Is this the final countdown?





These are the feelings at work behind a widely-used sales and marketing device: the countdown timer. Countdowns work because the idea that time is running out is a very effective motivator. It can get us to take action quickly so that we can avoid feelings of loss, remorse, or regret later. 

Timers seem to be most often used for retail and other online sales to let would-be consumers know that, if they want to get the special promotion, they need to take action before the sale ends. It's a visual reminder that the offer won't last forever. It's compelling and it works. 

For our purposes though, my dear nonprofit friends, I'm interested in whether countdown timers are as helpful and motivating in solicitation emails as they are in the for-profit context. For that answer, I went to the polls. I asked folks on LinkedIn to tell me about their feelings (or lack thereof) for countdown timers. Here's what it looked like:

At first glance, the prevailing sentiment appears to be that countdown timers make people feel manipulated or stressed (45%). These respondents probably don't buy the case for urgency or simply don't like to feel pressured into making decisions. Reasonable.

But, considering the other choices together, it's probably more accurate to say that most people either find countdown timers to be motivational or are neutral on the issue - 54% in this example. This might suggest that using a countdown would be a good thing to try in your next campaign.  

As with most marketing debates, there's no right or wrong answer here. Whether or not nonprofits use timers in their email appeals ought to be a strategic organizational choice. More important, in my view, is how they're used. After all, every email an organization sends has the opportunity to build or erode trust. Since countdown timers inevitably create tension, it's important that they're used thoughtfully and with integrity.  

To help you do that, here are my 3 tips for using timers with care:

  1. Remember that, although you're not in retail, you are selling something: your value proposition. What opportunity will go away when time runs out? What impact will the donor miss out on making? Is it unique or exclusive?  
  2. Explain why there's a deadline. Arbitrary cut-off dates and fake time constraints feel pushy and manipulative. Today's audiences can spot inauthentic tactics a mile away. If the end of your timer is not June 30th or December 31st, be sure to provide believable context and justification for the urgency.
  3. Consider your language and keep the consequences in perspective. Timers can be positioned positively and may be used as a fun way to encourage participation, depending on the messages that accompany them. Unless there are truly dire consequences looming, avoid threatening or fear-inducing tones

Keeping it real will help countdown timers work for your organization in the manner in which they are intended: to get attention, serve as a reminder, and compel positive action. 

There's even a countdown widget built into my email program (Mailerlite). Just for fun, I've dropped in the time remaining until my birthday - which also happens to be the start of a new fiscal year, for those of you on that schedule.

No pressure, though. 😉

P.S. Here's a staple for every motivational playlist: Europe's "The Final Countdown" which went to #1 in 25 countries in 1986 and whose unmistakeable keyboard riff still gets us hyped nearly 40 years later.

The Final Countdown - Europe
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