A few years ago, I launched a kind of “Groupon deal for musicians.” I gave away $1,250 worth of products, including recording time and iTunes distribution, for just $69.
I had spent four months building it, and invested a significant amount of my personal savings into ensuring the campaign was everywhere.
It had to work, and I obsessed over conversions. This obsession paid off when I managed to increase conversion rate from 2.5% to 10.8%.
The deal was good for only 100 hours, with only 5,000 packages available. While there was a range of factors that influenced this increase, the single largest one was focusing on scarcity and urgency.
Table of contents
- The 5 precursors that make urgency effective
- The 6th element: Increased urgency
- Real vs. implied urgency
- 5 ways to increase urgency for sales
The 5 precursors that make urgency effective
This article will teach you the five precursors that urgency requires, and how it can become the single strongest catalyst that skyrockets your conversions.
Early in my digital marketing career, I came across this model, which has provided the basis for virtually every conversion rate optimization change I’ve made since:
In essence, if you want to increase the likelihood of any desired action, be it an increase in conversions, click-throughs, or email engagement, you have six choices:
- Increase the clarity of your offer.
- Increase the relevancy of your offer to your audience (or vise versa).
- Improve your value proposition.
- Reduce anxiety (or, phrased differently, increase trust).
- Reduce distractions.
- Add urgency to your offer.
Let me go through each in the context of this specific deal. The first five are important precursors for urgency to be effective.
For this deal, I improved the clarity of the offer by posting a mock version of the deal in music forums ahead of the 100-hour campaign. That allowed me to collect feedback from my target audience.
I also used ConceptFeedback (now defunct) and communities like Dribbble to improve the visual design.
I ironed out lots of communication issues that were limiting conversions, such as offering a “pack of music contracts” in the deal. Some musicians thought this meant they were buying pre-signed contracts with record labels.
In actual fact, they were just getting a compilation of music contract templates.
When it comes to improving relevancy, you can:
- Tailor your offer to your audience.
- Tailor your audience to your offer.
I opted for the latter approach.
Prior to launch, I “tested” hundreds of traffic sources, from Reddit Ads to specific music forums. I wanted to know which traffic sources I needed to prioritize during the real campaign.
I ended up with a custom Google Analytics dashboard like the one below, which made it clear which sources delivered the most relevant traffic:
Not only did I know where my customers (not just visitors) would come from ahead of time, but I also knew more about my audience, such as how guitarists were almost three times more likely to buy than drummers, and that my conversion rate was highest in the UK and Australia.
3. Value proposition
Common sense suggests that the best way to improve your value proposition is to add more to your offer. I already had over $1,250 worth of products and services, which I was offering for $69. Why not add more to the package?
Adding more to the package actually reduced my conversion rate. Anyone who’s done their fair share of A/B testing knows that paradoxes pop up everywhere. As G. K. Chesterton said,
“a paradox is just a truth standing on its head to gain our attention”.
So what happened? When I increased the value of the offer, I also increased the amount of associated effort each customer had to put in to extract that value.
Giving away 1,000 books isn’t much better than giving away 50. While there is technically 20 times as much value, the amount of effort involved in reading and storing 1,000 books is ludicrous and not very helpful.
Lesson learned: Value isn’t always created by adding more. Quite often, less is more.
4. Reduce anxiety
Have you ever gone to buy something only to feel that something isn’t right? That’s buyer’s anxiety.
Anxiety is the uneasiness we feel when there’s a disconnect between what our logical and emotional brain is telling us. More often than not, it has something to do with trust.
In the context of online sales, it could be when you buy an item on a website that isn’t secure, doesn’t offer modern payment processing, or has a dated design.
For this deal, I eliminated as much risk as possible by offering a 30-day money-back guarantee, and adding every question asked through our live chat into the FAQ section.
If there is one person willing to ask the question, there are probably 100 others wondering but not asking.
5. Reduce distraction
Removing distractions is a controversial aspect of conversion rate optimization. Some experts advise removing every internal and external link except your call to action to make it as difficult as possible for viewers not to convert.
I fall into a different category that believes it’s better to find a balance between a nice user experience and a high-converting design with as few distractions as possible.
In this specific deal, there was no navigation, no ads, and no internal links. There were only options for viewers to contact us, read an FAQ page, or get further product details. The user experience didn’t feel like a squeeze page, yet it didn’t have distractions either.
The 6th element: Increased urgency
There’s a reason why urgency is last in this list. That’s because all five points above are important precursors to make urgency effective.
Adding urgency doesn’t work if your offer is full of distractions, or if your value proposition is crap. It won’t work if your offer’s irrelevant to your audience, or if your audience doesn’t trust you.
Urgency is a strong catalyst, but it doesn’t stand up very well on its own. After doing everything mentioned above, here’s how urgency skyrocketed the deal’s conversion rate.
Below are two variations that I A/B tested on the offer’s landing page. As you’ll notice, the only difference is that one communicates urgency and how many packages have been bought, whereas the other does not.
This is one of the most impactful A/B tests I’ve ever run. The conversion rate of Variation B was almost 3 times that of variation A.
Here’s what happened to our conversion rate as we gradually rolled out Variation B to all users. It went from ~3.5% to ~10%.
Since running this campaign, I’ve become fascinated by the power of urgency, and have found ways to use its power in many aspects of my strategy.
Below are some of the most practical ways that you can use urgency to boost your online sales (as well as blog traffic and engagement).
Real vs. implied urgency
Broadly speaking, there are two types of urgency: real and implied. An example of real urgency is when an offer expires in 24 hours, after which point it will never exist again.
Implied urgency is when you use words like “now” and “today” to nudge readers to take action. There is no real urgency, but we’re suggesting that there’s a need to act now.
Real urgency is generally more effective than implied urgency, but it’s hard to implement real urgency authentically into everything you do. If real urgency doesn’t make sense, you can make use of implied urgency.
5 ways to increase urgency for sales
1. Imply urgency in your headlines.
About five years ago, the head of PPC at an agency I used to work with challenged me to write a Google Ads headline with a higher click-through rate (CTR) than his.
Despite being a total amateur, I beat him. How? I copied his headline and changed the word “today” to “now.”
Since that fluke victory, I’ve repeated this implied urgency experiment dozens of times, thanks to a handy WordPress title A/B testing plugin. The results show a predictable pattern.
As you can see, the “control” headline with no urgency has a click-through rate of 0.77%. Adding the word “today” to the end of the headline increased the CTR to 3.94%.
Unsurprisingly, reducing the urgency by using the phrase “this week” or “this month” reduced CTR. But, strangely, in the example above, maximizing urgency (“now” instead of “today”) reduced the CTR. What gives?
It turns out that the right amount of urgency depends on the context. Very few people want to reduce their bounce rate right now. But they would rather do it today than next week.
However, when it comes to something a bit more emotionally provocative, such as this post on how to start a blog that attracts 100,000’s of readers, people suddenly want to know how to do it now, rather than later.
(It may help that the post is about how to “start” a blog. People searching for how to start something likely want to do just that: start now.)
I’d love to give you a rule for using “now” vs. “today,” but the reality is that it’s extremely dependent on the context. In hindsight, common sense usually prevails, but they key word in that sentence is usually (i.e. not always).
If you use WordPress, I’d recommend installing this title split-testing plugin, which will let science determine the best option for you. The plugin is also great for teaching you how to write clickable headlines. You get hard feedback on which headlines are performing the best.
2. Imply urgency in your calls to action.
One of the most obvious places to add implied urgency is in our calls to actions (CTAs). While headlines can of course be CTAs, I’m really referring to transactions based CTAs, such as “Buy it now!” buttons.
I recently ran an experiment on MusicLawContracts.com, a music contract site that I run as a side project. I wanted to see the difference in conversion rate between CTAs that implied urgency versus those without.
In the control, the CTA was “download this contract; for the variation, it was “download this contract now” and had a limited-offer sign with a countdown timer next to it. The result? A 147% increase in conversions, all thanks to a bit of extra urgency.
3. Add stock urgency.
One of the most powerful ways to add real urgency to your landing pages is to advise visitors that if they don’t act soon, they might miss out. There are two ways to do this:
- Stock urgency;
- Time-based urgency.
Hotel comparison websites do a great job of adding real stock urgency. Booking.com shows multiple instances of stock urgency on search results pages and individual booking pages, all suggesting that a hotel room won’t be available for long.
4. Add time-based urgency.
If you’ve ever played a time-sensitive game, you’ll be familiar with the effects of a ticking clock. Having a limited amount of time to do something forces us to take action.
Groupon, Expedia, and Ticketmaster all use this technique to drive up their conversions. Entire sites—like eBay—depend on it:
5. Imply urgency with color.
In most Western countries, we’re conditioned from a young age to believe that the color red implies urgency. When shops have flash sales, they often paint the word “Sale” in red. (The most urgent and important road signs are often red, too.)
In the case study mentioned above, I experimented with showing the current stock and time remaining in three colors—green, orange, and red. Red had the highest conversion rate. (Here’s the full answer to the question “Which color converts best?”
Color is another tool in our arsenal to imply the need to pay attention and act quickly.
There are very few instances in which a small dose of real or implied urgency won’t increase your conversion rate. That said, like all things that provide us with great power, it’s important not to abuse it.
The next time you write an email subject line, landing page copy, or a PPC advert, consider what you might be able to do to add a bit of urgency (or scarcity) to what you’re offering.
Finally, in researching this post I was surprised by the lack of case studies available on sites that had used urgency and scarcity to increase their sales. If you’ve ran any experiments or are aware of any good case studies, please post them in the comments below.
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Thanks for pointing out that while there is a dominant factor to conversion, the result is a product of several factors. I love the part about adding more lowering conversion rate. Sometimes we just provide too much for the customer to process. Others, they just stop believing the deal is real because we are giving away too much stuff.
But it does leave me wondering if you can overuse urgency and eventually it wears thin with your customer base?
That’s a very good question Jay.
I think it’s going to very much depend on your business model. For something like what Marcus is doing with The Musician’s Guide… maybe. If that’s all they were doing.
Certainly it wore on Groupon after a while.
But, if it were part of a bigger model, like how Amazon or BestBuy or countless other eCommerce sites, probably not.
Also, I really appreciated how he included the travel sites, as that’s a very good example of something that’s consistently “urgent” so the evergreen nature of always needing to buy in a hurry doesn’t really go away.
Same with concert tickets.
I think the important lesson here isn’t just “use urgency” but see how you can leverage it to make sense within your existing model or to create a special offer of sorts.
Truly killer post, I just noted down the point and it will help me to boost my affiliate sales, thanks man.
What’s the name of the WordPress headline split test plugin that you mentioned? I’ve been looking for a plugin instead of split testing email subject lines.
Shock – the plugin I use for split testing post headlines is this one: https://wordpress.org/plugins/title-split-testing-for-wordpress/
Not sure I agree with the analysis of your #1.
It doesn’t seem to me to be about urgency as much as ease or quickness.
People want to reduce their bounce rate quickly. They can do it today (which means, in less than a day’s time)? Great!
That’s also why the CTR tapers off as you start implying it’s going to take more and more time.
David, your insight sounds right. That would also explain why in some cases saying “Now” would not be as effective as “Today”… “Today” sounds remotely possible while “Now” just seems dishonest.
I remember Peep’s campaign of his Conversion Coaching Program, he used some scarcity and other very effective sales techniques there, maybe he could give more insight on this one?
What can I say – I sold out. Scarcity definitely helped I think. I didn’t test it, so no data available.
very useful post. I was experimenting with different headlines foe my blog posts and I noticed shorter ones 50-60 characters work better compared with very long ones. Common sense again
This is a great post – super useful. Thanks for this.
Very utilitarian post, I must say Marc. Thank you for sharing your insights.
Great post. Makes sense… urgency works to “force” people to make decisions.
If you were selling a limited amount of something, you could tie a script into your processing that shows how many copies are left out of x amount. (also gives you a bit of social proof as the number continues to drop in real time while the user is on the page)
@ Marcus… I’m curious… in the examples above,
1. what happens when the timer hits zero?
2. Was there a more effective way to show the urgency/timer?
1) When the timer hit zero it simple displayed a message saying ‘deal expired’ and all CTAs were disabled.
2) Definitely. I split tested numerous methods including fixed position timers vs. absolute positioned ones. While I found that fixed position worked best and that displaying timers near to CTAs increased conversion rates, there are plenty more tests that could have been ran!
Really interesting post. I’m almost at CA point as I’m developing my site. My product is an e book so scarcity in quantity is implausible. Any thoughts on how else to increase perceived scarcity in that situation?
It’s not implausible!
Limited time discounts, pre-order bonus packages, limited time “bundle” offers, there are a number of ways you can frame a digital download to include scarcity in the offer.
Look at some of the archives from people like Gary Vaynerchuk or Chris Brogan when they’re in launch mode. They offer all sorts of “limited time offers” around their books.
Many of which can be applied to a digital only release.
Also, don’t rule out print as an option. with sites like http://blurb.com you can also have a limited time “print edition” offer.
Oops “CTA point” – Damn auto-correct : p
Thanks for this post. I have been struggling with the conversion rate with one of my clients and I can’t wait to try some of these techniques. Your the Best!
Wow! Fantastic article Marcus – best case study I have read in a long time – very inspirational.
I’ve been meaning to dip my toes into the scarcity waters for myself and my clients… what tool/plugin do you suggest for adding a countdown timer to pages? I was looking at scarcitysamurai.com.
Oh, and thanks for the heads up on that wordpress headline testing tool – never seen that before.
Rich Page: Website Optimizer
Great article. I’m going to add some more experiments to my PPC campaigns.
Influence by Cialdini is a great read which includes some references to scarcity.
Also the guys at Marketing Samurai did some tests and were so moved they created a plug in around scarcity
Hey, great article and learning resource, again. You should add one of those ‘Get the PDF’ for a Tweet or Share plugins. I am constantly printing your articles out for review, they get passed around the office, and then they get stored and passed to interns and new hires – I may not be the only one that does this – but I’d be more than willing to Tweet or Share to get a PDF.
When I read articles like this (and by the way, excellent article, well written and comprehensive), they remind me of another article I read on the fallasy of A/B testing. It suggested when you do A/B testing, that you really need to do A/A/B testing.
You are going to see a difference in CTR’s, for example, if you just test A against itself. So to effectively test B against A, you want to run three tests, consisting of two tests of headline A and one of headline B.
Then if B is the middle performing headline, you do not have a clear winner yet. But if both A’s outperform B, or B out perform’s both A’s then you can declare a winner.
Anyway, I always thought that was interesting but have not yet put it into practice myself.
Very interesting article. Im very interested in learning about what motivates consumers online and this has really opened my eyes to a whole new dimension. Thanks!
Nice examples of using psychological mechanisms. Thank you for sharing.
Funny enough – when I myself are out to buy something on the internet, i allwayes see these “creating urgency” but have forgot to use it in my one ads an on my web shop :-) now i will start doing it so thanks…
What split testing software is that?
Is looks similar to the old Google Conversion Optimizer.
An intriguing discussion is worth comment.
I think that yoou ought to publish more
on this issue, it might not be a taboo subject buut usuually folks don’t talk about such topics.
To the next! Cheers!!
Very good examples of using psycho mechanisms. I am very interested in learning about what motivates consumers online and this has really opened my eyes to a whole new dimension. Thanks!
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