Contrary to popular belief the opposite of FOMO is not JOMO or the joy of missing out, it’s FOBO, the fear of better options. Think of it as the consumer cousin of FOMO; it’s the name of that spiral consumers fall into when they obsessively research every possible option when faced with a decision. It paralyzes our ability to decide on seemingly benign products, like nail color, to more significant purchases, like furniture or electronics. If your business is focused on creating seamless paths to purchase across sales channels, lessening FOBO is crucial to instilling consumers with the confidence, and excitement, to buy.
The coining of both FOMO and FOBO dates back to 2004, when Harvard Business School student, Patrick McGinnis, keenly correlated these phenomena within his study of social theory. In the last few years, news outlets from The New York Times to the Boston Globe to Psychology Today, and many others, have highlighted FOBO’s impact on everyone from millennials being unable to find partners in an era of swipe culture, to picking out the right turkey for holidays, and holiday shopping for friends and family.
Why FOBO matters
You may be wondering “why I have never heard of FOBO if it was coined when FOMO was?” Well, Ellen Degeneres’ hasn’t talked about it, it doesn’t have a whole genre of memes, and it doesn’t directly tie into the large public concern mental health professionals speak about in relation to the alienation and anxiety social media induces across generations. FOBO’s impact is different on a consumer, it compounds on the decision making process of shopping.
It is easy to dismiss the act of shopping as a simple process of determining a need for a product or service, identifying relevant attributes of said item to help narrow the search, and simply buying. This type of thinking hurts brands and retailers who are doing little to lessen the consumer’s time investment in making purchase decisions. Consumers have more choice than ever before and competition for their attention, purchase, and loyalty is fiercer than ever.
Modern search experiences feed FOBO
Today’s consumer can theoretically find anything they could possibly need or want with a simple search. Whether they have a preferred retailer, like Amazon, or are influenced by social media and the rise of digitally native brands who develop products with a targeted audience in mind, consumers should have the upper hand when they are looking to buy. The use of theoretically is on purpose: the modern search experience in practice is overwhelming and it can be impossible to find the right product. A staggering 54% of consumers abandon a product search if they are too overwhelmed or can’t make a decision.
As an example, let me walk you through my current FOBO for buying a gym bag. Yes, a gym bag. Should be simple, right? A duffle should do. Wrong. My current bag has lasted me about 5 years, and it served me well. Like many consumers, I have a list of criteria for this bag:
- Big enough to fit: 2 pairs of shoes, a change of clothes for work no matter the season, toiletries, and random work out necessities
- Not too big that it feels like I’m dragging a weekender to work every day
- Compartments for jewelry and personal items
- Aesthetically pleasing
- Under $150
While there is a bag I have eyed for a few months now, I’m not sure it can meet these standards as it’s from a digitally vertical native brand. Their product page has me 90% sold one of the sizes could fit my needs, but my biggest concern is: can it fit a pair of booties and my cycling shoes with the rest of my stuff? Despite a really well laid out and thoughtful product description page and being the “It” bag for millennial women who need a bag that brings from gym to work, I remain skeptical.
FOBO has set in, I open up a few tabs on my computer and start adding keywords to search boxes “best gym bags for the modern working women” “indoor cycling bags” “top rated gym bags for women.” My browser is flooded with lists from publications and thousands of results on Amazon. I cross reference reviews, I click thru to the product description page–I am paralyzed by the idea that I may buy the wrong one, will have to deal with returning it, and starting the process all over again.
What brands and retailers can do instill consumer confidence
My experience is not unique nor is it solely applicable to the sports apparel and accessory industry. There is a reason FOBO resonates with journalists trying to understand the myriad of dilemmas modern consumers face: it is a nearly universal experience. Despite the concept becoming more commonly discussed and positioned as a problem, most brands and retailers have not taken steps to improve how they position their products to instill consumer confidence enough that we don’t experience FOBO on a regular basis.
Instead, brands and retailers spend their marketing and advertising budgets positioning their products to highlight their unique value proposition without considering the business critical need to assist consumers in narrowing down their options and validating the product we are considering as the right option. Consumers deserve a search experience based on their needs, one that empowers them as they navigate a world of choice.