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The Effect of FOMO on Marketing and Digital

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Before it was synthesised into a handy acronym, fear of missing out (FOMO) was a well known phenomenon. It is evolutionarily and biologically hard-wired into us as humans, hence the invent over the centuries of myriad ways to communicate information. The internet, of course, being one of the most successful of these.

But the internet has also intensified, and abbreviated, fear of missing out. With so much information available, whether about the world at large, your favourite celebrity or brand, or even your closest circle of friends, missing out is a very real and daily danger. How are marketers harnessing this feeling for commercial reasons?

How does FOMO work? 

Although FOMO derives from our ancient survival instincts, in the internet age we are no longer worried about missing out a particularly juicy mammoth carcass that the rest of the hunter-gatherers are chowing down on. FOMO is, however, inherently social, built around our relationships and comparisons to others. No one wants to be the one left out.

On an intimate level it challenges our view of our personal relationships. Whether it’s pictures of your friends on a night out without you or the latest cute thing Kanye’s done for Kim, the internet drives your FOMO. Why wouldn’t my friends want to go out with me? What can I do to be more fun? Why can’t I have a man who will hire a whole cinema screen for me? Cue searches for cool hotspots and dating sites.

"FOMO drives millennials’ experiential appetite: Nearly 7 in 10 (69%) millennials experience FOMO. In a world where life experiences are broadcasted across social media, the fear of missing out drives millennials to show up, share and engage." 

(Eventbrite US Study)

On a broader level, FOMO makes us hold every aspect of our lives to account. Aspirational social networks like Instagram and Pinterest, as well as the constant feed of people more wealthy and successful than 95% of us, leaves many people feeling like their lives don’t measure up. That they’re missing out on the best clothes, holidays, jobs, tech, cars…the list is endless.

FOMO leads to irrational thoughts, which in turn leads to irrational behaviours, like impulse purchases. This type of consumer comes with a moral health warning; principled organisations need to tread carefully here.

The “fear of missing out (FOMO) deeply triggers our brains into imaging possibilities, fuel regret and cause anxiety." Professor Dan Ariely

In order to get the most out of FOMO, any marketer must, to a degree, understand how the brain actually engages with digital messaging and then makes a decision.

According to We are Social, there are more than 3 billion active social media users worldwide which gives any marketer, a huge potential audience.

How can digital marketers leverage FOMO?

  • by using the thing your target consumer is missing out on
  • by using the 'generic fear itself'

We all already use the former quite widely, using browser behaviour to place dynamic and retargeting ads. This goes some way to explain the growth of social advertising against the relative decline of search ads. Socials ads allow an aspirational product or brand image to be placed innocuously between organic images of lifestyles, friends and holidays.

FOMO appears to be an inherently visual phenomenon, which plays into the hands of social and print media. A consumer can drool over an acquaintance’s dreamy holiday pictures, and then click on an image of a photogenic sunset and book an Instagram-friendly escape of their own.

The latter method, using the fear itself rather than its context, is receiving most of the attention online. Much of the tools to do with FOMO appear relatively common-sensical, but wrapping them in the package of FOMO helps to focus the mind on the audience and objective.

  • You can leverage FOMO by creating scarcity of products and deals. Countdowns to sell out on ecommerce websites are becoming increasingly common, panicking the casual browser into making that impulse purchase for fear of missing out on a popular product. Similarly you can limit the amount of time a deal is available. Advertising these visually on social media drives impulse purchases.
  • Encouraging social sharing is a vital part of FOMO marketing. This enables your brand and product to be a part of the fear for a whole new segment of customers. It makes your existing customers feel part of the ‘in’ crowd, while creating organic social content.

How are businesses using FOMO successfully?


When Pinterest first launched they only allowed people access to the site if a friend invited them. This created an exclusive feel which made people want to join even if they weren’t really sure what the site was about.

Ambiguous time limits

We’re all used to seeing deals labelled ‘Limited Time Only!’ and “While Stocks Last’. Using ambiguous time scales drives impulse FOMO purchases as consumers buy now to avoid missing the end of the sale.


Apple have mastered the principles of FOMO in their product roll-out techniques. They build hype on social media, leak product details that fans hungrily share to be First to Know (a side effect of FOMO), and finally release a limited quantity so that people want it even more.

How much do you suffer from FOMO? Find out here:


(*updated May 2020 from October 2015)

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