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The Case Against Negative and Fear-Based Headlines

Content marketers everywhere are guilty of purposefully trying to scare the heck out of their readers.

“You’re making these mistakes! You’re doing it wrong. You’re wasting time and money. Your competitors are beating you!”


At Unbounce, we’re as guilty of fear-mongering as anyone else. Some of our most-shared posts have spooky angles, whether we’re warning readers that they could unknowingly be missing out on conversions…

This post by Rich Page, which plays on readers’ fear of unknowingly killing their conversions, pulled in 1,222 social shares.

… or flat out accusing them of doing it all wrong:

Johnathan Dane’s vurry scurry post racked up 1,363 social shares and 215 (!) comments.

For a variety of psychological reasons, “scary content” just works — we all know this.

But when does creepy content become creppy?

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 2.16.11 PM
Via Urban Dictionary.

In other words, when does using fear and negativity in your content become a sleazy, click-baity tactic that informed readers will see right through?

It’s a debate that the Unbounce content team has been engaging in recently: is fear-based content at odds with a commitment to empower readers? Do vanity metrics like pageviews and social shares come at the cost of sounding pedantic?

Maybe, maybe not. But we think it’s worth reflecting on.

And that’s exactly what the Unbounce content team did, in a recent content strategy meeting. Here are some of the things we touched on.

Fear-based content isn’t delightful or empowering

Like most startups, Unbounce has a set of core values that we (try our best to) live by.

Two of these core values are especially dear to members of the content team:


As content creators, we’re uniquely positioned to delight our readers by making learning fun, or even just make them laugh when they least expect it. (I challenge you to read my colleague Brad Tiller’s placeholder copy for our Persuasion landing page template and not let out a snort.)

But for Unbounce, delight is about more than just humor or entertainment value. It’s about understanding our audience so well that we can speak to their problems and concerns in relatable terms.

Beyond that, one of my favorite things about my job on the content team is that I am also in a position to empower marketers to become better at their jobs by providing them with actionable and comprehensive content. The kind of stuff that gets people excited about launching a new marketing campaign (by giving them the tools — and the inspiration — they need to do so).

It’s the reason we’re notorious for being hard on our contributors, always pushing them to provide more examples and more data — and it’s the reason we tease Content Strategist Dan Levy for constantly asking everyone to “unpack that.”

Pretty sure Dan has “unpack that” tattooed on the inside of his eyelids.

But what happens when your post opens with a subtle jab at your readers, telling them, “Your competitors are doing it better than you”? What happens when your title is phrased condescendingly, implying that your readers are not-so-good marketers?

I think it depends.

Some readers will surely be up for the challenge, and that sort of phrasing will bring out their competitive side.

But other readers won’t feel too great about it. They won’t feel good about reading your post, they won’t feel empowered to try new things and they probably won’t feel good about doing business with you.

As Brad so articulately put it in our content team Slack channel:

There’s no shortage of awesome and thoughtful things for me to read, so I’m likely to skip something that comes from a position that not only presumes my incompetence, but shames me for it pre-emptively.

Write Click-Worthy Titles Without Resorting to Clickbait

Grab the 250-word summary of Nicole Dieker's actionable post
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Your readers will see right through your tricks

At Unbounce, we pride ourselves on speaking to a sophisticated readership. Our readers are smart. If we bullsh*t or cut corners, we get called out. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Our readers keep us honest. Knowing that we’ve got a ton of smart people interacting with our content puts on the pressure to create genuinely helpful content. We try our best to skip past all the “black-hat shortcuts” and “easy fixes,” and go straight to the stuff that works because it’s fricken’ hard.

… But we’re not perfect, and sometimes we make mistakes. Pull up a chair, it’s storytime.

After an upcoming post is gone over with a fine-toothed comb by one of our editors, we send it off to an internal mailing list of 10-ish content team members. We poke further holes in the post (I told you, we’re hard asses) and vote on a list of potential titles.

Several months ago, we were doing just this for an upcoming post, and we settled on a title that we thought would catch people’s attention: Everything You’ve Been Told About Copywriting is Complete Nonsense.

When we hit the publish button, we learned what happens when you experiment with a negative title “because it works” without really delivering in the post itself. We got flamed in the comments:


The post contained some solid advice, but it was buried under a click-baity title.

We sacrificed clarity for something we thought would get us more clicks, opens and shares. And it backfired.

But we learned a really important lesson: to be as honest and genuine in our marketing content as possible. At the end of the day, if we perceive something as a “trick,” our informed audience is likely to see it that way, too.

And they’re not shy to call us out on it.

The upside of being honest and writing content that does exactly what it says on the tin (read: title)?

We attract an audience of smart marketers. The kind that won’t be fooled by BuzzFeed-esque click tricks. The kind that comes back again and again and leaves insightful comments. And potentially become brand advocates or even customers.

There’s a time and place for negativity

This isn’t to say that using fear and negativity in your titles is a black-hat trick or dishonest. Many members of the Unbounce content team felt strongly that there is a time and a place for these tactics.

As Brad put it:

Addressing fear is a totally legit tactic, and I think can be used in positive ways, ways that tap into our anxieties while simultaneously being reassuring about how we can address them.

Our Content Coordinator Amy Wood echoed Brad’s point, driving home the importance of following up the fear/negativity with an actionable solution:

I’m also of the opinion that it can be useful and warranted in certain situations. But above all else, we still need to be producing quality content that — click-baity headline or not — never makes the reader feel, ‘Well that was a waste of my time.’

So if you decide to use fear and negativity in your titles to draw readers in, don’t leave them hanging. Offer up the solution to those anxieties.

What are our other options?

If you’ve tested negative titles and feel you may want to experiment with other ways to get people clicking on your titles, check out Nicole Dieker’s post, “How to Write Click-Worthy Titles Without Resorting to Clickbait.”

Or grab the 250-word TL;DR summary we created below.

Write Click-Worthy Titles Without Resorting to Clickbait

Grab the 250-word summary of Nicole Dieker's actionable post
By entering your email you'll receive weekly Unbounce Blog updates and other resources to help you become a marketing genius.
About Amanda Durepos
Amanda Durepos is Unbounce’s Blog Editor and an aspiring dog owner. Former gallery director and freelance blogger, she has a love for curating great content. Find her on Twitter: @amandadurepos
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  1. Aaron Orendorff

    Wow, Amanda, not just a great post … but SO timely.

    I loved Brad’s comment: “Addressing fear is a totally legit tactic, and I think can be used in positive ways, ways that tap into our anxieties while simultaneously being reassuring about how we can address them.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Fear is tricky and it’s all too easy to simply write click-bait or be blatantly manipulative.

    Speaking of timely …

    Not be shameless, but I just published my first BoostBlogTraffic post last week … and it was ALL ABOUT using fear in blog introductions: http://boostblogtraffic.com/fear-openings/

    The really FUNNY thing is … at the same time I put together a contrarian post about using JOY and BBT is gonna run that one next month.

    It’ll be crazy interesting to see which one performs better. ;)

    • Amanda Durepos

      Haha Aaron, so timely! I really love how comprehensive you were about the flavors of “fear.” And I love that you touched on “impostor syndrome” — I recently pitched an article about that to our editorial team.

      Love that you’ve got the counterpoint article planned, too. Can’t wait to read it.

      • Aaron Orendorff

        Thanks for the compliments!

        I actually just shared your article in the comments on BoostBlogTraffic (now SmartBlogger). Such a great discussion.

        Speaking of impostor syndrome … let me know if you need an author for that (I’ve got it nailed). Joel emailed me a few days ago to get the title, description, and take-aways for my conference presentation and (before I actually read his email) my VERY first thought when I saw it in my inbox was, “Oh no … they’ve cancelled on me and found someone better.”

        I’m dead serious. ;)

        • Amanda Durepos

          Some really interesting dialogue going on in those comments! Also oh my gosh, I’m sorry you thought that! I’m really pumped for your talk — I know you’re going to knock it out of the park.

          The struggle is real though. There’s a quote from Ira Glass about impostor syndrome which I love. Please forgive the wall of text:

          “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

  2. Nick Stone

    Thought provoking article. Thank you. I just adopted both core values you listed. Please share the others!

    • Amanda Durepos

      Thanks so much Nick.

      Unbounce’s core values are: Delight, Empowerment, Courage, Transparency, Humility and Generosity. :) They’re values that we try to embody in the office and with customers but they’re also a compass for the content team and everything we publish.

      • Nick Stone

        Thank you, Amanda. I located the expanded descriptions on your About page and shared the list with my team. Outstanding!

  3. Monica

    Great article, and totally in step with how women think! I don’t like fear mongering, I’m tired of constantly being afraid of what’s hiding in my soup, or the mistake I made in my last (now sent) newsletter. Yes, I think we can have an intelligent conversation WITHOUT fear mongering.
    I believe that delivering the message doesn’t have to involve fear. Yes, fear is the greatest motivator (and as a psychology -neuroscience and behavioral- with marketing major, I can attest to that), but I think , as consumers, we’re getting tired of it. I don’t want to read any more fear inducing headlines. I don’t want to CREATE any fear inducing headlines either.
    I think now is the time to evolve the consumer consciousness and find a better way to catch the readers’ interest.
    The reader has evolved! We’re more educated, more aware, and definitely have developed a short attention span for things we don’t agree with. When we don’t like things now, we swipe left! I’m swiping left a lot. Make me swipe right again.

    P.S. I LOVE the javascript hover-over effects on the CTA boxes!!! Don’t mind me using that :-)

    • Amanda Durepos

      Thanks so much Monica. I think it comes down to respecting your audience and speaking to them as you would a colleague.

  4. Shawn Smith

    I’ve always wondered how the Unbounce team manages to consistently write posts that are so crisp and energetic. This sentence gave me some insight:

    “After an upcoming post is gone over with a fine-toothed comb by one of our editors, we send it off to an internal mailing list of 10-ish content team members.”

    It’s so helpful when companies like Unbounce and Wistia are able to make extremely boring subjects interesting.

    Thanks for making learning fun :)

    • Amanda Durepos

      Your comment gave me the warm fuzzies, Shawn. Thank you for your kind words.

  5. Alexis

    We all are balancing between what is effective (clickbait, fear-based titles, etc.) and what is right. And what is right will vary from group to group. I’ve never explicitly drawn up my core values but I think I’m going to steal yours: be empowering, delight your readers. Because in the scramble for traffic, engagement, and email signups, it’s easy to slide into uncool strategies, because we’re constantly bombarded with messages about how well they work. But sometimes you gotta hold the line.

    • Amanda Durepos

      +1 to everything you said, Alexis. There’s a time and a place for all of it but only testing will tell what the appropriate time and place is…

  6. Amy Wood

    As usual, great post, Amanda! Loving this new transparency angle :)

  7. Graeme Keeton

    Fear can be a good motivator, unfortunately. But you’re right, it has its place. Great article.

  8. Nuanced Media

    I trust a lot on negative titles also i do believe number 13 is lucky for me so i used to add it somewhere in my post title. Anyway great thanks for the e-book!

  9. Corey Zeimen

    Yes, only if you can deliver on the negativity and it actually still provides value for those cynical business types which actually will use your advice anyway.

    From my personal experience, negative adcopy and landing pages work better than positive ones where long and complicated sales cycles exist so I vote yes at least in these types of situations certainly.

  10. Paul Mather

    IMO using fear based headlines to informed users is a mistake. I cannot bear scrolling through my Twitter feed and reading “You’re doing Adsense all wrong and here’s why”. It instantly gets my back-up for several reasons.