7 lessons from horror to improve your content marketing

By Dana Herra

People love a scary story. They get your heart pumping and your adrenaline pumping. They are hard to put down and even harder to forget. Even if you close the book or turn off the movie, you keep spinning the story in your mind. It’s the kind of content engagement that marketers dream of.

You may not be trying to scare anyone with your marketing content, but using some storytelling techniques from masters of the horror genre can make it more gripping.

Here are some ways to improve your content marketing by engaging your audience like a horror writer.

1. Set the mood

A scary story is built from the same blocks as any other story: a character must overcome obstacles to achieve a goal. But a scary story paints these blocks black and draws skulls and cobwebs on them.

The tone is what turns a sunny forest of graceful deer into a shady wasteland where predators lurk. It’s a basic concept in fiction but often overlooked in content marketing.

It’s a shame, because tone can make the difference between a mediocre track and a great one. Your message is what you say; your tone is how you say it. Both count. Writer Joanna Wiebe says tone breathes life into your writing or sucks life out of it.

Before you start creating your content, decide how you want people to feel when consuming it. Then create something that brings out that emotion.

2. Involve the senses

A key part of setting the mood is to involve all the senses. When Mary Shelley wrote the scene in which Dr. Frankenstein finishes building his monster, she could have just said it was dark.

But she didn’t. She told us it was a “bleak November night” and the rain pattered “woefully against the windows” as Frankenstein’s candle went out.

His description evokes sound (the rain patters against the glass) and sensation (a rainy November night is cold and damp). The dying candle tells us that it wasn’t just dark, it was dark, slowly fading into darkness.

You don’t perceive the world one way at a time, and neither does your audience. Engaging the senses of smell, taste and touch as well as the heavy hitters of sight and sound helps your audience imagine the experience.

In one study, people found potato chips tastier if they were first exposed to an advertisement describing the flavor, smell, and texture of the potato chips. People who saw an advertisement describing only the taste did not have the same improved experience.

Note how each of your senses might perceive your product. Next, explore how you can more richly describe the experience in your content.

3. Be understandable

“Horror movies often work best when we have an interest in the game,” says horror master Stephen King. “The more we care about the characters, the more human they are to us, the more they appeal to us, and the more effective the horror tends to be.”

The relatable characters allow us to see ourselves in their place. When you can imagine the story happening to you, it makes the terror personal and all the more terrifying. Even if your content doesn’t use characters, your audience should be able to see themselves using your product.

What struggles do they face? How does this affect their life? What would life be like if that struggle were eliminated?

For example, you can market orthopedic insoles saying, “These comfortable insoles relieve pressure on your feet all day long.” Or you could paint a picture of a nurse whose days are so hectic that she even takes her breaks on her feet. She thought sore, swollen feet were just her cross to bear until she tried those new insoles. Now she has enough spring in her step to accompany her children to the park after dinner.

Let the audience see themselves in your content. Show them you get what matters to them.

4. Increase Emotions

When audiences relate to a story, they become emotionally invested. What you do with that investment determines whether your content leads to action.

A study found that people are more likely to remember and act on ads with emotional appeal than those based on pure logic. Audiences are smart, savvy and can conduct their own research with just a few keystrokes. Don’t tell them what your product does; make them care.

Horror writer Alan Baxter says he engages readers by giving them a logic riddle to solve, then surprising them with a heartbeat.

“Engage your reader’s brain with questions and give them answers,” says Baxter. “Make them think about their fear of darkness, then draw them into it.”

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5. Add a drop of fear

Different people are afraid of different things. I have no problem squashing a spider, but you can’t pay me to jump into a lake. My husband is one of the bravest people I’ve ever met, but he’d rather leave the kitchen than see me use a knife.

There are, however, some deep-seated fears so common that they are almost universal. Horror writers are masters at harnessing primal terror like fear of danger we can’t see (Jaws), the fear that people will turn against us (The lottery), or the fear of intense isolation (The Brilliant).

While most content focuses on what the audience has to gain, evidence suggests it would be more effective to remind them of what they have to lose. Messages based on fear, as long as they do not turn into exploitation, are extremely powerful.

You can tastefully incorporate a little fear into your marketing by using the concept of loss aversion. The promise of gaining something you don’t have is never as motivating as the threat of losing something you have.

You can improve your content marketing by asking yourself what your audience is afraid of losing and how your product can address that fear.

6. Keep outstanding

Suspense is what you feel when you anticipate something is going to happen, but you don’t know what or when. In the best scary stories, every new piece of information you learn makes you want to know more.

Episodic content, like drip emails, especially benefits from suspense. Each piece answers a question in the mind of the audience, then asks a new question and makes them wait for the answer.

7. Add a touch

Rod Serling, the man behind The twilight zone, had a particular genius for stories with an unexpected twist that audiences can’t help but think of.

Surprise your audience in long content by being counter-intuitive. Imply that what they think they know might be wrong, like captioning a blog post, “Brushing your teeth after meals is ruining your teeth.”

In short, try replacing an unexpected word with a worn-out saying, like selling sports gear with the tagline “Good things happen to those who sweat.”

Our brain is wired to anticipate patterns. Breaking these patterns breaks us out of our complacency and makes our experience more memorable.

Create content that stands out from the crowd

Audiences are drowning in content, most of which is forgettable. To stand out from the crowd and improve your content marketing, take a few tips on what thrilling experiences your audience is looking for and create content they want to engage with.

RELATED: How to Develop a Content Marketing Strategy in 6 Steps

About the Author

Dana Herra is a content marketer who helps clients find their voice and stand out from the competition. Visit his website danaherra.com or connect with Dana on Twitter and LinkedIn.

This article was originally published on AllBusiness.com.