"Limited time only"
"Offer expires in 19 minutes"
"Just one left in stock"
All of these basically mean the same thing: "Give us your money now, think about it later".
I'm sure you've seen messages like that on e-commerce websites, probably blinking in big red letters, making sure you can notice them. Hell, maybe you've even used this trick before.
The false urgency, or false scarcity, is a very widely spread marketing technique that has existed for too long, in store and especially online. This strategy certainly has some advantages, as it's sure to get you some sales, but it doesn't make it a good one.
Now, why does it work? It uses something that affects a majority of people and that we are not all equipped to fight: FOMO, the good ol' Fear Of Missing Out. You're not sure you want to buy this product, but the website tells you that by tomorrow it will be gone, or it will have quadrupled in price, meaning you don't have time to think, you don't have time to consult your partner, you don't have time to check your budget, you need to buy. Now. Or the opportunity will be forever gone. This FOMO triggers an unnecessary - and sometimes dangerous - state of anxiety, stress and pressure in the customer, and this is the whole point of this technique.
This is what false urgency creates, and this is why it is one of the most dishonest and unethical sales techniques that exist.
Because what happens when you go on the website the next day, or the next month, and you see that the product you bought is still there, still on sale, and maybe even cheaper? Will you trust that company in the future? Will you want to buy more of their products? Will you fall for that trap on their website again?
As a seller, false urgency gets you quick sales, come-and-go customers, one-off clients, but it actually works against you if customer retention is important to you - and it should be, if you're trying to live off of your business in the long term. You want your clients to be loyal, to trust you, to spread the word about your brand, and to eventually come back to buy your future products.
A study published by Scientific Journal Publishers in 2014 (link below) found that scarcity claims on a product tend to have a good effect on customers because it means that the product is valuable, but that when it is seen as a sales tactic "the positive effect of scarcity claims on product evaluation would be diluted". People don't like being tricked, and claiming that an offer is limited, either in time or quantity, when it is not, is a trick.
I've recently found a perfect example of this technique being used on a product I personally bought. In 2019, I was looking for a new hosting provider for my website. I did a lot of research, looking for something environmentally friendly, not too expensive and which could provide a good service. After a few comparisons, I decided to go with GreenGeeks, and they had this amazing discount at the time so I figured it was an even better choice. Cut to this week, two years later, I go back on their main website to look something up and see this:
The exact same discount, the exact same prices, on the exact same plans. At this point, this is simply a lie: the actual price is $2.49 a month, it was never supposed to be something else, but they pretend it's 4 times that to make you think this is the best deal ever and you have to jump on it before it goes away. I did not choose them because of this deal so I'm not deeply impacted, but it was fun to notice this as I was doing research for this very article.
Now, of course, creating a sense of urgency can be legit and even necessary in some cases. Sometimes, the product indeed has a limited stock, or a session has a limited number of spots available or a due date if it's a live lecture for example. The important thing is to make sure to advertise it in advance on your social media and your website, make sure that people know early on that an offer is happening or will happen, and make sure they understand why. And, once the offer expires, actually go back to regular price until the next sale.
Marketing is, in essence, 100% manipulation, but you can choose to it honestly. The problem is not creating a sense of urgency, it is creating a fake one.
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