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Creating a Sense of Urgency: The Science of Why It Matters

Effective marketing includes creating a fear of losing out on an amazing deal.

I had a couple of people email me to ask about my feelings on offers and what kinds of offers we use. I do believe in doing an offer and part of the reason why is to create a sense of urgency. Here is the back side of a post card we use here at My Maid Service as an example. 

Three Keys
Effective marketing materials all have, at minimum, three key elements: an offer, a call to action and a deadline. The deadline creates that critical sense of urgency that you want that prospective client to develop – that feeling that “if I don’t do it now, I’ll lose out on something incredible!”

Injecting Fear
In 1965, Yale psychology researcher Howard Leventhal created an experiment to show that being specific and appealing to a minor fear factor got more students doing what he wanted than being general. Essentially, for a really effective marketing piece, you have to tell your customers what to do (call to action) and to create a sense of urgency (deadline).

Leventhal was trying to increase the number of students getting a free Tetanus shot from the on-campus clinic, so he created two brochures which were given to seniors. The first was very descriptive with facts and data. The second was designed to test the theory that marketing with fear would be more effective so he included lots of graphic pictures of people with Tetanus and the terribly painful way they died. Both brochures included the statement that shots were available for free at the student clinic and the phone number for the clinic. A survey shows that the students who read the more graphic pamphlet were three times more likely to say they were going to be inoculated. However, when Leventhal checked later in both groups, only 3% of the seniors actually got the shot.


Getting Specific
Dr. Leventhal then added to both pamphlets a map with the clinic circled and times when the shots were going to be given. This is the only thing that was changed on the brochures. After this change, both the high-fear and regular brochures led to 28% of the students actually getting the inoculation. This one small change more than anything caused a nearly 10 times increase in the students actually getting the shots. Remember these are seniors, they almost certainly knew where the clinic was. The combination of the map and the times took getting a shot from a general idea to clear instructions to the students on how to fit this into their lives. In the original brochure, the students were convinced a tetanus shot was something they should get, eventually. The second brochure made a Tetanus shot something a student needed to have at a specific time and a place.  

Someday Never Comes
This is a lot like our customers. The scary brochure convinced the students that the shot was something they should do, when they got around to it. They said on the survey they were 3 times more likely to get the shot. But when it came down to it, only 3% actually did it, the same as the boring flyer. Adding the date and time gave them a sense of urgency; they knew where and when they had to go to get the shots.  

We need to do the same thing. If our offers are good but have no clear call to action, clients will throw it into their coupon box intending to get to it someday. Someday never comes. The idea that they may lose out on the offer encourages them to pick up the phone right now and take action.

What this tells us is that the single most important thing on any marketing material is the call to action. You need to clearly tell the customer what to do and when. For example we use “Call 513-934-3254 by Friday for $100 off the first time with bi-weekly or weekly service.” Not everyone will agree with this aggressive of a discount, but you have to admit, it creates a real sense of urgency. CALL NOW is not enough. You need to say to call what and when.  

More than the expensive artwork and graphic designers, you need to make sure you have a clear and urgent call to action.

Derek Christian is founder and owner of My Maid Service, Cincinnati’s largest, independent professional cleaning company. Prior to that, he spent thirteen years at P&G working on household cleaning products.

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