Neuromarketing: how FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) influences our behaviors and decisions

Our state of hyperconnectivity and social media have given Marketing a tremendous weapon: FOMO, or fear of missing out on events. Let’s look into its most popular tactics.

This article was initially a podcast :

The Storyline By Noémie Kempf

The root of FOMO: the need to always stay informed

The sharing, the transmission of knowledge and information is one of the pillars of our society – or even, if we look a little further back in time, of our species! 

Indeed, humans spend the vast majority of their time sharing information and stories. This is one of the reasons why storytelling is so important. We have always had this inner need to keep ourselves informed – at first, for survival reasons and then, well… it was simply written in our DNA! Humans want to know what’s going on, they want to avoid missing out on interesting events. It could be argued that FOMO was already manifesting itself back in history, when peddlers and troubadours went from village to village to trade their songs and stories against coins!

FOMO has been accelerated by our modern society

Today, things have changed, and even accelerated, with the ICTs, aka, the information and communication technologies. This term, which appeared between the 1990’s and 2000’s, refers to all the recent technologies (computers, internet, telecommunications, new media, … ) that allow people to communicate with each other, to consume, manipulate or share information. All these technologies, which have been growing and multiplying for almost three decades now, have led us into what is commonly known as the information society (or knowledge society).

This society, our modern society, is characterized by several things: exponential productivity gains, progress, new discoveries in science, the fast growth of leisure, … But the most interesting thing is that we turned the world into a gigantic, interconnected network. Today, there are several hundred social networks online, and almost 3.5 billion users have created an account on at least one of them. This means that almost half of the world’s population is now connected to this global network, and can be reached 24/7, in just a few clicks! So, social networks have acted as catalysts for this phenomenon. Every day, we receive numerous notifications, text messages, private messages, on Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, … in short, a tide of solicitations. And FOMO, as a result of this, translates into anxiety that something interesting might happen elsewhere, without us, or that we might miss it.

The negative FOMO spiral is encouraged by social media

Often born out of frustration, a feeling of not being up to the task, FOMO has unfortunately not the desired effect: scrolling our Instagram feed usually leaves us depressed and anxious, rather than happy with ourselves and fulfilled.

And more and more, we are exposed to an information overload: a huge volume of information, flooding in from everywhere. Each of these pieces of information becomes a choice for the user to make (should he take it into account, ignore it, answer it or not…). And the problem is that our brains are unfortunately not made to process so much data.

Being afraid of making the wrong choice or not being able to seize all the opportunities that are at hand, one ends up very frustrated, or worse. Everyone has their own way of coping with FOMO – for some, it is the beginning of a certain social distancing, of isolation, due to the inability to manage social interactions. For others, addictions of all kinds can escalate: more drinking, more drugs use – and whatever the reaction of FOMO victims, it is usually the beginning of a downward-drifting spiral. The next critical stage can even lead to panic attacks or worse, depression.

Dark patterns are a way to put FOMO at the service of neuromarketing

Marketing has quickly seized the FOMO opportunity, and integrated it into its strategies. 

Among these strategies are the dark patterns. Dark patterns are designs, or UX/UI techniques designed to deliberately mislead users, by inciting them to carry out an action unconsciously. Their purpose is to maximize conversion.

There are many of them, and two are strongly related to FOMO:

Confirmshaming” – is a technique which consists in making the user feel guilty for choosing to participate in something. In this technique, the opt-out option is phrased in such a way as to shame the user or make him feel guilty, so that he does not choose it.

Friend Spam” – this is what happens when you create an account on a service, which asks for permission to access your email or Facebook (or other) contact list, promising you that it will allow you to find your friends, but then this service spams all your contacts by sending them messages (pretending to be from you) to get them to sign up as well. 

These two dark patterns therefore play with users’ insecurity, in a (sadly) very efficient way. However, they do so at the expense of two fundamental things: 

  • people’s psychological well being and free will.
  • the relationship of trust between a brand and its customers

FOMO Marketing Tactics

Tactic #1 – Showing site visitors that others are buying your products

Scarcity consists in displaying the number of items left in stock on a product page (usually, there are very few items left and the information is very noticeable!) – to convince the user to buy before it is too late. Scarcity influences the perception of the item’s value, making it seem more desirable!

Tactic #2 – Inducing a sense of scarcity

Scarcity consists in displaying the number of items left in stock on a product page (usually, there are very few items left and the information is very noticeable!) – to convince the user to buy before it is too late. Scarcity influences the perception of the item’s value, making it seem more desirable! 

Tactic #3 – Creating a limited time offer

Setting up a time counter that inevitably moves towards a deadline is one of the most effective incentives to convince people to buy.

It is a technique which can be implemented in many formats, whether it is the “early bird” format when selling tickets to an event or the counter on a landing page…

Different techniques, same results: the consumer is more likely to buy. For example, adding a timer on your site can lead to an increase conversions by almost 10%!

FOMO Marketing and respect for the consumer

Today’s Marketing relies heavily on consumers’ digital anxiety and their fear of missing out on bargains or opportunities. However, FOMO has a proven negative impact on individuals, and its use for marketing schemes can have an extremely detrimental effect on your brand image in the long run. 

Indeed, immediate conversion (which is certainly maximized by FOMO Marketing techniques) happens at the expense of trust and long-term relationships with your customers. 

Of course, the solution today is not to remove all traces of social proof from your website, or to stop sending promotional offers to your customer mailing list… However, it is also the responsibility of Marketers to respect their audiences and to use these methods sparingly, and to ensure they are not feeding their users’ FOMO and insecurities.

Today, FOMO Marketing raises a real ethical question, which we must ask ourselves collectively.

Posted on Mar 24, 2020

About the Author: Noémie Kempf

An independent Brand Strategist, Noémie Kempf worked for several startups between France and the United States before launching her own consulting firm, specialized in Content Marketing, storytelling and brand strategy, putting her skills at the service of various startups and major French and international groups. She also teaches Marketing in a number of schools and universities.