Marketing Cybersecurity: Is Fear the Answer?

You may have noticed that cybersecurity solutions can be some of the most challenging for an MSP to sell. If you’re like most in your industry, you’ve told prospects about monitoring, response, and compliance until you’re blue in the face, only to have them dismiss the offerings outright.

MSPs have been telling me about this problem since I first started marketing in the channel. “Cybersecurity and compliance are tough sells” might as well be written in stone.

What I noticed right away was that cybersecurity marketing, by and large, isn’t helping. Most of it is saying the same thing over and over again. We show statistics about data breaches and ransomware. We tell them that their small business is just as likely to be hacked as a large corporation. We tell them that they can either take compliance seriously or face massive fines or even the loss of their business.

The channel has been beating these points to death for years, and if it hasn’t worked by now, it’s probably not going to in the future. At least not on a scale large enough to be considered a viable marketing approach.

Most MSPs are understandably confused as to why this type of marketing doesn’t work. Everyone knows that fear-based marketing is a thing. So why can’t we scare people into signing up for our cybersecurity services?

Well, it’s largely because fear-based marketing is woefully misunderstood.

Fear As a Motivator

Fear is very much a driving force in human behavior — and thus, consumer behavior. I often say that it’s one of the most powerful influencers of our decision making overall.

So why aren’t people scared of hackers after we show them all of those statistics? Why aren’t they lining up to sign up for 24/7 monitoring?

Because fear is very nuanced. Like anything dealing with human behavior, you can’t expect to take the sledgehammer approach and get very far. (And saying “look at these scary statistics! You’d better sign up now before they get you too!” is definitely the equivalent of using a sledgehammer.)

It’s important to know a bit more about how fear guides us before attempting to create marketing messages around it. “Fear = sales” is really an amateur’s grasp of the concept, and you don’t want to pursue something so poorly defined.

Understanding How Fear Affects Consumers

Macro-level fear

Researchers know that consumption increases when widespread “bad news” is in play. Acts of terrorism, wars, and catastrophic natural events all have a strong tendency to spike consumer activity. This is most likely due to a natural human response to their own mortality: irrationality. More specifically, people who suddenly feel like tomorrow is an uncertainty are far more likely to buy everything they want today.

Near-death incidents

People who experience a tragic loss or are personally involved in a life-threatening accident will often increase their consumption. Again, we’re dealing with people who have faced their own mortality head-on and are most likely going through a lot of emotional and mental turmoil.

Brand association

We all have a strong need to connect with others, and that need is amplified when we’re afraid. Situations that make us fearful cause us to seek comfort socially — but if there are no other people around to connect with, we have been known to substitute a brand instead. Studies have shown that people form very strong attachments to familiar brands that they encountered while in a state of fear.

Fear of missing out

The fear of missing out (FOMO) is a strong motivator in marketing. This is why sales, exploding offers, and deadlines are so effective. We’re all afraid of being left behind or missing out on opportunities.

Social fears

You’ll frequently see social fears driving marketing, especially in industries such as fashion, cosmetics, and automobiles. As tribal beings, we all have a very strong drive to fit in with a larger group — and we’re terrified of being excluded. Marketers have been playing this concept like a cheap kazoo for a very long time.

What do these have in common?

These fear-based responses are all self-centered and driven by survival instinct and basic needs. They’re also deeply felt and personal.

Most importantly, these are innate fears. No one has to convince a person that they don’t want to die or that they should have friends. These ideas are fundamental to our nature.

Don’t Create Fear, Tap Into It

So we run into our first problem with cybersecurity marketing as it stands. We spend a whole lot of effort trying to create a fear so that we can alleviate it.

It’s not only very difficult to pull this off (as you probably know), but it’s also a more negative approach to fear-based marketing. You see, if you market a solution to a fear that a person already has, you’re a hero. If you try to scare them into wanting your solution, you’re just making their life more difficult and confusing.

If you’re going to go down this road, you should always tap into an existing, deep-rooted fear.

So How Should Cybersecurity Be Marketed?

I’m convinced that fear is not the best answer, at least not the way most people are trying to do it now. Shoving statistics into someone’s face and telling them to be afraid is a terrible door-opener.

I also don’t believe that the average business owner is so foolish or ignorant that they don’t realize that they are at risk. By now, some IT company has gotten to them and shown them the infographics.

If we assume that your prospects know hackers exist and that their business could be harmed, then what’s stopping them?

First of all, the risk is too easily dismissed by the average person.

We all know what death or injury looks like. Most of us know what it feels like to be excluded from a social group. But most people don’t know what getting hacked is like. There’s no personal connection to the risk and no inner experience of it to reference. It’s just a word.

When you can’t imagine the outcome, it’s easy to say “meh, it won’t happen to me”.

So the challenge isn’t educating prospects about risk. The real challenge is overcoming the looming wall of apathy that’s preventing them from caring.

And then you have the part of fear that’s actually working against you: fear of wasting money. Cybersecurity has it rough in this department. You can’t monetize it. You can’t put a dollar value on it outside of some estimate of risk mitigation. You can’t put it on your desk and appreciate how shiny it is.

It’s just this thing that’s somewhere in space and time protecting you from the unknown mysteries of cyberspace. Is it any wonder that business owners are more likely to divert that money elsewhere?

Here’s two basic considerations:

  1. Use narrative or some sort of relatable experience to make the prospect feel what’s at stake. It’s not enough that they know. They have to internalize these threats so they have no choice but to take them seriously.
  2. Make the service as tangible as possible. This is commonly accomplished with extensive reporting — an ongoing demonstration of value — but what else could you do to give cybersecurity “life” in the eyes of the average business owner?
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