While I was reading through emails on my iPhone last month, I noticed a theme throughout several emails, ranging from those I received from political campaign managers to those from clothing companies. All of these emails employed language that conveyed a sense of urgency: said campaign managers and retailers attempted to inspire me to spend money immediately.
I realized that I currently have hundreds of emails in my inbox from various clothing companies, and all of them have urged me to take advantage of some type of limited, exclusive, time-sensitive deal. These emails caused me to start thinking about urgency tactics. Now, some companies send out this type of email more frequently than others (I’m looking at you, Banana Republic), but all retailers market the same message: take action now or you will miss out on a great deal. By placing an expiration date on the deal, these companies not only pressure me to spend, but also appeal to my emotions, namely fear of missing out on an opportunity.
When Companies Take a Page from Groundhog Day
If the emails in my inbox can serve as a microcosm for the marketing world, then time-crunched deals are commonly used sales strategies. However, sometimes urgency tactics can come across as deceitful or underhanded, especially when the same so-called “exclusive, limited deal” appears every week (making it seem not so exclusive and not so limited). I get emails from a certain clothing retailer advertising a special sale with can’t-miss prices almost every day. I actually can afford to miss the prices, because similar discounts reappear the next day. This constant stream of re-appearing, identical deals makes me feel a little like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day whenever I open my inbox.
Consequently, these emails do not inspire in my any sense of urgency whatsoever. They also seem disingenuous. Can a sale really be termed “exclusive” or “limited” if it (or a variation of it) is always occurring? The retailer-in-question’s urgency tactics backfire. This caused me to ask the question: at what point do urgency tactics stop securing sales and start deterring customers? And, more importantly, what is the hallmark of a successful call to action?
I believe that consumers are smart; they know urgency language is a sales ploy. I think urgent calls to action can be summed up in this way: people want to take advantage of limited specials and three-day deals, but they don’t want to feel like they’re being taken advantage of. I did some investigating, and I found that other marketers and copywriters voiced similar opinions.
Urgency Tactics Done Wrong
Michel Fortin wrote an article on the topic of creating a sense of urgency in consumers. He tells a story about furniture shopping. Fortin found furniture he wanted to purchase, so he asked a salesperson if the furniture store had an extended layaway plan. This is what happened:
“Let me check with my manager,” he [the salesperson] said. He left, spoke with someone in the neighboring electronics department who obviously didn’t look like a “manager.” (In fact, the person seemed like a normal sales rep from the electronics department.)
Five minutes later, he returned, and said, “Sure, but my manager said only if you buy today.”
Huh? Ya, right.
What perturbed Fortin about this exchange is the fact that the salesperson made no effort to understand why Fortin inquired about the layaway plan. He wasn’t interested in Fortin as a consumer; he was interested in him only as a walking pocket book. The salesman played the urgency card, but he played it wrong.
I have endured a very similar experience when trying to sign up for a gym membership in New York City. I found a gym I liked, but the prices were a little too steep, so I asked the trainer whom I met with if there were any specials. He “met with his manager,” came back, and told me he could give me a great deal but only if I signed up right then. Drop $250 for a gym membership at a moment’s notice? I left that gym and found another one where the sales tactics weren’t so sketchy.
Urgency Tactics Done Right
Fortin says that urgency and scarcity tactics can work, but businesses need to keep this in mind: “Never pressure people to PUSH them into purchasing. Instead, use pressure to PREVENT them from procrastinating.”
He states that procrastination is an instinctive reaction to any offer. Before taking advantage of a deal, people have a tendency to utter the words, “Let me think about it.” According to Fortin, those words can be either a death knell for sales or an opportunity. Attaching a deadline to a deal is one way to combat our propensity for postponement, and businesses need to give people a logical, real, and genuine reason why they are limiting the offer. This boosts reliability and authenticity. (Plus it prevents consumers from viewing the business as disingenuous, deceitful, and used-car-salesman-esque.)
This relates to a tip Copyblogger gives. They say that one of the two most important words in blogging is the word “because.” (The other is “you.”) Providing people with a reason why gives them the specific explanation behind something, and specificity makes sales pitches and arguments more credible. Copyblogger describes a social experiment conducted by social psychologist Ellen Langer that shows that the word “because” carries such weight that even when the reason why is not compelling or persuasive, people still respond to it.
Acronym Abundance: YOLO and FOMO
I mentioned above that several of the emails in my inbox play to my emotions and try to capitalize on my fear that I will miss out. This fear is also known as FOMO, and despite the ridiculous acronym (and the fact that the term is now on Urban Dictionary), it is a very real concept. Ann Mack, Director of Trendspotting at JWT, gave a talk at SXSW on FOMO and pointed out that brands frequently tap in to this anxiety people develop when they believe they might miss out. AT&T, for example, launched the “Don’t be left behind campaign” last year.
FOMO coupled with urgency tactics appears to be marketing gold, but again, businesses have to address FOMO in the right way. Ann Mack pointed out that brands can inspire fear in non-participants by offering exclusive, unique deals and experiences, but they can also offer to assuage the fear by taking a counter-approach and encouraging people to slow down and enjoy the moment, which I’m thinking of coining as the “YOLO so take it easy on the FOMO” approach.
Rue La La: When Haste Doesn’t Make Waste
Which companies use urgency tactics and/or FOMO appeal successfully? I think Rue La La, a website that sells high-quality and designer brands for discounted prices, employs these tactics exceptionally well. Rue La La is an “invitation-only” site. Becoming a member is free, but you need another member to get you in. This site is founded on urgency tactics, because each sale lasts for only a limited time. It’s also filled with time-stamped reminders; when Rue La La advertises a deal, they include a countdown that tracks the time until the deal closes.
Rue La La even enables people to set reminders to ensure they don’t pass up an opportunity to buy things like reduced BCBG Max Azria dresses or Vera Bradley cloth totes.
Rue La La lays the sales pressure on thick (they have to, because they’re a flash-sales site). Yet, I think they do an excellent job of making sure urgency tactics are never off-putting. They use soft tactics; the site is not bombarded with messages telling people to “buy now” before “time runs out!” Anyone who visits Rue La La is aware of the ever-impending expiration dates through the countdown, the reminders, and punchy, effective advertisements like this one:
But Rue La La’s sales strategies are transparent without being pushy.
Do Rue La La’s subtle calls to action work? I think they do, and so does my bank account, which took a hundred-dollar hit caused by my sudden need to take advantage of a discount on Lilly Pulitzer home goods before the clock ran out.
But, here’s some more concrete proof:
- Rue La La was founded four years ago, and it is the second-largest flash sales site in the world.
- In 2011, the site had close to $300 million in sales.
- The ability to set reminders boosts sales: Ashley Harmeling, Rue La La’s director of marketing, said that this push-notification strategy “resulted in 25% more consumers visiting Rue La La when the sales start.”
And here’s some visual proof:
Who needs furniture when you can make a fort out of Rue La La shipping boxes?
I think the ultimate goal when it comes to urgency tactics is to take people’s inclination towards FOMO (which is oh-so-articulately described by Urban Dictionary):
And use it to inspire this:
And, by the way, I just received an email from Rue La La informing me of a Swiss Legend women’s watch sale that will be closing in less than two days.