This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
Psychological research repeatedly shows that people put the most value on the things they can’t get. They value things and opportunities that become less available or more exclusive. Loss language motivates people more than an offering of a gain or benefit. Potential losses weigh more heavily than potential gains in the thinking of average people and also of managers in corporations.
The lesson for communicators, where you judge this approach to be appropriate, is to focus your message on the possible losses caused by not taking action, rather than just on the benefits. For instance, in a change communication message you can say “If we don’t act now, we are going to start making losses on…” and “We need to change the way we do [action or process] because we are losing customers” and “We must move fast because [number of] jobs in the [department] will be lost if we don’t.”
If you are writing media releases, advertisements or direct marketing letters, you can highlight the possible losses by using headlines like:
“Don’t miss out!”
“Act now before they are all gone!”
“These will only be available for a short time!”
“Move quickly to take up this great offer!”
“Limited time only!”
Corny, perhaps, but effective. However, these claims must be genuine or they will backfire on you. If you say you are holding a closing-down sale, it needs to be a closing-down sale, or customers and regulators will pursue you for false trading practices.
Here is the principle of avoiding a lost opportunity in action, as used by a real estate developer in a full-color ad in today’s newspaper:
Headline: “Don’t miss the boat”
Subhead 1: Four rare north-facing canal homesites, now selling”
Subhead 2: “Do nothing, and you could miss out.”
The body copy says among other things: “But Stage 5 homesites are selling fast, and with only four of these north-facing homesites available, time is of the essence.”
The exclusivity and loss messages come through strongly.
The same phenomenon occurs widely in business. Potential losses figure far more heavily in managers’ decisions than potential gains. Experiments in psychology have shown business people react more strongly to potential loss. When buyers of agricultural products were told that weather conditions overseas were likely to create a shortage of a certain product, they doubled their orders. What’s more, when told they were the first to receive that information, they increased their orders six fold!
Likewise, retailers told half their customers they would save a certain amount of money each day if they fully insulated their homes. The other half were told they would lose the same amount each day if they failed to insulate. Significantly more people insulated their homes when exposed to the loss language.
Exclusive information is more persuasive than widely available data. You can use the power of exclusivity and scarcity in the workplace. If you have information that is not widely available, and which supports your idea or initiative, you can offer it to your key internal stakeholders – the people you want to win over. Exclusivity makes it special. Offer it to them: “I just got this report today. It won’t be distributed until next week, but I want to give you an early look at what it shows.” Then watch your listeners eagerly take up your offer.
In line with this – When I was corporate affairs manager at a large company, my boss, the group’s marketing manager, wanted me to inform him immediately of any major group communication announcements so he could be perceived by his peers as having inside knowledge of forthcoming corporate actions.
In all this you should only act genuinely. Apart from violating the fundamental principle of honesty, you are also likely to be found out at some point if you try to artificially create a shortage to suit your ulterior purposes. If you deceive people in this way you will find the rule of reciprocity comes into play: what you do to them, they are likely to do to you!
Source: Influence: Science and Practice, 5th edition, by Robert B. Cialdini.
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