5 marketing lessons from horror movies

Horror movies dole out surprises, build suspense, and keep audiences thinking after the credits roll. Good marketing does, too.

There are rules for people in horror movies: Don’t investigate a bump in the night. Don’t split up the group to each check out some mystery. Don’t wear high heels when you expect to encounter a psychopath with a chainsaw. But did you know the scariest horror movies follow a few guidelines of their own?

Tropes (or literary/film devices) are the reason that you’ve got a bad feeling about that boarded-up amusement park and think that a clown outside of the comfort of a circus stage is really, really creepy. They prepare your mind for what comes next by giving clues that something is about to go down, and that thing is probably not going to be good.

In business, these well-established horror tropes do have a practical use. They make you better at marketing, particularly during the Halloween season. Follow this creepy code to shock and awe your audience (slashers and psychos: totally optional).

1. Plan a double-whammy surprise. Any horror movie worth its salt has a good surprise or two in it. Usually, it’s a one-two punch of a minor scare and then one that makes you scream like a banshee in a crowded movie theater. It works so well because you’re expecting the first surprise and you’ve relaxed enough to think you’re safe. That’s a move worth emulating.

When you’re thinking of what you can do to stun your customers, think in twos: offer a little surprise, then hit them with a big one. Let’s say a customer is staying at your hotel for their anniversary. Welcome them with a personal email to wish them a great stay a few days before their trip (little surprise), then have a gratis bottle of champagne and some chocolates waiting for them when they arrive (big surprise).

2. Build suspense. Suspense is the magic element that keeps people in their seats for all 72 minutes of a film, forgoing a bathroom break or popcorn run. They want to get up, but just can’t miss what comes next.

You brand should be like that. It should make people follow along because they must see what you’re up to. Brands that do great suspense marketing tease great things to come, create a narrative for their campaign, and let the audience connect the dots, giving them a role in solving the mystery. Apple is a great example of this, as they have people freaking out online and off at even the whiff of a new product. Try to capture that magic by building tension with a few tantalizing tactics of your own. Just don’t download a U2 album on all your customers’ phones.

3. Use abandoned areas. In the horror genre, anything that’s abandoned is a hotbed of scary activity. “The Walking Dead”? “Guys—let’s go stay in this abandoned prison. It will be OK.” “Zombieland”? “This abandoned amusement park will be so much fun.” “American Horror Story: Asylum”? “Hey, Adam Levine! Let’s go check out this run-down crazy house together? Probably no murderers in there. Probably.” Abandoned property is terror gold.

What are your abandoned areas? Where in your industry can you mine for interesting content? What about your brand have you yet to explore? Are there new ways to reach your audience? There has got to be some untapped resource just waiting for your attention. When Vine first launched, a few brands jumped on board early and wowed their fans (and the media) with their one-of-a-kind content.

4. Make a fridge moment. Fridge moments in the horror genre are scary thoughts that get you way after the credits have rolled. They’re those moments that you remember that time you accidentally saw “The Gate” when you were 7 years old and have regretted it ever since. They make you shudder, make you cringe and, most importantly, they make you think. For example, that moment in “The Others” in which [spoiler redacted] and later you realize [spoiler redacted].

In marketing, fridge moments can be as simple as people singing your jingle in the shower or describing your commercial to their friend because it was so crazy. Moments stick with you because they’re hilarious, surprising, haunting or because they’re just so much fun. Think about what’s sticky about your company, product or campaign and create some fridge moments of your own.

5. Don’t let the end be “The End.” That moment always gets us. You know the one. The bad guy is seemingly dispatched, laying still on the ground as the good guys get away. Then the camera pans down to their lifeless hand as it twitches. Maybe he’s still alive. Maybe it’s not “The End” after all.

The best marketing plans leave room for things to go further. Make sure your campaign has enough legs to translate to multiple channels and leaves you room to create unique experiences, whether that’s a special event, a clever microsite or a commercial that just keeps on going.

Sarah Gabbart is the Content Director for The Black Sheep Agency. She draws on her decade-plus experience as a copywriter, journalist and PR professional to create content that people actually like to read. A version of this article originally appeared on the Black Sheep blog. (Image via)

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