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Please stop FOMO marketing

www5 min read

4871 people are reading this blog post right now!

No, of course they are not, you are probably the only one reading it! This simply is a very basic example of FOMO marketing and while it may seem harmless, I think it's not - and we have to stop it on the internet, for good!

So, what is FOMO marketing exactly

FOMO marketing is a sales technique that relies on F.O.M.O (Fear of missing out), which according to Wikipedia is: the feeling of apprehension that one is missing out on information, events, experiences, or life decisions that could make one's life better.

Very common examples of FOMO marketing can be seen on:

  • Travel booking websites - eg: 24 people are watching your same room, book now
  • Ecommerce websites - eg: we have only 1 left of this item and 48 people are watching it
  • Influencers selling courses on social media - eg: we usually charge xxx for this course but today is free, only for today or I'll tell you super secret things, but only if you join this list, Facebook group, etc...

The list is very long, but I think you get the idea already. The website leverage the idea you could "miss" that specific item to push the user to buy it, simple as that.

Ok, and what's wrong with that?

Well, many things! Let's start from the basics.

Issue #1 is that FOMO is a real thing and is strictly related to anxiety disorders. While is not classified as a disorder itself, it's now globally recognized as an anxiety factor. It's very dangerous territory and using it for the only purpose to sell things and make money, in my opinion, is at least unethical (and I am being nice here).

Issue #2 is that many times, platforms try to leverage FOMO feelings using fake statements. Of course, every site is a black box from the outside, so is difficult to prove it but let's take a look at the facts:

  • when you see statements like "20 people are watching this item", if you try to connect other clients (like smartphones, tablets, other laptops) even from different IPs that number does not increase
  • if you try to refresh the page after a few minutes, the number rarely changes - which is unlikely because the average time on a site page is rarely more than a few minutes
  • many of the FOMO marketing "call to actions" are loaded in JavaScript by 3rd party tools. Now if you are not a developer this does not mean anything to you, but to simplify, it's a separate platform (not the origin server), often a marketing tool, to "inject" those numbers on a site
  • we know for sure that there are tools built to generate FOMO that allows site owners to randomize numbers, see: (just to mention one).

These are not assumptions, as a developer I did some work reverse-engineering some websites, and those are things I've seen many many times. I am thinking to publish a more technical paper if needed, but let's stay on the topic for now.

We live in times when websites must ask for permission to place a cookie in the user browser (never heard of GDPR?), and we allow them to deliberately lie in the face to their users to generate more sales?

Issue #3 FOMO on the internet relies on obscurity. Imagine yourself in a real shop, with the shop assistant telling you: "hey, 2 other people are whatching these shoes, hurry up and buy", but the shop is empty... you'll probably laugh and run away. But on the internet you don't know and so you trust.

Issue #4 the world is going online, now more than ever with the pandemic. So is our job as users to try to make the internet a better and more liveable place. Allowing websites to generate FOMO using fake information is definitely not a way to live peacefully on the web. The web is not a market anymore, is where millennials are spending most of their time (whether we like it or not).

To summarize is probably opinable that we should allow FOMO marketing on the internet, but I think is out of the discussion that doing it with fake data/statements should be strictly forbidden.

Of course, this is my point of view as a person and as a developer (this is my blog, isn't it?), but I'd be happy to hear opinions from mental health professionals and law experts about it (please get in touch).

Despite in my eyes is so bad, it looks like nobody is talking about it. In fact, if you try to Google "FOMO marketing", the results will all look like "FOMO Techniques to Boost Sales" and similar.

Ok, how do we stop it then?

I think there are multiple ways to stop it or at least make it fairer for the users. Or even better, multiple actors could intervene and make it happen.

The Legislator / the legal way

The same way we had a law to regulate cookies and internet tracking (at least in Europe), we should have one to regulate this kind of borderline marketing strategy.

We don't know who is on the other side of the screen, but if there is a chance that a marketing tool is harming the user's mental health, we should regulate it and fine platforms which abuse that.

I am not saying it has to be completely forbidden, but at least regulated. Eg: the platform has to inform the user of the use of such a technique.

The browsers / the tech way

The tool we all use to access and navigate the internet is the browser (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc...). So - in very simple terms - the browser can act as a "screen" and strip-out harmful FOMO marketing if the user wants to.

A good starting point would be creating a browser extension with that purpose.

We, the users / the theoretical way

On the internet, the things that work are the ones that stick and grow. If we as users start to avoid websites that use these unfair marketing strategies, they would probably stop.

I know this sounds a bit utopistic, mainly because FOMO marketing unfortunately seems to work pretty well.

Finally, not all FOMO marketing is really FOMO

I feel like I need to clarify one thing at this stage. This post sounds like a rant which is not usually a thing I do, but in this case, I feel we are underestimating a big problem.

Not all FOMO marketing is bad. Showing a pop-up that says "Francesco from Spain just bought this thing" is not bad (as long as it's true) and is called "Social Proof". But pushing the user hard, leveraging the mental path that he/she is gonna miss out on a thing is not acceptable.

I don't know the impact that this microscopic blog on my microscopic site can have, but if you agree with the above or if you just want to have a constructive discussion, please tweet about it using the hashtag #pleasestopfomo #stopfomomarketing and maybe mention me with @francecarlucci!

Thanks for reading!