Why Marketers Should Care If You Are An Optimist

November 6, 2013


What motivates people to stay on task and achieve goals? The topic has been studied by academics for decades. More recently, research suggests that it has real implications for marketers too. Here at LinkedIn, we recently surveyed our members to better understand how motivational focus can affect careers and marketing effectiveness. Here are the key takeaways:

  • Although optimists and pessimists can perform tasks and achieve goals equally well, optimists might have more career opportunities and be more likely to climb the corporate ladder.
  • Crafting marketing messages to fit your consumers’ motivational focus can lead to better results.


Optimism and pessimism get us off the couch

To start, both optimism and pessimism can drive us to take action. For example, you might put a lot of effort into a project because you are excited about the ground-breaking results it could produce (i.e., optimism is motivating you to act). On the other hand, you might spend hours vigilantly checking for incorrect assumptions or alternative approaches because you are very concerned about the likelihood of it not panning out (i.e., pessimism is motivating you to act).

Although everyone can be motivated by either optimism or pessimism, research suggests that people are likely to have a dominant motivational focus.1 And it’s hypothesized that we may start to form this bias early in life due to our environment and learned behaviors.

There is no “correct” motivational focus, but too much can be a bad thing

In a recent Influencer post, Wharton professor Adam Grant discussed how “defensive pessimists” are just as successful as “strategic optimists” at accomplishing goals. To learn more, see the book: The Power of Negative Thinking.

Extreme levels of optimism or pessimism, however, can be problematic. For example, extreme optimists exhibit poor personal finance decisions (e.g., not paying credit cards on time, etc.). And, while it’s not necessarily a bad decision, CEOs who scored higher on optimism were more likely to have their company take on more total and short-term debt compared to CEOs who scored lower on optimism.2

Being an optimist could change your career trajectory

While both optimists and pessimists can successfully accomplish tasks, they might be on different career tracks. In short, optimists have a better shot at becoming a CEO. That is, CEO’s score much higher on optimism compared to the lay public, on average.2 In fact, the potential divergence in career paths between optimists and pessimists can even be seen at an earlier career stage. MBA students who scored higher on optimism tended to receive their first job offer sooner and received more job offers compared to MBA students who scored lower on optimism.3


Test 1: Is motivational focus related to level of seniority?

The Insights team at LinkedIn is in a unique position to contribute to this body of research. As a trusted professional platform with over 259 million members globally, we can quickly gather data from lots of professionals.

We wanted to further understand the relationship between motivational focus and career trajectory, so we surveyed active, US, LinkedIn members (N = 2,122). The survey included a psychological measure of subjective, historical success with using optimism or pessimism to achieve goals.4



As you can see in the figure, professionals with higher levels of seniority, on average, scored higher on being motivated by optimism (Y-axis). For example, CXO’s had higher scores compared to Individual Contributors and Managers.

This data raises many fascinating questions, but let’s move on to what this means for marketers. Can marketing messages be more effective when they match a customer’s motivational focus?




Understanding your customers’ motivational focus can lead to better marketing

According to research, consumers who are exposed to marketing messages that match their motivational focus will be more likely to:1

  • Process and remember the messages about the product
  • Be convinced by the marketing material
  • Estimate a higher price for the product

Unfortunately, the majority of research on motivational focus has been conducted in psychology labs, not in the messy, real-world of marketing. We wanted to test this idea in the “wild” with our LinkedIn members.

Test 2: Is marketing effectiveness increased by motivational fit?

We wondered whether exposing LinkedIn members to marketing messages that aligned with their motivational focus would be more likely to cause them to take a desired action. In our test case, the desired action was to follow one or more LinkedIn Influencers.


So, in our survey, half of the participants were randomly assigned to read marketing messages about LinkedIn’s Influencers program that fit with an optimistic, or opportunity-driven, motivational-focus (e.g., “Experience learning and professional growth on a daily basis.”), while the other half saw messages that fit with a pessimistic, or concern-driven, motivational-focus (e.g., “Without new ideas and advice, you risk getting left behind.”). We then checked to see if members chose to follow one or more Influencers on LinkedIn after taking the survey.

Our Hypothesis: Since we saw that more senior professionals (CXO’s, VPs’, Owners, etc.) were likely to have an optimistic motivational-focus, we predicted that the opportunity-driven version of the ad would be more effective than the concern-driven version for these members.

As you can see in the bar chart, the results supported our hypothesis. Compared to the pessimistic version of the ad, the optimistic version was more effective in spurring senior professionals to follow a LinkedIn Influencer (p = .05). On the other hand, the pessimist version of the ad was more effective at getting individual contributors and mangers (lower seniority) to take the desired action (p = .10).

So, these results highlight the importance of aligning your marketing messages with your consumers’ motivational focus. Getting it right could yield a 250%-700% improvement.

The takeaway for marketers is that, when producing content marketing materials, ad copy, or collateral for your sales team, you should check whether your messages are likely to fit the motivational focus of your target audience. For example, marketing messages that are targeted to more senior professionals may be more effective if they include how your product will help them achieve aspirational goals. And, when marketing to individual contributors, including messages related to the reliability and safety of your product could be more effective since it is more likely to match their motivational focus. Get this right, and you could see a huge boost in the effectiveness of your marketing.


Do you know your customers’ motivational focus?



1 For a review of research on motivational focus and its implications for marketers, check out the book: Focus.

2 Research paper on CEO optimism: Managerial attitudes and corporate actions

3 Video about research on optimistic MBA’s getting more offers

4 The survey included the Regulatory Focus Pride (RFQ) questionnaire, a battery of 11 questions that has been validated in numerous studies and is used to measure a person’s subjective, historical success at using optimism or pessimism to achieve goals.