Gain vs. Risk in Mobile Message Crafting: Taking the Risk


Image of an elderly woman having a skin tag examined by a female dermatologist.

The last post in our Gain vs. Risk series focused on gain-framed messaging in a mobile campaign and its appropriate audience. To recap, gain-framed messaging focuses on pleasurable, positive outcomes that allow patients to play a more active role in their treatment and health.

Let’s shift gears and swing in the opposite direction to risk-framed messaging (also known as loss-framed), and when it’s fitting for your mobile campaign strategy.

Taking the Risk

Risk-framed messaging is exactly what you think it is: it likes to remind you of the bad things that could happen if you don’t do x. It’s every PSA you’ve seen that tells you what you stand to lose if you don’t say no to drugs. This type of framing is fear-based and focuses on the consequences of failing to take action.

There are two potential audiences for this method, and we’ll start with the “works, but only if” audience. Loss-framed messaging can still work with patients. Fear is a powerful motivator, after all. If HCPs choose to use this tactic with patients, however, they have to tread carefully, because fear can be paralyzing, too, or the risk is too far in the future (“Sure, I can eat healthier to prevent heart disease in twenty years, but I can also eat this tasty burger right now and diet later”). It’s not as effective or as persuasive as gain-framed messaging, although it can be right for the right context.

We know that gain-framed is more effective concerning disease preventive behaviors, but here is where loss-framed messaging can shine with patients: loss-framed is proven effective when promoting disease detection. Mammograms, HIV testing, anything that will reduce the risk of a terrible outcome. The motivation of the potential loss will convince patients that the risk of a disease detection behavior or action (screenings, surgeries, scans) will be worth it now rather than later.

The second audience for this “Negative Nancy” approach is HCPs themselves. According to Miguel Brendl (Kellogg School of Management) and Prashant Malaviya (Georgetown University), the researchers whose study on message framing was published in 2014, “People draw inferences from how easily they process information…It’s very easy to understand an argument that is related to [underlying] knowledge, and you’re more persuaded than if you have a hard time understanding the argument.” Healthcare experts are in a better position to understand the losses facing their patients because of their education and experience. Those health problems and losses are already real to them, not just a distant future concern.

Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab confirms that with an HCP audience, “the negative nature of the message would be perceived more as a call to action than as a threat.” HCPs are burdened with extensive knowledge about the diseases and issues facing their patient bases, and can view the message more objectively than a patient can. That “call to action” perception is the key for your loss-framed mobile messaging strategy.

The biggest takeaway is to remember that different audiences respond differently to messaging, and tapping into the mindsets of your audience can help inform which message frame you choose. Influencing behavior is not easy. But understanding what sort of focus your target audience has, whether it’s for gains or losses, can help you tailor your mobile presentation to make the most impact.