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Rising Gas Prices and Your Marketing Message: Can Fear Persuade?

Earlier this week on the Shop.org blog, Scott Silverman started an interesting thread discussing whether online retailers benefit from connecting rising gas prices to the stay-at-home advantages of shopping online. As Scott puts it:
With the prices as high as they are right now, I think we’ve reached the tipping point. The question then, for online retailers, is whether you make “buy online, free shipping, save money on gas” part of your marketing message. Is it helpful to remind people that they are spending so much money on gas?”
gas pump Commenting on the post, one pureplay retailer reported modest success with a pain-at-the-pump email campaign. Other reactions ranged from enthusiastic embraces of this tactic to concern that that such messaging could hurt the bricks-and mortar arms of multichannel retailers, or simply serve as an unintended reminder that purse strings should be tightened due to the rising cost of fuel. I think the “reminder” piece is the crux of the biscuit. There’s already some early research suggesting that rising gas prices could be good for e-commerce. And if you’ve done any direct selling, you’ve probably learned that expressing empathy for your prospect’s misfortune can build rapport that leads to the sale. But there’s a difference between echoing bad news as you make your pitch ("You're broken? Bummer, dude. Can I help?") and being the one to bring up the sore subject ("Dude, You Are Broken. Can I help?) So are marketers wise to introduce (or re-introduce) unpleasant topics? I read the Shop.org post the same day I was thumbing through a new book co-authored by Robert Cialdini. Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive is a bit lightweight when compared to Cialdini’s classic Influence, but still offers several useful nuggets. Here’s what “Yes!” has to say about the ability of fear to persuade:
For the most part, research has demonstrated that fear-arousing communications usually stimulate the audience to take action to reduce the threat. However this general rule has one important exception: When the fear-producing message describes danger but the audience is not told of clear specific, effective means of reducing the danger, they may deal with the fear by blocking out the message or denying that it applies to them."
If a retailer reminds a prospect about soaring gas prices and the economic crunch, will "no driving and free shipping" (plus desired product, plus other components of the retailer's value prop) serve as sufficient means of "reducing the danger" or will the shopper simply block out the entire pitch, the prescribed remedy as well as the irritant? As one marketer pointed out in the Shop.org thread, this is all certainly worth a test. Outcomes of such experiments will no doubt vary by product category and site, and I'd predict that dramatic results are likely to occur sooner, not later: if images of gas pumps become ubiquitous in homepage banners and email leads, shoppers may ultimately become desensitized and the fuel crunch could become just another themed promo opportunity, like "Memorial Day Savings" and "Back to School." Does that make me sound a bit jaded? I'm not, but I guess I am biased: beyond groceries, I already do just about all my shopping online.
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