By Dana Herra
People love a scary story. They get your heart pumping and your adrenaline flowing. They’re hard to put down and even harder to forget. Even if you do close the book or turn off the movie, you keep turning over the story in your mind. That’s the kind of content engagement marketers dream of.
You might not be trying to scare anyone with your marketing content, but cribbing 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 those blocks black and draws skulls and spiderwebs on them.
Tone is what turns a sun-dappled forest of graceful deer into a shadowy wilderness where predators lurk. It’s an elementary concept in fiction but often overlooked in marketing content.
That’s a shame, because tone can make the difference between a mediocre piece and a great one. Your message is what you say; your tone is how you say it. Both matter. Copywriter Joanna Wiebe says tone either breathes life into your writing or sucks the life out of it.
Before you begin creating your content, decide how you want people to feel when they consume it. Then craft something that brings out that emotion.
2. Involve the senses
A key part of setting the mood is getting all the senses involved. 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 “dreary night in November” and rain pattered “dismally against the panes” as Frankenstein’s candle faded.
Her description conjures sound (rain pattering against the glass) and sensation (a rainy night in November is cold and damp). The dying candle tells us it wasn’t just dark—it was gloomy, slowly fading to darkness.
You don’t perceive the world one sense at a time, and neither does your audience. Engaging the senses of smell, taste, and touch as well as the big 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 ad describing the flavor, smell, and texture of the chips. People who saw an ad describing the taste alone didn’t have the same enhanced experience.
Jot down how each of your senses might perceive your product. Then explore how you can more richly describe the experience in your content.
3. Be relatable
“Horror movies often work better when we have a stake in the game,” horror master Stephen King says. “The more we care about the characters, the more human they are to us, the more appealing they are to us, and the more effective the horror tends to be.”
Relatable characters let us see ourselves in their shoes. 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 are they facing? How is it affecting their life? What could life be like if that struggle was eliminated?
For example, you could market orthotic insoles by saying, “These comfortable insoles relieve pressure on your feet all day.” Or you could paint a picture of a nurse whose days are so hectic she even takes her breaks standing up. She thought aching, swollen feet were just her cross to bear until she tried these new insoles. Now she has enough spring in her step to walk her kids to the park after dinner.
Let the audience see themselves in your content. Show them you get what matters to them.
4. Heighten emotions
When the audience relates to a story, they become emotionally invested. What you do with that investment determines whether your content leads to action.
One study found people are more likely to remember and act on ads with an emotional appeal than those based on pure logic. Audiences are smart, savvy, and can conduct their own research with 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 logical puzzle to solve, then surprising them with a blow to the heart.
“Engage your reader’s brain with questions and gut-punch them with answers,” Baxter says. “Make them consider their fear of the darkness, then drag them into it.”
More articles from AllBusiness.com:
5. Add a drop of fear
Different people fear different things. I have no problem swatting a spider but you can’t pay me to jump in a lake. My husband’s one of the bravest people I’ve ever met, but he’d rather leave the kitchen than watch me use a knife.
There are, however, certain deep fears so common they’re almost universal. Horror writers are masters at tapping into primal terror like the fear of a danger we can’t see (Jaws), the fear of people turning against us (The Lottery), or the fear of intense isolation (The Shining).
While most content focuses on what the audience has to gain, evidence suggests reminding them what they have to lose might be more effective. Fear-based messages, as long as they don’t cross into exploitation, are tremendously powerful.
You can tastefully incorporate a little fear into your marketing 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 do.
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 ’em in suspense
Suspense is what you feel when you anticipate something will happen, but you’re not sure what or when. In the best scary stories, each new piece of information you learn makes you hungry for more.
Episodic content, like drip email, particularly benefits from suspense. Each piece answers a question in the audience’s mind, then sets up a new question and makes them wait for the answer.
7. Throw in a twist
Rod Serling, the man behind The Twilight Zone, had a particular genius for stories with an unexpected twist that audiences can’t stop thinking about.
Surprise your audience in long-form content by being counterintuitive. Hint that what they think they know might be wrong, like titling a blog post, “Brushing After Meals Is Ruining Your Teeth.”
In short copy, try swapping an unexpected word into a well-worn saying, like selling sports gear with the slogan, “Good things come to those who sweat.”
Our brains are wired to anticipate patterns. Breaking those patterns jolts us out of our complacency and makes our experience more memorable.
Craft content that stands out from the crowd
Audiences are drowning in content—most of it forgettable. To stand out from the crowd and improve your content marketing, take some tips from the spine-tingling experiences your audience is seeking out and craft content they want to engage with.
About the Author
This article was originally published on AllBusiness.com.