How to Ethically Use Your Customers’ Pain as a Powerful Marketing Tactic


Pain is often a difficult subject to talk about.

But if you think about it, the entire point of being in business is to address customer pain points.

Why do I say this? Because the two biggest reasons why people spend money is to either 1) pursue pleasure or 2) ease pain.

Some people think it’s unethical to use pain as a marketing tactic.

I disagree.

Why? Because everyone is experiencing some level of pain already, and they are looking for ways to relieve it. That’s why they are interested in your product or service.

The field of neuromarketing has opened up new perspectives in how we understand and address our customers’ pain.

This method has been summed up in a New York Times article “The Secret of Neuromarketing: Go for the Pain.” It cites a marketing agency that focuses on pain as its primary method of marketing.

The company’s CEO is known as the “Chief Pain Officer.”


When you use pain as a marketing tactic—reminding the customer of their discomfort, for example—you also offer a relief to that pain.

Obviously, there’s a right and a wrong way to do this. In the thick of marketing action, we don’t always know where the lines are drawn.

Among BuzzFeed’s endless archive of clickbait listicles is a list of the top 10 worst jokes comedian Gilbert Gottfried made after hearing of the 2011 tsunami that devastated Fukushima and other parts of Japan, leading to the Daiichi power plant meltdown.


Critics say he went way too far way too soon. I agree. Gottfried was released from his contract as Aflac Duck.

It may seem insensitive, but the man is a comedian who also notoriously opened a Friars’ Club Roast in NYC a few months after 9/11 with a bang.

Gottfried’s job is to entertain people through humor in times of pain. Maybe he was trying to alleviate pain during a trying time. But at the same time, he screwed up.

Pain isn’t a laughing matter, especially when it involves suffering and death.

We as marketers need to keep that in mind. We also need to realize that simply addressing pain isn’t enough. We need to genuinely understand the critical pain points, empathize with the situation, and focus on a solution.

Ethics matter, especially in the field of marketing. And when you use pain to get your customers’ attention, doing it ethically is even more important.

Here are a few best practices businesses can use to address customer pain in an ethical way.

Target pain by opening lines of communication

The only way you can learn about your customers’ pain is through communication.

Communication is a two-way street. As a marketer, you communicate through your content. Your audience, in turn, communicates through social feedback, analytics, and other commentary.

Maybe you’re wondering, Okay, but what about understanding the customer’s pain?

That’s somewhat more difficult to get at.

But that’s not where you start the process, either.

The process starts with authenticity and transparency. And that starts with you.

A recent MarketingLand survey found 99% of consumers are willing to share information with companies so long as they ask permission first. Trust is a big part of convincing people to communicate.

Transparency and authenticity are vital components of building consumer trust, especially online.

Your livelihood as a marketer depends on your ability to be authentic and transparent.

Businesses aren’t inherently trustworthy. Just take a look at a trust index for businesses around the world during 2015 and 2016.


Your customer base or audience must first trust you before you can understand their pain.

Why? Because pain is a sensitive and very personal thing.

In fact, pain is often seen as a form of weakness, and I’m much more likely to admit my pain to friends and family than to a profiteering business out to get my money.

Here are the two fundamental questions you should ask about your customers when you are seeking to understand their pain from a position of trust.

1. What pains do my customers have?

A business that successfully resolves a pain point is on the path to success. In order to address pain, you need to understand which pains a customer has.

What makes a person uncomfortable, scared, frustrated, angry, or sick?

Learning these triggers helps you understand how you can resolve them.

2. Which particular pain does my business address?

In order to sell a product or service, you need to be able to explain how your product or service can relieve your customer’s pain.

A recent survey of corporate executives found that to learn what customers think, companies employ nearly a dozen different techniques.

All involve either technology or customer interaction, and an extensive use of surveys and analytics.


Of course, our business technology and how we interact with customers is often a pain point itself.

Consumer Reports continuously monitors how consumers feel about companies. A recent survey found technology hasn’t really improved how businesses interact with customers.

Despite astronomical leaps in technology over the past 30 years, many customers have the same gripes when it comes to dealing with companies and customer service.


Finding out what people think is often a headache for companies, but by opening up communication online, I’ve learned quite a bit about my customers.

Using analytics and surveys to understand your customer’s pain is the most ethical method.

Take the survey above, for example. If your business has a customer service department, you should understand what kinds of things may irritate your customers.

These numbers tell you something very important: 75% of your callers will be frustrated if they can’t get a live person on the phone.

Now you know their pain.

And you know how to resolve it: get them in touch with a live person ASAP.

Let me provide a simple example using these two questions:

  1. What pains do my customers have?
  2. Which particular pain does my business address?

First, let’s find out the pain. To make this example super obvious, I’ll focus on a real physical pain: headaches.

You start with doing some research on your customers. You get data on headaches.


You realize that those who suffer from headaches most frequently are women aged 18-44.


Based on that information, you develop an advertisement targeting that demographic and promising to relieve their pain.


It’s simple, ethical, and effective.

  • Figure out the pain.
  • Understand how you solve that pain.
  • Create a marketing approach that brings the two together.

Why pain context matters

Obviously, the model above is just scratching the surface.

Tools and technology are rapidly advancing, meaning we can access an increasing amount of data and intel on our customers—all completely ethically, of course.

Google and other search giants are already moving toward a contextual Internet. This means search algorithms will take the context of the content surrounding a link into consideration along with the context in which the browser is searching.


A combination of contextual search and advancements in AI is leading to a world where predictive searches are becoming smarter and smarter. In turn, we need to adapt our websites and content to succeed in the future of search.

Google’s semantic search updates have been moving toward this future.


Let’s say I’m experiencing hunger pains and searching online for a pizza. My search will indicate whether I’m looking for a pizza recipe or pizza delivery.

“Pizza order las vegas” is pretty obvious. Google knows I want someone to bring a pizza to my apartment.


A different pizza-related query gives me completely different results.


When analyzing keywords for which you’re ranking in the SERPs, consider the context in which visitors are reaching your site. Pay special attention to query type and intent. These issues have a huge impact on bounce rates, conversion rates, and other KPIs.

Although you may rank well for a particular search term, your sustainable performance depends on the content’s ability to address either the consumer’s pain or pleasure.

If all you’re selling is a pizza dress, while I may find it mildly interesting, it’s not going to relieve my hunger pains.


Contextual search is actually one of the main components of machine learning and AI. Instead of traditional column- and cell-based databases, data in graph databases is stored in nodes, which allow for data relationships to be created.

Here’s what a graph database entails:


Graph database platforms such as Neo4j power much of the personalization and recommendation software used in search engines, social media feeds, digital TV interfaces, and much more.

The information can be…complicated.


But the results are extraordinary.

In the context of a movie search, a graph database would take into account which actors and directors are in the movie along with the rating, genre, and availability of online streaming services.


All of this information is then paired with previous choices made by friends of the searcher or people of similar demographics and interests to present personalized contextual search results.

You can get similar information by looking at your search trends.

How do you get this information?


The information you see can help you understand what people are typing in when they see your site in the SERPs or when they click through to your website.

Search queries give powerful insights into the kind of pain people are experiencing and the kind of solutions they are looking for.

Data that includes queries, pages, countries, devices, impressions, CTR, and dates provides great contextual information. You can use this information to understand, address, and promise to relieve your customer’s pain.

If you do sell a pizza dress, for example, certainly a keyword focus on “Pizza Dress” is a good idea as is focusing on “Funny Dress,” “Creative Dress,” and other contextual ideas that may draw customers.

I wouldn’t waste money advertising to pizza customers, though, because it’s a competitive keyword, and these searchers are not interested in a dress they can’t eat.

5 ethical best practices for addressing pain

Since we’re talking about ethics, we need to address privacy as well.

Today’s customers are jittery about privacy, and with good reason. We’re in an age of increasing data breaches.


If we’re truly exercising ethical behavior, let’s make sure we’re respecting the customer’s privacy.

Following these five best practices will ensure you address your customers’ pain without taking away their control, eroding their trust, or risking their displeasure.

1. Ask permission and provide awareness

By this point, Google Analytics has existed long enough that the layman has a general idea of how information is being shared and used.

I’ll share my info with any site for this kind of personalization:


Mobile devices are such a personal item that permission checks have become a regulatory requirement. It’s now generally best practice everywhere online.

You are even required to make your site visitors aware of the use of cookies.


Always ask for whatever permissions you can. Be transparent about notifying visitors of the type of information you’re tracking and why.

2. Be mindful of the time

Back in the days of analog telephones, a lot of consumer protection laws were enacted by state and federal governments to limit the hours a person can be contacted.

Although the web provides seemingly unlimited access to data, it’s still important to be mindful of the times when people are working, sleeping, eating, etc. before bothering them with your pitch and becoming a pain point yourself.

Here’s when people are typically using their devices:


Understanding the timing of your communications with customers helps you reach them more efficiently when you need to.

This is especially important if you use real time marketing tactics such as push notifications or SMS.

3. Know your role

Always remember you’re a guest in someone else’s life.

Like any other friendship or relationship, your relationship with your customers has boundaries. You don’t ask for too much. You don’t stick around longer than you should.

Above all, you treat the customer with professionalism and respect.

4. Act only with good business intent

Banks and other secure institutions flag celebrity and other high-value accounts to ensure they’re protected. This is just one extra layer on top of several other layers of information protection, which is why people trust banks with their personal financial information.

This same discipline should be practiced by every level of your company in order to build customer trust.

Build the kind of relationship that a patient may have with a physician, and customers will open up about their pain.

5. Document, and track everything

It’s important to track the analytics even when it comes to pain and satisfaction levels.

What kind of pain is your customer experiencing? How are you working to resolve it?

Take this Starbucks graph of customer satisfaction, for example.


Without documentation, Starbucks would have had a difficult time figuring out why scores dipped in 2009, 2012, and 2015.

Tracking metrics across the board makes it much easier to figure out what and why went wrong, and what to do about it.

Another reason for careful tracking and documentation is the ethical reason. If you’re willing to document what you’re doing, it establishes your ethical standards.

Documentation enables transparency and provides proof of the tracking you’re doing.


Pain is an unavoidable part of the human condition.

We all feel it at one point or another in our lives, and often the pain is shared among many.

Businesses exist to ease pain. You as a marketer should be able to learn how your customers feel so you can address any pain they have. This takes a commitment to building mutual trust.

Tracking information is necessary to research and evaluate pain points, but this data must be collected, analyzed, and acted upon ethically.

What is your perspective on the role of pain in marketing? How do you work to address pain in your customers’ lives?


  1. Thanks for great post!

  2. Not satisfied. I’ve been seeing a drop in quality of your content since last 3-4 articles.

  3. Dennis Gorelik :

    I agree – this post is not very actionable.

  4. uthman saheed :

    This is another useful post. If this tactics is properly incoporated in our blog post, or marketing strategies, one will gain alot or readers, subscribers and earn money.

  5. Himmat Chahal :

    Found the salesbrain link/service to be very interesting, thank you for that + another great article.

  6. Once again, great article. Thanks Neil!

  7. Annette Giacomazzi :

    Great article! At CastCoverz!, our customers are in pain 24/7. Sometime suddenly. Oftentimes chronically. Our team is trained to empathize and ask the right questions because they could be frustrated, in pain, confused, inconvenienced, worried and/or highly likely on pain meds. This makes order taking tricky. Our service, shopping experience AND our products must be easy. And by that I mean, NO thinking, only the promise of relief and some fun.

    Our customers don’t need more frustration or confusion from their Feel Better, Heal Better company. We want to get them the right product, the first time.

    Keep up the GREAT articles. They’ve changed our business course, many times over!

    • I like your slogan, it has a nice ring to it. What you said, right there, about empathizing with your clients is exactly where it begins.

      If you have any questions about any of these strateigies, please don’t hesitate to ask

  8. god! you squeeze every drop of content out of this topic. I gotta read it again. Nice one!

  9. Very in depth post, thank you for putting it together and sharing. Bookmarking to use this soon.

  10. Annabel Collins :

    Great indepth post broken down to laymen understanding. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Neil | Joyfuljourneying :

    Thanks Neil. I found this article interesting even though I usually think of our fans at joyfuljourneying as “in pursuit of pleasure.” But the opposite of their pleasure of traveling is the pain of not having the time or money to travel as much as they want to. And our mission is to ease that pain. So your article is relevant for our marketing! Your discussion of communication was impactful as well. We often mistakenly think that writing a blog post is a one way broadcast, but of course that is not the case.

    • Perfect, I hope you were able to take a lot from this so you can apply it to the things you’re doing

  12. thanks for sharing a good post

  13. Tauseef Alam :

    Hi Neil,

    I have been using this tactic on all of my niche sites. I write my content that gives a feeling to my visitor that the content is written for them and it can solve their problem. Using this tactic I am converting my traffic 5%-7%.


  14. Writing a guide to help people to solve any existing issue will greatly help to attract users and retain them.

    But not sure how far these will convert into sales

  15. Wow, great article – i like when the posts are deep and concrete! Thanks, thumbs up from Denmark!

  16. Alok Jasmatiya :

    neil please try to make the posts more technical and tool oriented which roam around the search engine optimization & SMO related initiatives?

  17. Interesting. Its mean many people are in pain and they are looking for a right solution.
    Now we need to find in what pain our targeted customers are? and then give them a solution to it.

  18. Taking advantage, right

  19. A must have for dedicated marketers to employee in their relationship building tactics online is taking time to listen to the customer. Don’t be so quick to speak but listen to everything they have to say. The reason for listening to what they have to say is because customers give away phrases and keywords during the course of the conversation that savvy marketers can build off of to continue a meaningful conversation with them. It’s only through experience that marketer’s goal from amateur to experienced by listening to the customers needs and what they are going through. Most marketers make the said mistake of trying to sell a product or service right off the bat as that only leads to “marketing derailment.” Then they struggle to get “re-railed,” by trying to kiss up to the customer after being so quick in the beginning trying to sell-push a product or service on. If marketers only learn to keep their mouths closed beginning of the conversation or agree with everything the customer has to say then tried to sell something they will increase their conversion rates.

    • I think it has a lot to do with managing emotions. People tend to say things they don’t mean when they’re highly emotional. You need to be able to take that out of the equation

  20. Great article Neil. Looking forward to your next one.

  21. Tushar Hossain :

    Thanks for sharing this smart marketing tactic 🙂 Will look forward for more…

  22. Sumit Vasudeva :

    Hi Neil,
    Thank you for such an amazing article. I think this is a must read for all marketers to develop better public relations for their companies. I would definitely remember these the next time I have to build a strategy for a product.

  23. Caroline Hartley :

    Absolutely amazing article! “What makes a person uncomfortable, scared, frustrated, angry, or sick?” – great points! With people it’s all about two things – fun and pain. You do need to make a thorough research, be polite and respectful to your customers.

  24. Lakhyajyoti :

    Very informative post Neil. Learn lot from it. Surely I’ll try this tactic on my blog.

  25. Great article Niel, I think there is very fine line between pain and requirement. requirement can be considered as previous stage of pain but if previous one is taken care before it gets to later, I guess this would main a long term relation and trust which is good for business.

    What do you think

  26. Hey Neil, thanks for the sharing new marketing ideas. I found really something different to think.

  27. Great post Neil!

    I think I’ll be writing some new emails for my responder after this read… =) You always seem to spark a handful of ideas!! =)

  28. This is fabulous! Pure pleasure and pain! Great! Thank you!

  29. Tiffany Simpson :

    Hi Neil, thanks for posting this article. Would you be open to questions on how to execute. Thanks!

  30. Manisha Shahane :

    Hey Neil, I haven’t been by here in a while, but I’ve still been subscribing and seeing the headlines in my inbox. I was happy to see the topic of ethics in this post’s headline. It’s something I’ve wondered about. Sometimes it is easy to ascribe malintent to marketers (or ‘business’ in general), but also it occurred to me that some marketers may not realize how their strategies/tactics are capitalizing on someone’s fears in a way that might augment their audience’s fears (rather than mitigating them), thinking that’s just ‘the way it’s done’ … perhaps some people don’t feel they have a choice or know of any other way. Some might not even be aware of there being a question of ethics and may rely heavily on the ‘buyer beware’ motto. So I think your post helps to put that question on the radar for people to consider and evaluate what seems to make sense for their businesses. I appreciate the points you make with regard to engaging in conversation and building trust. [And the PIZZA DRESS – that’s funny and it just made me hungry! Fortunately, I just had lunch so don’t anyone try to sell me any home delivery right now.]

    • There aren’t really any real rules on the internet yet, so it really comes down to how well you can help people, in a way that you can feel good about at the end of the day

  31. Harry Middleton :

    You talk about things I have not thought. Thanks for your help 🙂 Very helpful article 🙂

  32. nice post a thanking for the shering…………………………..

  33. This is post beautiful for the thanking a shering…………………………..

  34. Hello Neil
    One line took attention of me the most. I was laughing after seeing the “Us Adults’ Most Irritating Customer service Pain Points”. As I too many time complained about some factors that you have showed. Such as- Can’t get a life person on the phone or Long wait on Hold. These two were my common issues. But now I can understand people are very much attached emotionally and they seek the reflection of them anywhere even if it a simple article. Btw loved your pain point issues and I also applied the technique to attract more customers in my business. I Will update you about one survey that I am continuing after seeing your blog post.

    • I think this is changing, or at least it needs to ASAP. A lot of it’s getting moved over to things like facebook messenger

      • I totally agree with you. The trend is changing as people are more concentrated on the customer service issues. In my business to satisfy the customer with their demands is the main issue for me. Thanks for your words.

  35. thats great neil thanks to u for providing us as a great ideas..nice one

  36. Hi Neil
    I run a digital course on household budgeting and savings. My marketing focuses on both getting out of grind of living week-to-week (ease pain) and also saving towards meaningful goals (pursue pleasure). Am I confusing my marketing? Should it be one or the other? Or is it okay to have this two-pronged approach?

  37. I guess we can use the word Problem or Concern rather than pain … Sounds a bit harsh ! 🙂

Speak Your Mind