The Competitive Secret Everyone’s Using (Except You)

All the top marketers use this psychological trick to increase their business (while decreasing yours) — learn how you're getting left behind

Adam Fout
March 01 2018

All the top marketers in your industry are using a trick, a psychological trick with decades of research behind it, to drive their sales through the roof…and it’s leaving you in the dust. Everyone is talking about it, everyone knows what it is, but somehow, you’ve missed the boat. This is how I know you’re missing out — if you knew the secret, you wouldn’t be confused. You’d be nodding along in agreement. You’d already be in the know. Here’s the worst part — this trick is so successful, so powerful, and honestly, so foundational to modern digital marketing, that if you aren’t using it, there’s almost no way you can even come close to what the competition is doing.

Do You Want to Know the Secret?

Is your heart pounding with anticipation? Are you feeling nervous that everyone knows something you don’t? If you are, then good — I did my job right. If you’re not, good — that means you’re smarter than most people. This secret to modern digital marketing, this technique that’s used by thousands of companies all over the world, taps into human psychology in a very real way. You need to know what you’re doing to use it — and more to the point, you need to understand how it’s being used on the general populace, how people are being taken by the hand and led to purchasing decisions they might otherwise have avoided.

What’s the secret?

FOMO — The Fear of Missing Out

FOMO is responsible for the absurd rise in social media (despite its negative effects on society), for the continued popularity of the news (despite its devolution into partisan bickering), for your neighbor buying a brand new pickup truck a few weeks after you bought your pickup truck…The one you bought because of your intense fear that you were missing out — on the great deal, on the incredible vehicle that would soon be gone, on being as cool and popular as your cousin and his buddies. The fear of missing out is a simple, powerful psychological tool that was almost certainly beneficial to mankind tens of thousands of years ago, when lifespans were short and staying up-to-date on the goings-on of the tribe was the difference between life and death.

But, like many evolutionary leftovers, we don’t really need this one anymore. Sure, it probably served as a powerful social cohesive back when disunity in a tribe led to the death of all its members, but we don’t need it anymore. Your crazy aunt isn’t going to die if she misses one day of Facebook. Your kids aren’t going to die if they don’t get a car at 16 like all their friends. Your spouse isn’t going to die if you don’t get smart technology in your house like all your neighbors.

And yet…

Something Horrible Will Happen if We Don’t Keep Up With Everyone Else

Our brains inject fear into our thoughts when it comes to this stuff — they’re often wrong, but they’re still very persuasive. Here’s a perfect example: Just a few weeks ago, when Bitcoin was trading at around $20,000, my brain told me that if I didn’t invest in Bitcoin now, I was going to miss out on being rich beyond my wildest dreams. What actually happened?

Bitcoin fell to around $10,000. Nevertheless, that fear is real — it’s telling me that now I really have to invest. For the moment, I’m going to ignore it — my brain has a pretty crummy track record when it comes to knowing what’s good for it. Most people struggle to overcome this hardwired portion of their brain — as a marketer, as someone with a more refined understanding of the brain, of sales psychology, of how all this stuff works, you are uniquely positioned to utilize FOMO to drive engagement, leads, sales, and retention.

Use It Ethically, or It Will Lose Its Power

If you want to use FOMO in your marketing, you need to be clever, but you also need to be ethical. This is what really separates the most successful marketers and those who ultimately fail. FOMO is a powerful tool, but if you abuse it, your customers and potential customers will become wise to what you’re doing. And the power of FOMO will no longer be yours to wield. For instance, if I get an email from an amusement park that tells me crowds are low and I should come take advantage of the short lines, you better believe that I’ll be interested — I love rollercoasters, and I have a distinct fear of missing out on the chance to ride them over and over without multi-hour waits in between. But, if I show up, and the lines aren’t short, if I find out that this was a misrepresentation (or an outright lie), I’m not going to come back…

Because I’ll know it’s B.S.

Read more about how ethics affects your bottom line here.

3 Ways to Use FOMO

The true secret of FOMO is simple — it’s a pressure that tells us we will miss out on something.

Here’s are a few ways that FOMO can be employed:

  1. I’m going to miss out on this great deal because it’s only available for a limited time
  2. I’m going to miss out on being cool because this thing is extremely popular, and if I don’t act soon, I’ll miss out on being cool at the same time as everyone else
  3. I’m going to miss out on getting this awesome thing because a limited number of them are available

As long as these things are true, FOMO will work.

FOMO in Practice

Let’s take a look at a real example of FOMO in action.

Many modern video games are played online, and many of those games require fresh content to be downloaded every few months (along with a fee) to play the “latest version” of the game. Now, in almost all cases, you can continue playing the old version, but all the cool people will be playing and enjoying the new content (without you), and you’ll be left with all the losers playing old, boring content. That old content is probably fine, and you might end up buying it anyway when the price drops, but the fear that you won’t be able to experience the new content at the same time as everyone else can drive you to make a purchase. This business model is particularly effective when employed repeatedly. If a company releases new content every quarter, people are forced to keep up, forced to keep making purchases. While some will abandon the game entirely, those that stick around will be extremely profitable.

Long term, you’re going to make way more money off the people who are purchasing over and over than you would off a single initial purchase. If you combine this with special discounts on the new content from time to time and special items that are only available if you purchase the content when those deals are active, you’ve added layers of FOMO that compel your consumers to take that leap and make that extra purchase. And when you think about it, this example is really illustrative of the social role of FOMO. If I play this game with 6 friends regularly, and 4 of those friends buy the new content right away, I’ve already got a powerful social signal that the purchase is worthwhile.

Further, if the only way I can continue playing with those friends is by purchasing the new content, I now have to either a) make the purchase or b) risk missing out on fun times with friends and even c) risk losing the relationships themselves.

Use FOMO With Care

I’ll end with this — FOMO can be abused, and when it is, you can lose customers. That example I just gave is about a real game that I used to play, and when this particular game started following those practices I outlined above, I stopped playing — I wasn’t willing to spend close to $200 in a year on a single video game. Many of my friends, whom I knew only through that game, purchased all the new content. Many of them kept playing. Some of those friendships were lost when I stopped playing. I can tell you this — it left me with a bad taste in my mouth for the brand that puts that game out. I felt like my friendships were basically held hostage.

It was effective, but it felt abusive. Psychology is powerful stuff, but when it’s abused to further the ends of business, society tends to suffer. So be careful, and instead of leaning heavily on FOMO, use it as only a single tool in your marketing tool box — and use it with a light touch. Because honestly, it’s better to attract customers by being awesome than by tricking them — and that’s exactly what the marvelous Sam Hurley discusses in his latest article.

Adam Fout

Adam Fout, resident content and brand sorcerer at BlueSteelSolutions, guides brands through the mystical process of creating website and blog content that enchants customers and entices leads. He also writes fiction in his free time at My Website

Be the first to comment on this post:


Let's Get Acquainted

Chars: 0

Get your free print edition!

Fill out your complete details below

Chars: 0
Chars: 0
Chars: 0
Chars: 0
Chars: 0
Chars: 0
Chars: 0
Chars: 0