The six-step emotional appeal

The six-step emotional appeal

If a marketer can reach a viewer in a place of profound emotion, odds are that the message will take root to improve brand awareness and conversion likelihood.

The field of psychology recognizes eight main emotions:

  • Joy
  • Trust
  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Anticipation

Research and case studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of emotional appeals in advertising and messaging. It’s clear that engendering emotion makes a message more memorable; however, viewers are acutely aware of this phenomenon and will take precautions to prevent emotional manipulation. With the findings of research and case studies on hand, marketers can practice an efficient six-step process for developing a winning emotional appeal without provoking backlash.


There are eight major emotions. Which should your organization appeal to?

1. Persuade via proper pathos

During the 5th century BC, Aristotle identified three modes of persuasion that are still aiding marketers in their work today: appeals to ethos, logos and pathos. It’s a marketer’s job to communicate a sense of moral character, or to make logical appeals that demonstrate how a product solves problems or beats competitors, and of course, to push the emotional buttons that will cause a positive reaction. Here we’re looking at pathos, and the first step in making an emotional appeal in marketing is identifying the emotion that will resonate with the intended audience.

As a brand advocate, a marketer probably already has a good idea of the emotions at play when someone supports a given brand or product. Further research into emotional motivations of the audience can identify which emotions are strongest or emotions that may not have been considered before. Does the product or brand bring pure entertainment or enjoyment to a user? Can the brand be trusted to act responsibly on behalf of society? Is the brand taking steps to reduce a situation of anger or disgust in the community? Determine what emotions have drawn people to the brand in the first place and further explore issues of emotional importance that can be leveraged in line with the brand’s values and goals.

2. Achieve a critical mass of meaningfulness

A major benefit to emotional appeals is that they can cut past the noise consumers are inundated with. So what exactly constitutes an optimal emotional appeal? According to one marketers experience in emotional messaging, to craft an optimal emotional message, six conditions of meaningfulness should be met:

  1. Relevant: the cause should correlate to the audience’s interests
  2. Important: the cause should address an important issue
  3. Achievable: the proposed solution should seem achievable
  4. Empowering: support for the cause should cause an individual to feel empowered
  5. Trustworthy: the organization calling for support of the cause should be recognized as trustworthy
  6. Actionable: a call to action is present, making clear to the audience how they can participate

By adhering to the above principles, the message will be seen by viewers as a way they can make an individual difference while minimizing the organization’s role. Helping consumers feel they’ve helped benefit an important cause draws positive connections to the brand.

3. Offer incentives with emotional appeals

Research has shown that emotional appeals both online and off improve in effectiveness when paired with offer incentives. Incentives are, on their own, a persuasive means of increasing conversion rates. The use of offer incentives has thrived online because of the ability to instantly update, track, and gather info about the campaign and its participants.

In order to achieve maximum effect, an incentive must meet three criteria: credible, tangible and valuable. At a marketer’s disposal are six common types of incentives:

  • merchandise premiums
  • information premiums
  • products
  • price reductions, including discounts, rebates and free shipping
  • mystery gifts
  • point programs

Combining emotional appeals and offer incentives proves an attractive means of gaining audience participation and drawing a high level of interest in a marketing message.

4. Avoid the boomerang: how much is too much?

There’s a careful balance that must be struck when leveraging the emotional appeal. While the inclusion of an emotional appeal may draw an audience closer to the message, abuse of the tactic may backfire and decrease ad effectiveness. A clear place to see this in action is in the effects of emotional appeal and claim strength in health messages, where much research has been conducted. Here’s a scientific look into the interplay of emotion and messaging, as written by in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media by Annie Lang and Narine S. Yegiyan:

“Intensity of the emotional content plays a very large role here. Claim strength matters most in arousing messages. An arousing message with weak claims (whether positive or negative) is perceived to be very ineffective […] if a message contains high-intensity motivationally relevant material it will elicit greater attention, resource allocation, involvement, or elaborated processing (depending on one’s theoretical perspective). When the message to which this careful scrutiny is directed fails to include strong arguments, that message is perceived to be very ineffective. However, when the message involved is low in arousing content and little motivational activation is elicited, claim strength has less of an effect. The practical benefit associated with that finding is that calm messages with weak claims are at least as effective as calm messages with strong claims. So, if your claims are weak, as may always be the case with some topics (like trying to prevent underage drinking, or marijuana use) one should perhaps use calm messages to increase message effectiveness even though this flies in the face of most health communication research which argues for the use of high-intensity messages.”

Individuals are aware that their emotions may be manipulated to elicit actions, and they are vigilant in protecting against this. This creates a complicated environment for marketers seeking to leverage emotional appeals. There’s clearly a direct relationship between message effectiveness and an emotionally arousing message, although thought must be dedicated to analyzing the strength of the emotional appeal, whether it induces positive or negative feelings, and the strength of related arguments.

5. Build connections for the future

In the non-profit sector, marketing teams are critically aware that they’re attempting to reach two audiences: current donors and future donors. However in their messages, they aim to satisfy the emotional and intellectual needs of both groups by answering questions about what exactly the cause is doing to improve lives and engaging people to feel involved in the cause.

While appeals to emotion can be used to prompt immediate action, it’s important not to overlook gains being made for the future. Emotions are sticky and may be remembered beyond the point of inception. If an emotion creates a positive sentiment for a brand, instances of long-term loyalty and brand recall improve. An immediate need for a product may not be present, but if that need arises, a positive brand awareness can draw the consumer to the brand they remember and trust.

6. Test what’s best

As with any task, the job of a marketer is never done. Before an emotional appeal can be deemed a success, effort must be made to measure the campaign effect and audience response. A logical argument, an offer incentive and an emotional appeal make up but a few components of an ad. There’s also the imagery, the sound, the engagement level, and many other factors involved. Because there are eight emotions that can be appealed to, and because the interplay of emotion and message is so nuanced, testing is an irreplaceable tool for marketers crafting a campaign.

Run tests and gather feedback to establish which of the eight emotions connects most strongly with the audience. Meet the six criteria of meaningfulness when developing the message. Consider if offer incentives can amplify the effect. Experiment with positive and negative emotional appeals, from weak to strong, mixed with different levels of intellectual engagement. And don’t overlook increases in brand awareness as a measure of long-term relationships and future brand advocacy. Use tracking info, marketing research and feedback to continuously improve the organization’s employment of emotional appeals.

  • Jason

    Virginia, this was exactly what I was looking for regarding “emotional appeal”. FYI, I found this blog post on page 1 of Google so it is definitely working. I hope to read more from you on this blog.