Which is more effective: the carrot or the stick?

Marketing communications is all about persuading people to take action—to change something about the way they do business, buy something new or try something different. In most cases, encouraging them to act will involve both positive and negative drivers—what we might call the ‘carrot’ and the ‘stick’.

Dangling a carrot in front of your audience can entice them to act in the way you want based on the promise of the benefits they can achieve; brandishing a stick focuses on the pain or the penalties that can result from inaction.

So which do you lead with?

Well, that depends. A carrot-led piece will be more optimistic, with a more aspirational and positive tone overall. On the other hand, a stick-led piece will be more hard hitting—but if you’re not very careful, it could risk sounding negative, patronising or even accusatory.

So it’s always better to lead with the carrot, right?

Not necessarily—you’ll need to consider a number of factors. Of course there’s the topic itself, the context, the target audience, and the company tone of voice—but don’t forget that for marketing there’s the overwhelming need to get people to act.

However big and juicy the promised carrot, change is hard and always costs something, whether that’s time, effort or money. Most people would really rather not bother if they don’t have to. If there’s nothing obvious to be lost by not changing, the carrot may not be enough to give people the impetus to change—the reader may be content simply to maintain the status quo. Failing to gain an advantage is something many people can live with.

So persuading your audience to take action may sometimes depend on convincing them it will be more painful not to act—even if acting is painful in itself—by leading with a big stick. Especially if you have limited time or space to get their attention.

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