Countdown timers: why retailers shouldn’t doubt their marketing value

Timers counting down to the end of an online promotion have recently come under fire for being misleading and pressuring customers into spending money. The furore is detracting marketers from the value this marketing tactic provides to shoppers when used correctly and ethically.

Only recently, the CMA accused of using countdown timers as a ‘pressure-selling’ tactic to mislead customers by giving false accounts of the popularity of rooms. A separate study by consumer lobby group Which? discovered that kitchen and bathroom retailers were using countdown timers to push various ‘time-limited’ promotions that were in fact still available even after the deadline had passed. Similarly, a BBC investigation into fashion brand Boohoo found that promotions did not end when the countdown timer reached zero.

These examples do not mean that retailers should abandon countdown timers all together. When used correctly, they drum up excitement in the same way as Boxing Day and Black Friday sales, encouraging shoppers to head to the digital high street to bag a bargain before it’s too late. Countdown timers can tap into people’s propensity for FOMO and encourage hesitant shoppers to complete a purchase. They are a familiar and proven eCommerce marketing tactic that many brands leverage in one form or another to highlight flash sales, advise of shipping cut-off dates or draw attention to early access to limited edition products. There are so many opportunities when retailers can use countdown timers to make a campaign more persuasive.

However, what these well-publicised controversies do mean is that retailers need to be transparent and honest when using countdown timers. To be successful, brands should keep in mind the following lessons when deploying this proven eCommerce marketing tactic.

Stay genuine

Remaining honest in the use and application of a countdown timer is critical to its effectiveness. It might be tempting to create a fake deadline to boost short-term sales but doing so risks the integrity of the brand and could lose customers for good. Setting clear parameters around limited time offers and ensuring promotions close as advertised will help retain customer trust in the brand.

Less is more

In a similar vein, marketers should be mindful of how often they use countdown clocks within their campaigns. Incorporating timers too often could mean the excitement driven by the tactic is lost. Part of the role of a timer is to inject urgency, but if customers are presented with a countdown clock each time they open an email, it will quickly be ignored and fail to deliver the intended call to action.

On this occasion, less is more. Identifying the occasions where a countdown timer will have a significant role in boosting sales – whether that’s to mark a significant day in the retail calendar or to create a buzz around a new product launch – will help keep customers engaged.

Keep it relevant

As with other real-time marketing tactics, it is important to deliver content that is relevant at the moment of engagement, both during and after the end of the promotion. This can be achieved by defining different creatives for different scenarios. If shoppers engage with the email or website during the promotion, they will see the timer. Once the countdown clock reaches zero, shoppers should see a different creative, for example a banner promoting another offer.   

Looking for unique instances where other brands might not be using timers will also bring some differentiation to a brand. Flash sales or shopping peaks like Black Friday have an obvious role for countdown clocks. But brands could also consider adding a countdown to provide service information, for example to make shoppers aware of how long they have left to complete an order to receive the product the next day.

Don’t irritate

The physical location and design of a timer are other key considerations that will impact effectiveness. Keep in mind that the ultimate aim of the tactic is to encourage a purchase, so its execution must avoid interrupting the customer journey as far as possible.

Triggering a website banner with a timer promoting a relevant offer will be more effective if the customer has had the opportunity to view a couple of web pages rather than displaying it as soon as the shopper lands on your website. Alternatively, displaying a limited time offer for free delivery when a customer has added an item to their basket could be the incentive to secure the sale.

From an aesthetics perspective, timers should be visually appealing and eye catching – after all they are meant to signify something exciting to the consumer – with the design harmonising with the overall look and feel of the brand.

Whilst countdown timers may have hit the headlines lately, marketers shouldn’t be quick to dismiss their role within digital campaigns. Approached correctly and keeping these considerations in mind, they are a powerful tactic that provides useful service information and nudges customers towards a purchase.