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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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Comments
3 Responses to “Rising Gas Prices and Your Marketing Message: Can Fear Persuade?”
  1. I sincerely hope that not too much marketing effort goes into playing on the fears surrounding this energy crisis. Not only is it counterproductive in a number of ways, but it’s dangerous to desensitize the ad-viewing public on such an important issue. Advertising aside, the trend has been that news reports of rising gas prices are always followed by huge increases in price, as if big oil is thereby given permission to raise cost again….

  2. Tad Miller says:

    Larry, I blogged about this a few weeks ago and the press I found from E-commerce people all seemed to indicate that the gas prices were driving record sales:

    “Business Week said: http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D91BAI400.htm

    According to estimates by Forrester, online sales are expected to reach $204 billion this year, up 17 percent from last year, and are projected to exceed $300 billion in the next five years. Soaring oil prices should only fuel their momentum as shoppers turn more to online buying than shopping at the local mall to save on gas…”

    Then The New York Times said: The High Price of Gasoline Sends Shoppers to the Web. http://tinyurl.com/5cbhy4

    “THERE’S nothing like an energy squeeze to buoy the spirits of Internet merchants.

    Online shopping sites, already on a roll, are getting help from the high price of gasoline, which is prompting untold numbers of consumers to boot up their PC’s instead of driving their S.U.V.’s to the mall…”

    “…merchants can easily swallow the extra expense, either by raising prices in categories like apparel and home furnishings where consumers will not notice or by increasing volume for products like electronics and music where buyers can use shopping-comparison engines to resist price increases.”

  3. Larry Becker says:

    Thanks for your comment, Tad. Yes, I agree that rising gas prices cause more people to shop online. The question remains as to whether this is beneficial as a marketing message.