Increasing User Urgency
Underneath the hood of every high-converting website is a complex psychological landscape.
The pixels on the screen, the position of the CTA buttons, the images, the motion, the layout the flow — all of this creates a psychological response in the user.
This psychological response, no matter what it is, is one of the most powerful features in conversion optimization. Psychology drives everything.
By now, my saying this has become my proverbial broken record. But time and again, experience and data confirm my position.
Conversion optimization is all about psychology.
Urgency is one of the most powerful psychological tactics in the optimizer’s arsenal. Urgency is one of the things that backs up the whole motive and method of human behavior. If the urgency is there, then response will happen.
So, my question is, how do we increase user urgency?
I like to think of urgency as a button in the user’s brain. If we can reach out and press this button (sorry, gross analogy), then we can make that user convert.
The idea is that simple, but the psychology behind urgency is much more complex.
That is the question of this whole article: How do we increase user urgency?
To help answer this article’s question, I’m going straight to the tactics, seven of them. Along the way, I’m going to allow some of the psychology to bubble up.
What is urgency?
Urgency, according to its dictionary definition is “importance requiring swift action.” To put it in its conversion context, urgency makes the customer want to buy now.
Situated in its psychological origins, urgency puts the brain on high alert. A person affected by urgency not only recognizes the importance of the situation, but is experiencing an actual bodily response that makes it more likely that they will act.
In an urgent situation, the body releases chemicals that sharpen the mind, prepare the reflexes, and enable the body to act quickly.
Recognizing this reality, if landing page creators and conversion optimizers can create urgent situations, they can also create more action — more conversions.
Urgency has different types as described in the medical literature. The basic differentiation in urgency levels is positive and negative.
Negative urgency is characterized by “neuroticism, low conscientiousness, and disagreeableness.” Positive urgency, on the other hand, is characterized by high conscientiousness and emotional excitement.
One is not good and the other bad; they simply are.
In the case of both positive and negative urgencies, the outcomes can either be negative or positive. For example, positive urgency has been correlated with negative addictive behaviors such as gambling or drinking. Negative urgency is correlated with adverse psychological and neurotic conditions.
Whatever their various extremes, however, all urgency has the same basic response: It precipitates action.
The interesting thing to note about this action is that it is usually unpremeditated. That is, the subject does not think about his or her behavior beforehand. She just does it, based on the immediacy of the situation.
This action-without-cognition is one of the reasons that urgency is so powerful.
If the person is doing without thinking, then it reduces a major source of friction from the conversion process.
Cognitive friction, that indefinable term that is a catchall for conversion hang-ups, is dealt a serious blow by the presence of urgency.
Though conversion likelihood on any given site may be low, urgency can make it higher.
So, let’s get into some of those tactics now, shall we?
Scarcity builds on the power of limited resources. If you have little of a product, people want to obtain it.
This is fact, and it’s known to social psychologists as “the scarcity bias.” Luigi Mittone and Lucia Savadori provided empirical support for the scarcity bias in their groundbreaking article published in Applied Psychology (Volume 58, Issue 3, pages 453–468, July 2009).
The abstract of the article can explain much better than I can:
Two experiments provided empirical support for the scarcity bias, that is, when the subjective value of a good increases due to the mere fact that it is scarce. We define scarcity as the presence of limited resources and competition on the demand side (i.e., not enough for two people). In Experiment 1, 180 students were divided into two conditions. The same good was abundant in one condition but scarce in the other one. The scarcity condition involved a partner (competitor) to create scarcity, while the abundant condition did not. Results showed that more participants chose a good when it was scarce than when it was abundant, for two out of four sets of items (ballpoints, snacks, pencils and key rings). Experiment 2 employed 171 participants and a WTA (willingness to accept) elicitation procedure of the subjective value of the good. Results showed that the scarce good was given a higher WTA price by those participants choosing it than by those who did not, compared to the WTA of the abundant good, despite the fact that both types of participants assigned a lower market price to the scarce good, as compared to the abundant one.
If you skipped over that fat paragraph because it was boring, do not skip over the next 11 words, because I’m going to sum it up for you in way simpler terms:
“Humans place a higher value on an object that is scarce.” (Source)
So, what should you do? You should make your product scarce. There are plenty of ways to do this — stock depletion, limited quantities, etc. Scarcity is a matter of perception, not reality.
Although you should never be disingenuous, you can suggest the presence of scarcity, even though you have the ability to replenish your stock, make more product, etc.
Here’s an example of social media selling from Canna-Releaf. They are advertising a seminar opening, and using the “few more openings” line to suggest scarcity.
Use a challenging feel.
Some people feel urgency when they face a challenge. Let me give you a quick example: mountain climbing.
You’ve probably heard this mantra of mountain climbers.
Question: Why climb Everest?
Answer: Because it's there.
George Mallory, the mountaineer who died in his attempt to summit Mount Everest, said this famous phrase. His response is said to be “the most famous three words in mountaineering"
What’s the psychology going on here? The challenge creates the urgency of action.
Thus, if you can challenge your audience to do something, be something, face something, or aspire to something, it increases their urgency to the level of action.
Keep in mind, this approach to inspiring urgency does not work for everyone. The famous Type A/Type B personality division suggests that A-types are going to respond to the challenge, while the B-types won’t care.
If you know that your audience or preferred audience is mostly in the driven Type-A group, then you should use some form of challenge to inspire action.
NorthFace, the namesake of Mt. Everest’s famous slope, uses this technique. Their target audience is the adventurous group — people who want to climb mountains, ski slopes, explore backcountry and do cool stuff. For most of us, we just think it’s a cool brand.
See how their homepage feeds this sense of challenge? There’s a guy giving you a grim glance from beneath the hooded protection of a jacket sprinkled with snow. It’s cold. He’s on a mountain.
He’s obviously a badass.
Plus, look at the language they use: “Built for the pursuit.”
It’s kind of like a jacket built for this kind of activity:
Under Armour does the same thing. Macho Santa? “Battle the elements?” North pole stuff? Heck, yes.
In other words, they’re nailing with the urgency thing, and I want to buy these threads.
The process of creating competition doesn’t need to be hard. You can simply use language that increases the idea of competition:
- Bet you won’t be able to click the “Buy Now” button in 0.91 seconds.
- See if you can score higher than 90% of your peers.
- A 2nd grader can nail this. Can you?
- Do you have what it takes?
- Give it all you got.
- Fifteen million people failed this simple test.
You can use a full-on contest if you want. Online competitions are a successful, if not sometimes risky, form of buy-in and attraction.
Time is its own world of urgency.
In the Western world, we live with the linear approach to time.
To those of us steeped in a modern world with buzzers, clocks, countdown timers, alarm clocks, deadlines, minutes, hours, and seconds, this is blatantly obvious. When contrasted with non-Western cultures, however, it’s like we have this psychic obsession.
Some people view time as cyclical.
Time comprises cycles of sunrise/sunset, new moon/full moon, birth/death, rainy season/dry season, planting/harvesting, birth/rebirth.
This is experienced in very real ways in cultures that lack time devices, have very few deadlines, and show up whenever they feel like it, not when you expect it. It’s not a deficiency; it’s a product of the way one views time.
Back on point, then. Our linear view of time plays right into the use of time as a tool of urgency.
We view time as a resource with economical parallels. Time is something we spend, use, buy, budget, save, allocate, earn or waste. Thus, when we see the conventional signals of time, we automatically respond with some level of urgency.
Notice the ticking time bomb in this landing page — a clear means of creating time-generated urgency.
Amazon uses the time urgency tactic very successfully. In this landing page for the Fire HD 7 tablet, they place a "limited time" banner at the top of the product description.
Amazon even has an entire page devoted to creating urgency. Notice that intimidating word “cutoffs,” as if something is going to be violently severed by means of a sharp object.
The limited-time offer is not hard to implement. Just tell people that time is limited, and you automatically increase urgency in spades.
Try the tilted impact.
Or the starburst circle.
Or the warning approach.
Or just about anything else you want.
You can create urgency just by using the right words or phrases. Rather than bore you with the psychological data that backs up these verbal cues, let me go ahead and just give you the list. (Complements of Eric Luenberger, at The Ecommerce Expert.)
- LIMITED TIME
- ACT NOW
- LAST CHANCE
- FINAL CLOSE-OUT
- GOING OUT-OF-BUSINESS
- ONE DAY ONLY
- NEVER AGAIN
- DON’T DELAY
- NOW OR NEVER
- DON’T MISS OUT
- OFFER EXPIRES
- ONCE IN A LIFETIME
- PROMPTNESS BONUS
- PRICES GOING UP
Beyond urgency-inducing words, you can also try urgency-inducing images. Like urgent words and phrases, these images create an awareness of the intensive nature of an offer or promotion, a sensation of passing time, and the need to act.
A time bomb.
The color red.
If you’re familiar with the psychology of color, you’re aware that different colors can create different reactions and responses within humans.
Scientists have discovered that the color red actually produces physical responses:
The most emotionally intense color, red stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing.
All the scientific literature affirms the same response: Red is energizing. It creates action. It inspires emotion.
Basically, red is the color of urgency.
There are myriad ways of creating higher urgency levels. In this article, I’m only scratching the surface. In order to really amp up your conversions, inducing urgency is a clear and obvious solution, backed by solid psychological data.
- Make your products scarce.
- Create a challenging feel.
- Create competition.
- Impose deadlines.
- Use urgency-inducing words.
- Use urgency-inducing pictures.
- Use the color red.
The more you dabble in the dangerous field of urgency, the more you’ll discover its power and be persuaded by its potential. Plus, you’ll figure out even more ways of inspiring urgency in your users.