Phil Crumm

Revenue, Client Services, and Digital Strategy

Vitamins, Vicodin, and Using Pain To Create Urgency and Sell More

Earlier this year, I noticed that the tires on my car had started to wear down. I diligently added “New tires?” to my todo list, and, of course, ignored it for weeks on end. When I brought my car in for its annual oil change, I noticed the sidewall on the tire had split–making it unsafe to drive. And, with that turn of events, I had new tires on the car that day.

It’s well known that consumers have the tendency to delay purchases that they don’t feel are urgent, and that their purchasing behavior changes as the delay goes on[1]. To combat this, many online marketers have turned to false urgency: using faux countdown timers, fake “running out!” notices, and other nefarious triggers to attempt to con consumers into making split-second, emotional purchases. False urgency proved effective for a time, but consumers are catching on–and it’s incredibly deceptive.

Consumers are catching on to sketchy false urgency.

The economics of digital products have added another challenge: when there’s no inventory to run out of, the only obvious tool left are (potentially fake) sales. But sales are a double-edged sword, too. Sales prices are known to anchor consumers to that price, so that they’re constantly on the lookout for future sales[2]. To create stable, healthy, and ethical online SaaS businesses, we need to use our product’s unique selling proposition to emphasize existing urgency. No price tricks, fake countdown timers, or misaligned expectations. Just framing.

Selling Vitamins or Vicodin

Many SaaS companies sell vitamins: products and services that we know are good for us, but with benefits that are only evident in the long term. We know that our brains over-discount long-term rewards[3], so these future benefits need to be clear and significant to convince us to make our purchase. Even if our product or service is truly a vitamin product, we can significantly increase our conversion rates (and our customers’ willingness to spend) by framing it within the context of a Vicodin problem–a problem with a clear, immediate need and payoff.

For many products and services, these framing opportunities already exist. Using them successfully is a two-step process:

  1. Identify the reasons that your customers are ultimately making their purchase. What was the problem or event that led them to seek out your product or service, and pushed them over the edge?
  2. Discover how to connect that problem to your product or service. How can you update your CTAs, content marketing, and advertisements to speak to that problem in your customers’ language?

These questions are best answered by talking to your customers. Rob Fitzpatrick’s The Mom Test provides a great framework for extracting your product’s core benefits from your customers’ feedback–I encourage all entrepreneurs to read it.

We can also use cognitive psychology as a framework to brainstorm potential answers, and to validate and massage the feedback we receive directly from our customers. The theory of regulatory focus tells us that people tend to make decisions from one of two perspectives:

  1. A promotion mindset, where one’s focus is on their potential gain;
  2. A prevention mindset, where one’s focus is on avoiding loss.

Though most people default to one of these two mindsets in their daily lives, they often switch to the mindset most relevant to the problem at hand in making purchasing decisions[4]. By considering whether our product or service is best aligned with promotion or prevention motivations, we can tailor the language of our marketing to increase its impact. Promotion-minded purchasers are most convinced by framing the benefits of your product alongside their desired future state. If your SaaS service helps people save for their vacations, use words and imagery that help them imagine what that vacation will be like. On the other hand, prevention-minded purchasers are most convinced by framing the benefits of your product alongside the loss it’s helping them avoid. If your SaaS service schedules annual air conditioner inspections, paint a picture of what happens when their air conditioner stops working in the middle of the summer.

If your customer research doesn’t align with one of these two mindsets consistently, try asking higher-order questions: instead of focusing on how your product or service helps their business, ask how it helps their life. This trick, I’ve found, often opens a much more insightful dialogue into the true benefits of your product or service–benefits that often begin to clearly align with one of our regulatory frameworks.

In the long term, beginning your customer relationship by providing a clear solution to an existing customer problem may even increase your customer’s affinity to and advocacy of your brand. The primacy effect[5] suggests that humans are most influenced by their first impressions–even if your long-term value is primarily as a vitamin, they’ll associate your brand and product/service with the effects of its Vicodin-like relief long into the future.

Case Study: A Tale of Two Website Services Businesses

To see how these principles apply in practice, let’s look at two businesses that operate within the same niche: monthly website services for WordPress websites. Like many SaaS businesses, both fundamentally sell vitamins. They help small business owners gain peace of mind by avoiding future problems, and are themselves strong businesses because of their pricing–both offer regular services through a recurring monthly fee, empowering them to generate healthy recurring revenues and increase customer lifetime value.


The first of these businesses, WPBuffs, provides 24/7 website management and support for “serious business owners”, and also white-labels these offerings for other agencies. “Keeping the lights on” is a regular concern for many businesses that depend on their websites to make sales and service their customers, and they’ve carved out a very successful $90k/mo+ business by providing a frictionless means to obtain that peace of mind.

Above the fold on the WPBuffs homepage

Their homepage is well-designed, and provides three calls to action above the fold:

  • Book a call
  • See pricing
  • See white-label options
Above the fold on the WPBuffs services page

Their services page is a matter-of-fact inventory of their broad spectrum of capabilities.

Social proof–and a giveaway–below the fold on the WPBuffs services page

Below the fold, the services page outlines a number of bundled services that are included with your subscription–potentially a good opportunity to leverage hedonic bundling with a bit of consumer research–and includes a number of educational giveaways that use testimonials to create social proof.

The vast majority of WPBuffs’ traffic, however, begins elsewhere on their website. They’ve effectively leveraged content marketing around common search terms indicative of a website owner having problems, including:

  • briefly unavailable for scheduled maintenance. check back in a minute.
  • your php installation appears to be missing the mysql extension which is required by wordpress.
  • wordpress too many redirects nginx

They rank well (often in the top two positions) for hundreds of these search terms, and their SERP titles even go a step further: many emphasize their content as two minute fixes, providing frantic business owners with the promise of a quick and easy solution to their problems.

A WPBuffs search engine result, highlighting their “two minute fix”.

Though their content holds true to its word, the primary calls-to-action on these pages don’t successfully leverage this foot in the door as an opportunity to draw potential customers in to the products’ long-term value.

In this example, there’s two calls-to-action above the fold:

  • Book a call (which is globally present across the website)
  • Subscribe (which is unclear about what exactly you’re subscribing to)

After a brief period of time, a full-page takeover suggests that I “take [the] care plan questionnaire”, with additional context created through a list of the features offered by WP Buffs.

WPBuffs full-page CTA takeover

WPBuffs is doing a lot of things right in its content marketing strategy, use of multiple formats (text and video) in its content, and in the positioning of its calls-to-action. Even still, they’ll likely significantly increase their conversion rate by taking advantage of a few of the tricks we’ve discussed:

  • Add a specific call-to-action on each content page that’s directly related to the problem addressed by the content. Replace the “Subscribe” or “Book a call” buttons on the article page with more specific calls to action – “Book a call to resolve your maintenance message and increase your website’s uptime” (a promotion, or gain-oriented, CTA) – and leverage that call as an opportunity to demonstrate early value (by resolving the customers’ problems) and sell their core service offering. This takes advantage of the urgency felt by website owners when they’re googling errors they’re currently experiencing, and offers a Vicodin solution ahead of the core vitamin offering.
  • Reframe contextless CTAs (like those on the home page) to address the pain that leads business owners to seek out a website maintenance service. The existing homepage CTAs likely convert best with business owners who have already decided they need a maintenance service and are comparison shopping–a valuable market, but the tip of the iceberg (consider that the homepage and services page are only a click away from the problem-oriented marketing content). To take this a step further, track what content a user has recently consumed and dynamically populate global CTAs to reference these issues – what better way to underscore the value of a maintenance service than by reminding you of a problem (and stress) you could’ve completely avoided by having one?


Wordfence is a security-focused product–it monitors for intrusion attempts, blocks them, and seeks out new and innovative exploits being used in the wild. Historically, security-focused products have been difficult to sell to website owners: everyone knows about hackers, but they often see them as a “that should never happen to me” problem. It’s a lesson often learned only through experience: once you’re hacked, you realize the value of a service like WordFence.

Wordfence takes full advantage of this, with a prominent CTA placed at the top of every page of their website: “Have you been hacked? Get help”

The Wordfence home page, with a pain-driven global CTA

The CTA links to a page that specifically touts the benefits of their cleanup service.

And, to make things sweeter, Wordfence includes a year of their core service with the cleanup offering. By attaching their initial sales pitch to a painful and urgent problem – site hacks can ruin trust in your business all while making it inaccessible – they’ve created an inroads attached to this Vicodin moment. While their retention statistics aren’t published, I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of customers who initially reach out for the cleaning service go on to renew their annual protection after a year. Solving a problem, and demonstrating that you can keep your customer from experiencing it again, is undeniably effective marketing.

The majority of Wordfence’s traffic is direct–likely by way of word-of-mouth referrals from others who have had their website compromised and fixed, who serve as advocates for avoiding the problems that come with having your website hacked (or can point you in the right direction once your site is hacked, thanks to previous experience). They’ve invested very little in paid advertising or content marketing, but have built a business that works. Wordfence has successfully identified the trigger that leads its customers to urgently look for solutions similar to their core service offering, and has built a very simple–and effective–marketing strategy around it.

If I were starting a new business in a similar space as Wordfence, I’d consider building a content marketing strategy around common signs a website has been hacked – many common attacks leave publicly-visible traces, like added text, images, redirects, or error messages – in addition to relying on direct traffic, while leaving the existing CTA and product page intact.


  • Creating urgency is an effective strategy for increasing conversion rates and customer spend.
  • Instead of relying on false urgency, SaaS businesses should use their calls-to-action to emphasize the urgency already felt by their customers.
  • For many SaaS businesses, this means framing the initial sale through a different lens than the long-term service.
  • To do so, consider the problem your customer is trying to solve when they initially seek out your service or product. This is likely complementary, though not identical, to the long-term value the service or product delivers.
  • Using the regulatory fit framework, identify whether your customer is promotion (gain) or prevention (loss-aversion) focused when making their purchase, and tailor your CTAs to match.
  • Use the context available to you by your prospective customers’ journey–for example, the page they enter your website on–to further tailor your CTA. If you’re invested in problem-solving content marketing, tailor your CTAs on that page uniquely to the problem.

1. Mazursky, D. The Effects of Time Delays on Consumers’ Use of Different Criteria for Product Purchase Decisions. Journal of Business and Psychology 15, 163–175 (2000).
2. William D. Diamond and Leland Campbell (1989) ,”The Framing of Sales Promotions: Effects on Reference Price Change”, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 241-247.
3. Price, Colin. Time, discounting and value. Blackwell Publishers, 1993.
4. Higgins, E. Tory. “Promotion and prevention: Regulatory focus as a motivational principle.” Advances in experimental social psychology 30 (1998).
5. Jones, Edward E., et al. “Pattern of performance and ability attribution: An unexpected primacy effect.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 10.4 (1968): 317.

Published by

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: