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Understand the Psychology and Ethics of FoMO Marketing

Understand the Psychology and Ethics of FoMO Marketing
September 29, 2022

Is usability part of marketing? Is marketing part of usability? What about design?

If you work in any (or all three) of these fields, then you know how much they interweave and overlap. Chances are, you also know how these three areas branch out and integrate lessons from disciplines like psychology, cognitive science, sociology, economics, data science, and business — to name a few.

As part of our Usability 101 series, kicked off recently alongside the start of school, we’re sharing lessons learned from various disciplines that can lead to a better and more engaging user experience. Here, we focus on a phenomenon of marketing psychology we’ve all experienced: the fear of missing out, known in our vernacular as FoMO.

The psychology of FoMO

What, exactly, does FoMO mean? In a regularly-cited study from 2013, Oxford University social scientist Andrew Przybylski, Ph.D., defines FoMO as a “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent, … a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.” In other words, it’s the sense of wanting to join in and not get left behind, of wanting to keep up with the Joneses (or whatever group we hold in high esteem).

Psychologically, FoMO stems from our innate desire to belong, combined with our need for recognition from others, especially those we admire and want to emulate. Pretty heavy stuff, right? Do we really want to go there in marketing?

Intentionally striking fear into your potential or current clients or members may sound like a terrible idea. After all, you’ve built an organization or association with integrity and want it to remain that way. But research shows that FoMO marketing works, and with so many others using it, why shouldn’t you?

Consider, for example, that a study from OptinMonster found that 60 percent of millennial consumers said they make reactive purchases after experiencing FoMO, most within 24 hours. Similarly, in a survey by, 56 percent of participants said they’re afraid of missing an important event, piece of news, or status update if they don’t keep a near-constant check on their social media feeds.

And while FoMO tends to happen more frequently to younger age groups, research indicates that it can happen to anyone. “FoMO is not an adolescent or young adult problem, necessarily,” explains Chris Barry, a psychology professor at Washington State University, who published a 2020 study about FoMO in The Journal of Science and Personal Relationships. “It’s really about individual differences, irrespective of age.”

The ethics of FoMO marketing

Chances are, a large percentage of your target audience experiences at least some degree of FoMO. But does that mean you should take the plunge and use it?

You’ll get different answers, depending on who you ask. Our standpoint at Astriata is that you can, in fact, take an ethical approach to FoMO marketing, without breaking the integrity your organization worked so hard to build. But you need to go in with your eyes open, and as the old saying goes, treat others as you want to be treated.

No doubt about it: FoMO is not exactly a halcyon experience. FoMO represents a form of anxiety, one triggered by a fear of feeling alienated and falling behind. There’s nothing pleasant about it, but as many psychologists point out — FoMO is a natural part of our human existence. And it can lead to plenty of positives. As one of our colleagues shared, she never would have gone to graduate school and learned to design awesome websites if most of her friends hadn’t also been pursuing an advanced degree. She didn’t want to be the only one without the credential.

“I never once regretted that decision,” she says. “It truly made my career.”

How to do FoMO marketing — the right way

If you’re using FoMO to peddle diamonds on people who can’t afford precious gemstones, you’re engaging in an unethical use of FoMO. But most of our clients aren’t in the business of diamond peddling. Instead, they’re doing things that make a difference, whether through associations that share research and information, and facilitate network-building and collaboration, or through healthcare, non-profit, education, technology, or B2B organizations.

So, the question is: What FoMO marketing tactics work for organizations and associations contributing to the greater good?

First and foremost are honesty and authenticity. For instance, don’t inflate your association’s member stats or pay an influencer large sums of money to promote your services. Instead, find actual, real-life members to provide things like testimonials and reviews, while creating and showcasing other forms of user-generated content, whether through blog posts, videos, podcasts, case studies, social media posts, email campaigns, or print collateral..

Also invest in creating quality content, especially if you’re an association that provides research-based information as a core part of your services. And tap into the reality that events are a hot ticket item these days, whether because we’re all starved from the lack of interaction caused by the coronavirus pandemic, or because we’re all looking for content to share on our social media platforms — and there’s nothing better than an event to trigger a fear of missing out. Keep in mind that your event doesn’t need to take place in person. Events like webinars and live streams can occur in the virtual world and still spark a sense of not wanting to miss out, in an ethical way.

Think, too, about how FoMO contributes to user engagement. For example, sharing your social media icons or even snippets of interactions can encourage others to join the conversation, just as sharing case studies can entice potential members or clients to engage your services or reach out to inquire about a partnership.

FoMO marketing can be both ethical and effective if used cautiously and strategically, and these are only a few ways to make it a guilt-free part of your marketing, usability, and design efforts. To learn more about how FoMO marketing can help, or to start a conversation with Astriata’s team of UX and design experts, get in touch.

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