The Art of Intrigue: Why Fascination Trumps Shock in Marketing

Surprised woman with wavy short hair dressed blue jacket holds smartphone with open mouth on the pink background.

You know that I always encourage you to share ideas that are galvanizing, polarizing, and controversial. Naturally, the prospect of doing so can be intimidating, which is why I also want to create safe spaces for sharing such big, hairy, audacious ideas and having uncomfortable conversations. 

But if the thought of sharing galvanizing, polarizing, and controversial ideas is more than just a little intimidating, that might be because you think I’m recommending shockvertising.

In the media landscape we live in, where the goal of marketing seems to be “going viral” on your preferred platform, it’s easy to think that the only way to get people’s attention is by being over the top. Clearly, shock sells and outrage marketing is all the rage.

And if you’re anything like me, that REALLY scares you. I don’t want to shock anyone into hearing me. Persuade, impress, win-over, sure, but shock, no thanks. Shock and awe really turns me off (whether we’re talking about marketing or waging war), so I’m not interested in using it as a marketing tactic.

The good news for you and me is that it’s perfectly possible to be fascinating without being shocking. Galvanizing, polarizing, and controversial ideas can be shared in a way that brings people in, rather than repels them. That’s the line I want you to walk. Let’s talk about how to leverage the art of intrigue.

Shocking vs. Intriguing

First, I want to get clearer about the distinction between shock marketing and marketing that takes advantage of our very human fascination with other humans (AKA intriguing marketing).

Shockvertising has the goal of being outrageous for the intended purpose of prompting a strong emotional response from an audience. 

What kind of emotions?

  • Surprise
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Arousal

Why is this supposedly a good marketing strategy? The armchair psychology used to back it up goes something like this: When human beings have a strong emotional response to something they’re more likely to remember it. So if you can evoke a strong reaction from your target audience, your brand will be more memorable.

There are a couple of problems here, though. While your audience may remember that you made them feel a certain way, they may not associate that feeling with the action you want them to take. The Allstate insurance “Mayhem” guy is certainly memorable and those commercials often freak me out (at least the first time I see one), but I’m still with Jake at State Farm and I had to look it up just now to find out Allstate is the “Mayhem” brand.

Also, is the effect of shockvertising positive? Do you really want people associating your brand with fear, anger, disgust, or arousal? Surprise could be a positive emotion, but the surprises associated with shock marketing are more like creepy clown vibes than “Surprise! We’re having ice cream for dinner” vibes. So, at the least, shock marketing looks to be a risky marketing strategy.

By contrast, intriguing marketing can hit your audience right where they live. 

Intriguing marketing has the goal of connecting with an audience and inviting them into a conversation for the intended purpose of building a relationship.

With an intriguing marketing strategy, you show your audience that you’re not MERELY interested in their emotional response. There’s substance behind what you’re sharing. And while being intriguing can evoke strong emotional responses, it comes with a measure of vulnerability on your part that your audience can appreciate. You’re giving of yourself, not just expecting them to do all of the giving (in the form of dollars and emotional reactions).

The Power of Intrigue

Now, let’s drill down a bit deeper into the power of intrigue. Earlier I said there is a very human fascination with other humans. As a small business owner in particular, you can play up this fascination angle. Your audience doesn’t simply want to know the features and benefits of what you sell. They want to know why they should buy that thing from YOU, instead of your competition.

I recently joined the newsletter list of someone who does intrigue marketing better than anyone I’ve ever seen (thanks to a recommendation from Podge Thomas). Her name is Tarzan Kay Kalryzian and if you aren’t getting her emails, you simply need to sign up. Seriously. I only read a few email newsletters every week and Tarzan Kay is on my must read list.

Here are a few ways she uses the power of intrigue in her welcome sequence:

  • She includes a video where you can get a taste of what it’s like to talk to her
  • She shares 4 “neat-o facts” about herself, including that she uses super detailed alt text for all of her images as a way to live her values of accessibility and inclusion, that she has a history with cults, and that she doesn’t mark up payment plans because that penalizes people who need them the most.
  • She promises to share more “funny / sexy / beautiful / gut-wrenching stories” if you stick around and she continues to deliver.

And here’s a screenshot of her newsletter sign up, which also leverages the power of intrigue:

You can also leverage this psychological fact about human beings. Your audience wants to be intrigued by you. Give the people what they want!

To start thinking about building marketing messages around intrigue, like Tarzan Kay, ask yourself some questions:

  • What is most distinctive about me?
  • What do I do that’s different from others in my field or other leaders?
  • Where do I really want to make my mark?
  • What funny, sexy, beautiful, gut-wrenching stories do I have to share? 

Here’s one way we take advantage of the power of intrigue to build our clients’ thought leadership. Part of the onboarding process for our new LinkedIn for Thought Leadership clients is to take Sally Hogshead’s Fascination Advantage assessment. What I love about this assessment is, unlike other personality assessments, which help you better understand how you see the world, the Fascination Advantage is all about how the world sees you.

Each report helps you understand what others find most fascinating about you and how you can use those advantages to communicate best. It’s kind of like figuring out your communication superpower.

For example, my type is the Provocateur with my primary advantage being Innovation and my secondary advantage being Mystique. Innovation is all about creativity and Mystique is all about substance. So others get really jazzed when I creatively communicate about ideas in a deep and meaningful way. 

Consider how you can build your marketing messages around the power of intrigue.

Building an Intriguing Thought Leadership Ecosystem

To master the art of intrigue and really leverage the power of intrigue in your marketing, you can’t simply focus on one area of marketing in isolation from the rest. You have to see the big picture. Your thought leadership ecosystem encompasses everything you create from your website to your social media posts to the presentations you give. Are they all playing well together to build intrigue around your brand?

This is where the goal of going viral can take you off track. Sure, the quickest way to go viral might be shock marketing. So you may be tempted to throw out an idea because you think that’s what you need to do to capture attention, but if it’s not grounded in who you are and what about you fascinates others, you may feel like you’re simply screaming. And the results will likely be negative.

Even if your ploy works for you, the boost you get from that shock wave you send through the market is like a sugar high. You may gain some new followers, but are they the type of followers you want to attract?

Instead, if you focus on building something intriguing, something grounded in what about you fascinates other humans, you’ll know that those who are attracted to what you have to say are true fans. Not only that, but they’ll be more engaged and a better audience. Here’s the kicker: you’ll be confident that if your (new) idea is intriguing enough to keep your attention, it will be intriguing for your audience. 

So, when I encourage you to share ideas that are galvanizing, polarizing, and controversial, I’m nudging you to create intrigue. You don’t need to be shocking or in any way unprofessional. All you have to do is be yourself and communicate in a way that pulls your audience in. That’s a strong foundation for a thought leadership ecosystem.

Image by Ansiia on Freepik