes an authoritative case. Only a maverick at the top of Hoffman’s game would admit, when asked about advertising’s future, to having “no fucking idea what’s going to happen 10 minutes from now” and continue to be heard. It takes swagger and supreme self-confidence. But more than that, in a goldfish-bowl media space where the bullshit is quickly outed, it demonstrates a deep and pervasive understanding of your industry.

The key to all this is to understand and use the negative, but to always positively spin it into something helpful. No-one wants to be that friend who moans about everything but never tries to help themselves. Understand the minuses, and you’ll reap the positive rewards.

Want content with positive results? Check out some of the businesses we’ve helped grow by way of great inbound marketing.

Photo credit:

Thumb down – Public domain

Frustration by Peter Alfred Hess via Flickr

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Richard Butterworth

Richard morphed from graphics to writing 500 years ago, working for TTL ad agencies before flying solo. A born freebooter, learning-curves as flat as his saxophone playing, he’ll gladly write about sustainables, legals, financials, IT, property, politics, cycling, walking, dogs, science, ghosts, Orwell, Frank Zappa and [your topic here]. He does voiceovers and presents a weekly community radio music show. Don’t ask about the cheesemaking.

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