Nth Degree Trade Show and Event Marketing Blog

Fear: Understanding its Presence and Power

Posted by Rob Lowe, President - Events on Sep 29, 2020 11:00:00 AM


“No power so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear."

-Edmund Burke

Let’s face it; audience acquisition for face-to-face events has become increasingly harder each year. Between the multitude of online learning options, budget cuts, and additional work piled on due to downsizing of teams, getting anyone to take a few days out of their schedule to attend a live, in-person event is challenging. Thanks to COVID-19, we can now add another obstacle for attending live events…fear. And so, the audience acquisition strategy and event messaging must change. But first, you must understand the presence and power of fear and how it could affect your event.

Understanding Behavioral Science

The human decision-making process has received an incredible amount of attention over the last decade. The popularity of social and behavioral science has brought a better understanding as to why we humans do what we do, how our decisions are made, and, specifically, how emotions play into those decisions.

Over 30 years ago, Robert Cialdini wrote a national bestseller titled, INFLUENCE: The Psychology of Persuasion, which changed the way many people think about decision making. More recently, the popularity of books by Dan Ariely, such as Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, have further proven the role emotions play in our decisions. Science has taught us that the emotional side of our brain more often wins in the decision-making process than the rational side.

Emotion as Action

Research of the brain’s action pathways, using fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, has helped us better understand how emotion translates into action. Given that fear is known as one of the strongest human emotions driving decision making, we must ease this emotion if we are to be successful in the post-COVID-19 era.

“The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions,” writes neurologist Donald Calne in Within Reason: Rationality and Human Behaviour.

Since we are looking for prospective attendees to act by registering, our marketing messages must focus on helping them overcome their current fear.  

We don’t have to look any further back than 9/11 to see how fear can irrationally affect people’s willingness to travel. Following the tragedy of 9/11, travel took years to rebound because of the newfound fear of flying. Many people reverted to driving even though statistically speaking, driving is much more dangerous than flying. Airlines were not quick to change their marketing approach, which is thought to be responsible for millions of dollars in lost revenue. Back then, British Airways marketing chief said, “Marketing had to go back to the basics of convincing people it was safe to fly.”

Addressing Fear in Pre-Event Messaging

We will need to see the same change in message in a post-COVID-19 world for our industry to thrive.

Fear, when present in the decision-making process, often leads to uncertainty.  Uncertainty leads to indecision, which is the inspiration behind the common phrase, “frozen by fear.” Acknowledging the fact that fear interrupts our decision-making process more than any other emotion is essential.  Recent surveys have shown that there is currently a significant amount of fear present in prospective attendees’ minds when it comes to returning to live events.  If we want people to return to live events, our priority must be to deliver messages designed to alleviate those fears.

  • We should be empathetic to their sense of fear and that returning to face-to-face events may be uncomfortable.
  • We should be indicating how we will ensure their return to events is easy, safe and fun.
  • We should be explicitly outlining health and safety measures put into place by the conference organizers and venues.

Final Thoughts

One last item to think about is that fear can also be helpful when trying to encourage people to register and attend. Properly utilizing the notion of FOMO, or the fear of missing out, in marketing messages is a proven, yet sometimes frowned upon, method.  “FOMO is basically counterfactual thinking: imagining that I could, or should, be somewhere else than where I really am,” says Ariely. “And that thought is extremely unpleasant.” Anticipated regret drives fear and pain in the present, which no one prefers.

Understanding the influence that a person’s anticipated regret may have on their decision making can help us develop our messaging. Simultaneously delivering a strong FOMO message, accompanied with an offer that will allow them to squash any potential decision-regret, is a perfect way to move people to decide. Take, for example, the approach of limited time offers with a money-back guarantee; such offers use the fear of missing the offer (FOMO), while concurrently giving prospective attendees a way to retract their decision if need be.  

As an industry, we need to do everything we can to keep fear from delaying our recovery. Understanding its presence and power is the best way for our industry to both use it and conquer it.  


Topics: Events, Attendee Learning & Content, Audience Engagement, Event Management, COVID-19