Last year was rough, and many of us adapted our marketing copy to reflect that negativity. Marketing copy for cybersecurity SaaS saw a massive spike (65.7%) in words related to disgust in the past year alone. Did the marketing conversion rates pay off?

It decidedly did not. Nodding to the news cycle in your marketing copy might drive clicks, but doesn’t compel further action. Indeed, overuse of negativity can even repel your best prospects.

Unbounce recently studied this phenomenon in their 2021 Conversion Benchmark Report, which uses sentiment analysis (based on the EmoLex) to determine the impact that negative language — and the news cycle — has on conversion rates. The results are insightful. The Unbounce team found that SaaS marketing copy included 4% more anger words, 11.4% more sadness words and 3.5% more surprise words this past year than the year before. The study also discovered that, although page traffic increased across industries (54.9% for SaaS, 40.4% for finance and insurance and 18.8% for marketing agencies), negative language correlated with lower overall marketing conversion rates.

“The research bore out what you feel intuitively: negative messaging gets you a lot of reaction and attention, but it freezes up action,” says Ralph Oliva, Emeritus Professor of Marketing in the Smeal College of Business at Penn State and faculty leader for the Institute for the Study of Business Markets. “If you want to move people to action, build a better, more focused value proposition — and accentuate the positive.”

Having recognized the risks of pure negativity, here’s how to handle negative language and sentiment in your marketing copy.

Acknowledge, But Don’t Amplify

Given today’s news cycle, it seems impossible to let heavy social circumstances pass without acknowledging them. You don’t want to come off as tone-deaf in response to the COVID crisis or social justice conversations occurring across the country. But there’s a difference between acknowledging a heavy moment and amplifying it, Oliva says. The Unbounce study reveals that brands have overemphasized negative events, to their detriment.

“In finance, as the percentage of words associated with sadness and fear increases, conversion rates tend to decrease,” says Garrett Hughes, senior content creator at Unbounce and lead writer of the Conversion Benchmark Report. “That means if you’re looking to turn a landing page visitor into a lead, you usually want to avoid negative words like ‘angry,’ ‘ruthless,’ and ‘depressing.’”

Compared to the baseline for other industries, finance and insurance copy features a lot more negativity (+56.6%), anger (+54.9%), fear (+44.3%), and sadness (+43.0%). These sentiments and emotions have a negative impact on marketing conversion rates. They might drive clicks, but will deter conversions.

Stand Out By Streamlining

Don’t try to do too much with your copy. “Online consumers are being inundated with messages and offers online. If you want to stand out, it’s important to ensure your content is easy to consume,” says Hughes. “Across all industries we looked at, fewer words and easier-to-understand language usually led to high conversion rates in 2020.”

(An important exception are marketing agencies where precise, high-level copy is preferable. The Unbounce team speculates this is because prospects on the brink of converting want to be sure of your expertise.).

With everyone trying to nod to current events, marketing copy has become crowded. In this climate, streamlined copy that clearly conveys your core message is more accessible and effective. “Don’t dwell on content or messages that aren’t directly tied to how the firms you’re working with can be more successful,” Oliva says. Focus on crafting a targeted value proposition, and keep your copy laser-focused on the business value you can deliver.

Streamlining also reduces the risk of dwelling on a negative event that isn’t relevant to what you’re selling. This is especially important for marketing business services, where neither negative or positive sentiments benefited conversion rates: a neutral tone is ideal. “It’s dangerous even using humor now, or being too positive,” Oliva says. “Respect the fact that you’re talking to audiences now that have a large spectrum of emotion.”

Briefly acknowledge the context we all find ourselves working in, but cut quickly to the heart of your message. You can put out a separate statement on an issue that’s arisen without embedding it in your marketing copy. And, of course, be mindful of current events when scheduling and running ads, so you don’t appear out of touch or come across as insensitive.

It’s About Benefits and Solutions

Be cautious when referring to the problems your product or service solves. Zeroing in on negative sentiment, especially after the past year, can cause prospects to tune out. “Many marketers write copy that emphasizes the problem their product or service resolves (especially if they relate to sensitive social and political moments) — but it turns out negative language just doesn’t convert,” Hughes says.

Instead, flip the perspective to focus on benefits and solutions, which you can couch in positive, uplifting terms. “In 2020, SaaS brands used 11.4% more words of sadness than in 2019 — but this approach didn’t usually translate to more conversions,” Hughes says. “In fact, our study found that last year, higher marketing conversion rates in SaaS were often correlated with words related to joy and anticipation, like ‘aspiration,’ ‘proud,’ and ‘succeed.’”

For marketing agencies, a more specific approach is required. One, and, only one, emotion was associated with higher conversions: joy. Using terms like “remarkable,” “delightful” and “exciting” led to a slight increase in conversions.

Steer clear of referring to your competition, which invariably leads to negativity. “Denigrating competition is never a good idea,” Oliva says. “It’s even worse now because it will get wrapped up in the overall negative psyche that we’re dealing with.” What’s wrong with them often overshadows what’s right with you, paralyzing action.

One way to keep these steps in mind is to think like a consumer of copy. Are you more likely to respond positively to copy that demonstrates an awareness of the difficult times we’re experiencing (without bogging down in discussing it) while concisely conveying the benefits of a brand? Or something much longer and grimmer?

The best sounding advice on negative language may come from Aretha Franklin, singing the upbeat lyrics of Johnny Mercer: “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.”