Does Social Pain Really Work for Customer Retention?

We’re taught that positivity breeds positivity. “Believe in yourself” wouldn’t be a popular saying if people thought that negativity leads to success.

But negative emotions can also drive people to positive actions. In many cases, negative emotions can be more powerful motivators than happiness and love.

That’s only, however, if they’re used correctly. Overdo it, and you can leave your customers feeling angry, dejected, and ready to leave a nasty review of your business.

Here are some tactics for using the psychology of social pain to keep your customers onboard.

When confronted with feelings of social pain, people act to escape them. They change their behavior, they change their beliefs, they do whatever they need to do to alleviate the social pain.

This type of psychology can be another tool in the toolbox of the growth marketer—if you know where to draw the line.

How to use social pain in the right way

If you’ve ever had a great motivator in your life, whether it was a parent, teacher, a coach or a drill sergeant, then you know that a little negative reinforcement can go a long way. A stern warning, a firm reminder—these are very effective tools when they’re used properly.

When used improperly, they’re the tools of a bully. Imagine walking to school and being picked on by a bigger kid at the same spot, at the same time, every day. The bully is using negative reinforcement too, but not for your benefit—for his.

The difference between these two figures, the motivator and the bully, is the difference between using social pain correctly and using it incorrectly.

Products can use a kind of social pain in a productive way, to bring people to outcomes that are ultimately positive for them. But when/if your product actively bullies users into buying, signing up, or sticking around, then you’re manipulating users in a way that’s wrong, and ultimately, ineffective.

There’s a word for products that use subtle yet manipulative tricks to get people to buy, sign up for, and do things they otherwise wouldn’t: dark patterns. Here’s an example of one from the online retailer Asos.

When you sign up for an account on their site, it’s extremely easy. They integrate with various social networks, so you can create an account with one click of your mouse. Awesome!

When you try to cancel your account, on the other hand, Asos puts you through the wringer. They ask for your:

It’s a purposelessly complicated process designed solely to stop you from going through with canceling your account, i.e. doing what you want to do.

In the UX world, this is called a roach motel—it’s easy to enter, but hard to get out. It’s the kind of manipulative method that can maybe produce short-term results but will sink your business in the long run.

The delayed effect of dark patterns

The prevalence of manipulative UX speaks to one simple fact: it often seems like it’s working. This, coincidentally, is also why bullying is still a problem!

It only seems like it’s working because dark patterns have a delayed effect on your overall customer base. While you’re annoying one group of customers, you’re bringing on new customers at the same time, which balances out the overall ratio.

When you inflict pain on your users, some of those users are going to tell the world about it!

The pain you’re inflicting on your users is being masked by the constant arrival of fresh users. Temporarily, that is, because eventually the scale tips. Over time, the amount of angry customers will grow and grow until the new customers you’re bringing on can’t balance them out anymore.

It looks like this: even while your number of total active users is growing (due to new customers coming on), your user satisfaction is plummeting.

It takes a while for your usage numbers to catch up with the customer experience you’re creating, but it always does.

And the end result is that you don’t realize that you’ve been losing your customers because of your manipulative design until it’s too late.

Today, however, consumers have many options for the kinds of products they use. If they don’t like their email A/B testing tool, they can pick from one of the other 20 that are out there—if it’s Snapchat they don’t like, they can switch to Instagram Stories—and so on.

There’s more and more choice out there every day, which means that bad behavior is tolerated less and less.

At the same time, a little bit of social pain psychology, when applied at just the right time and place, can be a powerful motivating force.

Three productive way to use social pain for customer retention

#1. At the end of an email campaign

No one wants their personal relationships to be in limbo. Attachment anxiety is the feeling that kicks in when we get nervous that someone—or something—is getting between us and those we care about. It can lead to all kinds of unhealthy behaviors, from sticking with someone purely to avoid losing them to wanting complete control over them.

This phenomenon can also be an effective way to prevent people from, say, unsubscribing from your email list.

Normally, when you unsubscribe from an email newsletter, it’s uneventful. You click “Unsubscribe,” and you get a page like this:

This is like responding with “OK” when the love of your life breaks up with you. It’s a total missed opportunity. Compare that to an email like this from Vimeo:

Vimeo frames the subscription as a relationship, and unsubscribing as a breakup. By doing so, they’re tapping into your inherent desire to maintain relationships, not end them. Psychologically, Vimeo’s asking you to tell them what they could do better.

Now, you feel concerned about letting them go, especially with Vimeo reminding you that a great relationship is about communication—not one party just ditching the other.

This has become a widespread practice in the email marketing industry. Here are just a few more examples:

There are still creative ways to execute on this kind of email, however—our favorite example comes from Groupon, who created a video of the email marketer “Derrick” being punished for your unsubscribe. Sorry, Derrick!  😥

Charity: Water suggests you reconsider unsubscribing when you click on the button, and if you change your mind, they show you a video of a staffer being playfully attacked with water balloons. The result of that effort? Out of 70,000 emails, 7x as many people watched the video as unsubscribed. After all, who wants to stop getting emails from an organization as clever and inventive as that?

Hubspot does something similar—when you unsubscribe from their email list, they played a video of their inbound marketing specialist Dan Sally trying to talk you out of it. This example also plays on the powerful impact that you get when you combine visuals and attachment anxiety, which we’ll touch on in the next section.


#2. On a cancellation page

Attachment anxiety can be used in some quite subtle ways. In this example from Hulu, it’s just one line: “Do Things Really Have to End?” It appears on the cancellation page, rather than when you try to unsubscribe from their email list.

If you really want to cancel your Hulu membership, you have to be willing to look them in the eyes and say, “Yes, Hulu, it’s really going to end.” You might still do it, but psychologically, it’s tougher than merely clicking on a button to cancel your membership—especially when you’re being reminded of all the shows that you’re no longer going to be able to watch.

The moment as a customer is about to cancel their membership or subscription with you is a great time to utilize the psychology of social pain. It’s a transition moment—because this customer is about to leave, you don’t have very much to lose. You probably will still lose the customer, but at least you’re giving it a chance.

How your particular business leverages social pain at the moment cancellation is going to be up to you. However, there are a few guaranteed multipliers that you can use to amp up the psychological effects. One of them is using visuals, especially any visuals with an emotional connection to your users.

When you try to cancel your Facebook account, for example, Facebook shows you images of some of the friends that you’ll be “losing contact with” if you go through with cancellation:

They’re not random friends, either—they’re pulled algorithmically from a list of your most recently added friends, most recently contacted over Messenger, etc. In other words, they’re targeted specifically for maximum emotional impact.

Images are processed 60,000 times faster in the brain than text, which makes this a lot more powerful than just writing, “Your friends will miss you!”

Another powerful psychological multiplier is reminding people of all the progress that they’ve made with your product.

When we achieve things with products, we enter a cycle of reward and pleasure that’s governed by the neurotransmitter dopamine. Each additional achievement produces an additional reward, and each subsequent cycle reinforces the process further.

That’s the principle behind gamification—why seemingly every app gives you points nowadays—which can be a powerful driver of activity in everything from mobile games to productivity apps.

It’s also the principle behind why MailChimp, when you cancel your account, reminds you of how long you’ve been using the product and many campaigns you’ve sent:

(Source: Redbord)

“Don’t give up!” they’re saying, “Look at all we’ve helped you do!”

If you’re canceling because you’re done with email marketing in general, this might not affect you, but if you’re canceling: a) to start using a different email marketing provider or b) because you are discouraged; then, reminding you of all that you’ve invested can be a very powerful technique.


3. When there’s a special occasion

FOMO, or the “fear of missing out”, is a very powerful marketing technique that can create a particular kind of social pain when it’s used in the right context.

The term FOMO is used to describe an anxiety many of us feel in today’s social media-saturated world: that there are always exciting things happening somewhere that we’re not. You’re sitting at home, refreshing Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat, certain that your friends are all out there partying without you. The perfectly curated profiles of total strangers look back at you, and you feel empty.

FOMO is such a big part of our lives that one Swiss town has even banned visitors from taking photographs of it—because “photos of the picturesque landscape, which are shared on the social media, can make other people unhappy because they themselves can not be in Bergün.”

“It is scientifically proven that beautiful vacation photos on social media make the viewers unhappy, because they themselves can not be on the spot,” they add.

Do you think it’s only a marketing trick? Well, yes, and it worked. Listen to what Peter Nicolay, Mayor of Bergün, has to say about the ban in his now-social-media-famous Swiss village. This is a fun and smart example of “positive” use of social pain in action. Enjoy the landscape too and don’t forget to snap a screenshot or two!


FOMO is truly a powerful force—and it’s one that marketers have used to great effect.

The FOMO monument, at least in America, is Black Friday: a day when thousands of Americans line up for modest deals on last year’s products simply because they fear what might happen if they don’t.

FOMO is why Birchbox emails customers who have abandoned their carts with a message designed to play on the same kinds of feelings of urgency—“Finish your order before your items sell out(!)”

What are the actual odds that your items are at any risk of selling out? It’s impossible to know, but—hey, is that a 10% off coupon?


Your email inbox is probably full of emails that are trying to induce FOMO in you—and most of the time, it’s just not going to work. Sorry, I don’t really care that [some random company I barely remember] has a sale that only lasts until [some period in the future].

At the same time, there are ways to differentiate yourself from the pack:

In marketing, FOMO is built off of two things: urgency and reward. The total amount of FOMO you’re going to feel is a function of those two feelings. The more urgent, and the greater the reward, the more FOMO you’re going to feel.

We can illustrate with a simple example. If you know that Jay-Z is going to be visiting your favorite frozen yogurt shop tonight, then your urgency and reward levels are both going to be high, and subsequently, you’re going to have a high FOMO. You’re going to make your way to that shop to see your idol. If you know that he’ll be there every night for the next three weeks, on the other hand, the FOMO will not be quite as painful. You can go see him when it’s most convenient for you!

Of course, if someone is spamming you with emails about how some B-list celebrity you don’t even know is going to be hanging out at a random yogurt shop for the next three weeks, that might get a bit old for you. And this is the flipside of FOMO—where you need to be careful.

Just like with the other forms of social pain, inducing FOMO in a sloppy way can hurt your customer relationships.

In other words, if you’re sending emails with “URGENT” and “LAST CHANCE NOW!!!” in the subject line, you’re playing a dangerous game.

If the content of those emails really isn’t urgent, your customers may decide that your priorities are a little too different from theirs—and they may churn.


No pain, no gain

Many marketing strategies are easy to reverse. If the B in an A/B test isn’t successful, you just revert it and go on. Social pain isn’t always like this.

If you decide to actively mistreat your users or manipulate them, you’re playing a very dangerous game, and the odds are high that some of them will go on to tell their friends and family about you.

But used correctly, strategies, like harnessing attachment anxiety, reminding users of what they’ll be missing without you, and inducing FOMO, can be powerful ways to bring users to their ideal outcomes.

Let us know which strategies you found the most useful by leaving a message in the comments!