The concept of the playoff game makes sense, in a way.  You have a league that’s far too big for every team to play each other on equal footing over the course of a season, so you take the top teams from what we call a regular season and have them play a series of games that decide who the top team is overall.

Not all sports force this convention though.  Most notably, in soccer, the English Premiere League (EPL) treats the entire season as a tournament of the 20 best teams with each team playing every other team once at home and away.  At the end, the team with the best record is the winner.

The EPL system is arguably the model for soccer the world over.  Understandably—in the world of sports, there are few leagues with more money, more rabid fans, more game day excitement.  So why is it so different here in the USA?

Let’s look at MLS (Major League Soccer, the premiere league in the USA) since they’re the newest kids on the block.  Currently there are 19 teams competing in MLS split into two conferences: east and west.  If each team played every other team twice over the year, once at home and once away, that would make for 36 matches.  The 2012 schedule has 34, a mere 2 shy of that goal. Regardless, MLS still crowns the top team with the “Supporter’s Shield,” what’s largely seen as a token trophy for the team that came out on top over the course of the entire grueling 8 month season.

Then they take the top five teams from each division and have playoffs. Over the course of the next few weeks, we learn that who wins MLS Cup—the prize positioned as the ultimate goal for every team over the course of the season.

So, in the US model, we have 34 matches which are fought over the course of 8 months all to identify 10 teams (out of 19) who will compete for the championship in a mere 4 weeks.  In the EPL model we have everyone play 38 matches with the winner, well, winning.

In the EPL model, every match is critical. You can count on your team to fight for every touch of every moment in every match.  If they end up in the last 3 spots in the table, they get relegated to the 2nd division creating even more urgency.

In the US model, teams are programmed to peak at the end of the season for the playoffs since more than half the teams are going to make the tournament anyway. There’s not a lot of urgency in early season matches or in the summer doldrums, and it shows in how teams play and the number of fans tuning in or showing up.

Urgency, it seems, is a big driver of eyeballs and as a result, revenue in sports.  MLS has focused on the American attention span of, say, 4 weeks, where the EPL manages to create even tension and interest over 10 months.

Buy NOW!

With so many things competing for our attention, is it any wonder that everyone is playing the urgency card?

Moreover, have we as retailers played it so many times that it’s lost its usefulness?

There are a number of websites whose entire business model is a hack on our seeming inability to make a decision unless our hand is forced with artificial (or very real) urgency.

Woot! Has been around roughly 8 years and one of the pioneers in the daily deal market. Woot! Started by selling overstock or refurbished electronics to web geeks (like me) at incredibly discounted prices.  The catch was you have to return to the site every day to see what’s being sold and you have at most 24 hours to make the purchase unless the product sells out.  This is something that frequently happens with really great deals.

You many not think of ebay using this hack, but in reality an auction is a similar method of trying to maximize sales by creating urgency or excitement around the sale of a item with limited quantities and finite purchasing windows.

When I worked with Tory Burch on their web store, we developed a sister store which was opened and closed for private sales a few times a year.  By invitation only, of course.  Urgency combined with exclusivity and limited quantities at a discount?  Catnip!  To the Tory Burch team’s credit, they resisted the urge to make this a common occurrence as they knew it would change their positioning online.

Perhaps the most classic example of creating urgency is to reduce the price of an item for a short period of time or until the stock is gone.  It’s become so ubiquitous, there are some people who won’t buy products until they go on sale.

Coupons, of course, are yet another way to add urgency, though it’s typically positioned as price cutting. Customers see two things on a coupon: the savings and the expiration date.

Companies like groupon and living social have taken the coupon model to new extremes with daily deals on everything from pet massages to dinner for two.

In fact, at this point I spend a good amount of time skimming past urgent headlines in my email box from companies offering me amazing but limited deals that I need to act on immediately. They’re rarely read.

Urgency obviously works, but has it become such an expectation have we inadvertently created an entire generation of consumers who are completely unmotivated and who won’t make a purchase unless they’re getting a deal or limited edition item?

Rising Expectations

Here’s a personal example of how my behavior changed as a result of marketing and promotions from a retailer.

I’ve been an avid photographer since I was 10 or 11 years old. My mother had a darkroom in the basement of our home growing up and I was hooked. One of my summer jobs was working at a MotoPhoto and I studied photography in college. You could say that documenting my life and creating visual art through photography has become interwoven with my DNA.

Though I’ve finally thrown myself into the digital world, I do still tend to process many of my photographs as black and white images.  You’d be shocked to know how long it took me to find someone who could keep a gray image gray (not blue, not green, not pink, but gray) when printing a photo book.  When I finally found one, I stuck with them even though they cost a bit more than the competition.  Quality was more important to me than price: I was willing to pay $10-$15 more for a book of images that matched my creative intent color for color.

After about a year of using them exclusively for all of my book printing—both professionally and personally—they started sending me coupon codes. As a good little consumer, I reacted positively: I made a couple of books that I might not have otherwise made because 50% off is a really really good deal when you’re buying a $50 book.

The coupons started coming more frequently.  I started to try and time my projects around coupons.

The retailer reacted by limiting the coupons to higher priced items only, leaving out almost all the soft cover smaller editions which is what I used professionally. This kind of made me upset and feel like I wasn’t getting a deal anymore.

And that’s one way you can take a happy customer and drive them away.

I started looking at other options.  I chatted with other photographers on forums and a consensus seemed to form around a competing site.  I tried them out and found equal (if not higher) quality, better base pricing, more professional options, and a more consistent turn-around time.  I haven’t looked back since.

Is Urgent the New Normal?

I’ve watched more than one retailer depress their everyday sales by offering too-frequent free shipping offers.  I’ve heard customers complain that the daily deal they bought won’t ever get used and they’re starting to ignore the emails they get from Gilt, Rue la la, and Hautelook.

It really is starting to feel like urgent is the new normal.  So what’s the next tool we can pull from the bag?

How you position your brand in the eyes of your customer through pricing strategies, product selection, lifestyle associations, and customer experience has a lasting impact on your relationship.  Brands that go too far creating urgency but have a strong relationship with customers built on other branding criteria will have a much higher success rate when they pull back on those promotions. Those who’ve built their business on the cornerstone of urgency are faced with creating it every single day.

For companies like Woot! Or soccer leagues like the EPL who seem to have though that out from day one, it’s not proving to be a problem. For those who were late to the game or haven’t considered its context in a long-term strategy it’s a whole lot of work for relatively small payout.

Fortunately for retailers there are many many many ways to move the needle on sales volume and average order sizes.  For the MLS though, they’re faced with trying to get players, coaches, managers, and fans excited about the regular season by increasing the quality of play and the overall game day experience. It’s going to be hard until every match matters.