Published: 27 April 2012

Do we pull too hard on emotional strings?

Like many folks I subscribe to a handful of campaign newsletters. They keep me informed and usually encourage some form of campaigning action, ranging from signing an e-petition to marching.

This seems sensible given how easy it is for slacktivists like me to support campaigns using social media, e-petitions etc. But because it’s also easier to communicate with readers in the first place, copywriters have to work hard to achieve cut-through. Right now, this seems to mean really pulling the emotional levers.

There’s lots of evidence to support this technique – fundraisers, marketers and campaigners have known for decades that emotional responses are more likely to underpin action. But with every writer adopting similar techniques, what can we do to elicit the action we want from readers?

For a start I’d suggest communicators stop and take a breath. Just how many times in a month do you think your audiences can get incensed about issue X, shed a tear or two and be prompted to action? There are a lot of injustices in the world but we cannot sustainably be angered, guilted or upset into continually supporting all of them.

This kind of emotional energy is limited and there is a risk that audiences can become desensitised if we use emotional communications too frequently. Here’s an example: I get weekly updates from the laudable campaigning organisation Avaaz but over the last month I’ve received nothing but powerful communications designed to provoke an emotional response to a number of different ‘outrages’.

I simply don’t have the emotional energy, the tears to spare, or the time to give each of these causes the support they deserve, so at best I’m signing an e-petition. And I suspect I’m typical.

Leveraging emotional responses to encourage action in our communications is a tactic worth deploying, but perhaps we could improve response rates by thinking about the following:

  • Don’t send powerfully emotional communications too frequently – their impact will diminish over time.
  • Understand your target audience and find out what ‘too frequent’ is in reality for them.
  • Mix up techniques so that not everything you say is designed to pull on readers’ heartstrings. Informative, pictorial and story-based content can all be interspersed with leveraging the emotional response.
  • Target your audience as much as you can based on their motivations AND behaviours; just because someone signed an e-petition about whaling it does not mean they will sign another for a different cause.
  • Follow up the actions with a more informational approach, sharing the successes that arose from their contributions (showing them that their support makes a difference).
  • Think about the timing of your message. Disasters aside, most causes do not exist in a vacuum. For example, if the media is full of stories about how UK taxpayers are bailing out the Greek economy, campaigning for greater EU powers may not drive as much positive action as we want (this is a true story!).

How does your organisation use emotion to drive responses? Ultimately, the acid test is in response results – if readers’ commitments are falling or we’re finding it tougher to elicit responses, it could be that we’ve collectively pushed the emotional reserves of our audiences a little too far.

And if anyone has any robust research on this issue, I’d be fascinated to see it.


Kevin Baughen, founder and director, Bottom Line Ideas

Trustee, Director, volunteer and champion of marketing and communication ideas for not-for-profits and ethical business.