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Pulling the emotional trigger


One of the first marketing and communications lessons I learned was to make what you say to a target audience directly relevant to them.  The more emotion that relevance incorporated, the more powerful the message was likely to be and therefore drive the action you wanted.

It’s been argued that some charities have taken this approach too far, attracting the accusation of ‘guilting’ people into donating or supporting.  That is, incorporating too much negative emotion alongside relevance into their messages.  I know the Institute of Fundraising’s code of practice effectively bans the use of guilt indirect marketing  fundraising activities but many fundraisers endorse the tactic.  I’ve also seen campaigning charities use similar techniques to generate vocal support around emotional issues such as whaling and human rights abuses.

I can merely surmise that in our gently apathetic and usually stoical UK culture, this approach must provide a necessary ‘jolt’ to the public and improve results in some way.  Or at least meet the immediate needs of the organisations concerned.

Ordinarily, I’m a fan of using positive emotion in communications which inspire an audience to action rather than guilt or terrify them into it.  But last night I had a very personal and powerful reminder of how directly linked to action negative emotion is.

My wife was stuck on the M25 for nine hours, alone in the car in the freezing cold and the falling snow with large trucks breaking down all around her and people crashing left right and centre.  To say I was worried was an understatement.  I couldn’t do anything to help because I couldn’t physically get there (well not short of hiking eight miles which I was forbidden from doing).  If someone had knocked on my door telling me they had a snowmobile and could help but had no money for fuel, I would have given them whatever was needed.

And this emotional trigger is what some ‘negative’ fundraising and marketing campaigns seek to exploit.  The trouble with this approach is that you can’t rely on an entire target audience feeling so strongly about the same trigger and therefore the emotional power is weakened.  Secondly, I think we’ve all had enough of doom and gloom messages generally and are perhaps drawn to more positive motivators anyway.

That said, messages which are all sweetness and light don’t always motivate action.  And for every guru extolling the virtues of a positively inspiring campaign, we can find practising fundraisers and campaigners who see good results from activity which gives a slightly painful tug on an audience’s heartstrings.

If indeed we do need a bit of a kick up the backside to pay atention to an issue, then perhaps the ideal messages are those which leverage negative emotions and channel their power into positive actions, in a timely way.  I was worried for my wife and that strength of feeling would easily have been enough to motivate me to buy snowmobile fuel and got me out in those conditions to try and help others; if someone had presented me with the option of being able to realistically help people last night.

What do you think?  Is there a way we can harness negativity into positive action?  More importantly, can we leverage emotional triggers in a timely way without appearing callously opportunistic?

Let’s share some ideas.


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