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FOMO: The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Missing Out

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FOMO -- the "Fear Of Missing Out" -- is the insidious feeling that other people are getting more from life than you are. The acronym has been the focus of increasing attention, but the phenomenon is as old as Adam (who ate the apple, after all, out of fear of what he'd miss if he didn't).

What is new is how intense this fear of missing out has become in the age of social media. Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and Instagram keep us connected with our friends and in touch with the culture, but they also raise our awareness of all the things other people are doing that we aren't. In that way, social media can be a constant goad to envy, insecurity and discontent.

To get a better sense of how FOMO works, imagine yourself checking Facebook as you settle in for a quiet evening at home only to find that your friends are meeting for a drink just around the corner. Now imagine that you always feel compelled to check Facebook before you settle in. Now imagine yourself unsettled.

Indeed, research suggests that digital culture is rewiring our brains -- in part because the compulsion to keep up is changing how we think about, prioritize and manage information. We're told that the average attention span has fallen to 5 minutes, compared with 12 minutes in 2001. Techno-multitasking leads us to prioritize new over older information, even when it's less valuable. And we increasingly power-browse rather than read.

No one seems to be immune to FOMO. Reflecting on the demands of stardom in a recent interview with ABC News, country singer Kenny Chesney confessed that even success can fuel it. "There's a part of me that starts to wonder what I'm missing out on," he said.

But Millennials are particularly subject to FOMO, partly because Millennials are the first generation of digital natives. Half of Millennials say they check Facebook as soon as they wake up, and 28 percent say they do so before getting out of bed. Ten percent confess that they text during sex. In many ways, FOMO is the defining element of the Millennial zeitgeist.

Reaching FOMOsapiens

Savvy brands are finding ways to tap FOMO to reach Millennials either by exacerbating or alleviating anxiety about missing out. And because Millennials are increasingly judged more by what they share than what they own, FOMO-smart brands provide content they can deploy as social capital to show they're in the know. Most efforts fall into one of three categories: Foster, Fight, or Flip FOMO.

  • Foster FOMO. Some brands have positioned themselves as nodes or catalysts that enable consumers to put themselves at the center of what's happening, implying that you'll miss out if you aren't plugged into the brand. Smirnoff's "Be There" campaign offers opportunities to attend parties in cities around the world and poses the question: When was the last time you said, "I was there"?
  • Fight FOMO. A number of services act as curators of cool, sifting the culture to deliver only what people need to know to ensure they never miss a brag-worthy experience. 100 Best DJs in the City is a party hosted in cities across Germany that enables participants to experience the best of the area's DJ culture in a single night.
  • Flip FOMO. Other efforts turn FOMO upside down by giving people them courage or willpower to unplug. SelfControl is an app allowing people to "blacklist" selected websites or applications and designate blocks of time as interruption free.

The Future in FOMO

What will be the fate of FOMO? We predict it will continue its exponential rise, receiving official designation in the Manual of Mental Disorders and eventually replacing ADD as the disorder du jour for helicopter parents. Pharmaceutical companies will rush to develop FOMO-relieving medications that will become designer drugs for young adults.

FOMO also promises a frightening future for brands. People will become selective with their FOMO -- deigning to be fearful only of brands that are unrelentingly surprising and socially compelling. The big question brand managers will need to ask themselves in the future: 'Am I FOMO-Worthy?' Assessing how much consumers love your brand will become irrelevant. It will all boil down to how much they fear it. Or more specifically, how much they fear being out of touch with your brand. Thus the new measurement tool will be the FOMO INDEX, ranking brands according to the fear factor they command.

In a FOMO-sessed world, successful brands will stop trumpeting their historical equity and build anticipation around what the brand is about to become. The winners will take a page from their operations colleagues, adapting the concept of just-in-time production to deliver just-in-time marketing that meets the demands of customers obsessed with just-in-time consumption. No one will plan in the FOMO future, in case something better turns up. Pop up in their lives too early and you'll be forgotten. Pop up too late and you'll be the one that's missed the party.