9 digital marketing tricks that cause you to overspend


Have you ever noticed the subtle ways your grocery store tries to get you to spend as much as possible? In the aisles, the most expensive products are strategically stored at eye level. Basics are misplaced at the very back of the store, forcing you to walk past hundreds of products that you probably don’t need just for a gallon of milk. And the most tempting products – magazines and glossy candy – line both sides of the payline.

These little psychological tricks are designed to trick consumers into spending more, without even thinking about it.

Online stores have the same goal. While they may not use the exact same strategies, digital marketers have come up with a wide variety of ways to trick customers into overspending. User experience consultant Harry Brignull has dubbed these strategies “dark patterns,” referring to subtle design features on websites that prey on our psychology to trick us into overspending.

Some of these patterns are subtle, while others are more in your face. Knowing how to identify them can help you keep your budget intact.

Common digital marketing tips

Here are some of the most common dark patterns you’ll want to recognize when shopping online.

  • confirm shame uses language that makes consumers feel guilty if they don’t choose something. For example, say you are shopping online and you receive a pop-up notification offering a 10% discount if you subscribe to an email list. It presents two options: one to register and another that says something like, “No thanks, I’d rather pay full price.” This second option aims to induce a feeling of shame or guilt.
  • Countdowns are designed to put pressure on the consumer. If you don’t act quickly, you’ll lose the deal! This tactic takes advantage of the lack of time to push buyers to spend more.
  • Subscription offers dangle a lower price if the consumer signs up for recurring orders. Amazon’s Subscribe & Save program is a great example. Instead of buying a pack of paper towels once today, you can save 5% if you purchase a subscription. And the more purchases you automate, the more you can save.
  • Limited time offers are similar to countdown timers in that they both use the idea of ​​the scarcity of time. To not act is to neglect a great deal. This plays on our natural fear of missing out.
  • Buy it now and pay later options allow buyers to split their payment into smaller, interest-free installments that are usually paid over several weeks. Instead of paying $100 today, how about $25 a week next month? This configuration can certainly attract buyers. A 2021 Credit Karma survey found that 44% of respondents had used a buy-it-now-pay-later service.
  • Personalized recommendations at checkout suggest other products that may be of interest to you. Most use an algorithm based on your shopping behavior and profile to make unique recommendations. Some online retailers get a sense of consumers’ shopping habits by asking them to complete a questionnaire when creating their profile.
  • Free delivery and easy returns could entice buyers to spend more. You might be less likely to buy something if shipping costs are high or returns are complicated. During the 2021 holiday season, free shipping and returns were more motivating for shoppers than discounts and promotions, according to a survey by January Digital and Coresight Research.
  • A free gift with purchase rewards consumers with a little something extra for shopping online. If they’re about to make a purchase, that might be the thing pushing them forward.
  • Offer a discount if you sign up for a loyalty program or merchant credit card is another hanging carrot. Old Navy, for example, offers a 20% discount on the first purchase you make with their store’s credit card.

The Psychology Behind Overspending

What motivates consumers to ignore their budgets and overspend? According to Abigail Sussman, professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, it has a lot to do with product appeal.

“Sometimes that’s the reason for scarcity — it’ll run out soon,” she says. “All of these things, on some level, just make people want it more or feel they have to act now, or they might miss their opportunity.”

FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, and digital marketers know it. Sussman says this plays out in two main ways. Both are focused on scarcity: either time is limited or quantity is limited. This type of message has a social component, as it could give consumers the impression that everyone is getting something that they are not getting. From a budgeting perspective, you might also worry that if you don’t spend money now, you won’t be able to take advantage of the opportunity to save later.

To maximize profits, companies try to make the customer spend money as easily as possible. Sussman says that includes storing your credit card information. This saves you from having to pull out your wallet and manually enter your payment information. Digital payment methods such as Google Pay or Apple Pay work the same way.

“One way to get people to not think about their budget is to get them to not think about spending real money at all,” Sussman says. “The smoother the transaction and the less contact you have with things like your credit card or cash, the more likely you are to ignore your budget because, from an attention perspective, it doesn’t necessarily give you the impression I spend money.

This suggests that something deeper is happening behaviorally when we spend money online. Research shows, for example, that the anticipation of a reward can trigger the brain to release the feel-good hormone dopamine. For some, striking an online deal might fall into this category. Sussman also points to a theory known as transaction utility, which was coined by behavioral science and economics professor Richard Thaler. The term describes the happiness you might feel from the perceived value of a deal.

You can view the value you get from a particular purchase as being attributed to both the value of the product itself and the value of the transaction,” says Sussman. “If it feels good to get a deal done, in some sense that could be valuable in itself.”

How to Avoid Overspending

Raising consumer awareness can go a long way in avoiding overspending. Here are some other strategies you can use to control your spending when shopping online:

  • Make a budget: Before heading to your favorite online retailers, check your budget and figure out how much you can reasonably spend. Once your essential bills are covered and you’ve set aside money for your financial goals, you may have some discretionary funds left over. If you use a credit card, will you have enough money in your checking account to pay it in full when the bill is due? Otherwise, you may want to modify your basket to avoid falling into a cycle of debt.
  • Make sure your spending aligns with your values: Ask yourself if these products and brands match what is important to you. If a company prioritizes sustainability or ethical manufacturing, for example, you may be more comfortable spending money to support those efforts. The reverse may also be true.

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  • Set up subscriptions for essential items: The less time you spend shopping online, the less likely you are to make impulse purchases. Setting up subscriptions for essential items means they’ll be delivered automatically when you need them. As the old saying goes: “Out of sight, out of mind”. You can set up monthly subscriptions for everything from toiletries to pet supplies to baby products.
  • Avoid window shopping on your phone when you’re bored or tired: If you are constantly scrolling, impulse spending could be a problem for you. A study by Allianz found that 57% of millennials spent money they didn’t plan to because of content they saw on social media. If you’re bored or tired, try filling the time with something other than your phone.
  • Sleep on it: Stepping away from your shopping cart might give you some clarity. Instead of hitting “buy” right away, try thinking about it overnight or for a day or two. It might help you decide if what you’re tempted to buy is really a necessity or just a splurge.
  • Pre-Marie Kondo there. Ask yourself, “Will these items spark joy once they’re in my house?” Pay attention to how you respond and honestly think about how often you will use them. Just because you’re getting a good deal doesn’t necessarily mean you need what’s in your cart. First think about how useful these products are and if they are really worth it.

With the internet at our fingertips, overspending has become too easy – and digital marketers are taking full advantage. Knowing how to spot these online marketing tips can help you stick to your budget and avoid the expense trap.


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