Running a sale is the best way to make more money from your business -- or is it?

Running a sale is the best way to make more money from your business — or is it?

A few months’ back, I was talking to a friend, who works in marketing at a company many of my readers would recognize.

I commented on a particular piece of copy, that I thought was particularly compelling.

And she told me that yes, it was performing pretty well.

But then she told me something even more interesting.

That copy was being handily beaten by other pieces of copy that were, on the surface, not nearly as good.

And then she shared an observation.

The copy that was consistently working best wasn’t necessarily the copy written by the best copywriter.

Instead, it was copy that featured a limited-time sale.

In fact, this was so consistent across this business’s promotions, that it was becoming a bit of a rule.

They’d dig into their back catalog of products, find one that they hadn’t featured in a while. They’d take the copy that had worked previously, and tweak it for a limited-time sale. And then they’d run it — creating an email campaign around the sale pricing, to drive customers to it.


At the IT training publisher I worked for, this was, for many years, one of our primary revenue strategies.

Every month, we’d look at the new titles we’d released that month. Then we’d look to the back-catalog for related products. And in the newsletter — sent out with about a week left in the month — we’d feature a sale on the related products, along with “New Release” pricing on the new products. This consistently drove nice sales volume into the end of the month.

For most businesses, this is a good lesson.

There’s a reason that the weekly newspaper is consistently filled with “Sale” ads from everything from the grocery store to a chiropractor down the street.

There’s a reason just about every holiday these days is another reason for folks to shop.

Consumers respond to sales. They like being able to get something for less today than they would have had to pay yesterday, and than they will have to pay tomorrow.

It also adds a deadline to your offer. Which will almost always increase response. Simply by giving people a reason to respond by X date, you have the potential to overcome inertia, procrastination, and the tendency toward inaction.

It also allows you to highlight products that may not always get the spotlight. If you have extra inventory to move, or have another reason you’d like to sell more of a product that’s not your bestseller, a sale can make that happen.

In short, running a time-limited sale is a consistent winner.

But there’s also a trap you can fall into.

When you run sales too frequently and too regularly, you end up training folks to wait for sales.

If your customers know there’s going to be a sale, they’ll wait for it to buy.

And you start to reward cheapskate customers, at the expense of your relationship with customers to whom price is not a primary motivator.

This started to happen to us in the IT training business. And we ended up shifting some things around to feature our catalog offerings, rather than putting individual products on sale.

Spend too much of your marketing ammo on sales, and you end up with the Groupon effect. Groupon customers are notoriously horrible for everyone but Groupon. They ONLY respond to deals. And really bargain-basement ones, too. In short, if the deal isn’t so cheap it puts a strain on your business, they don’t want it. Catering to these customers is pure business disaster.

This actually goes back to behavioral psychology.

When research is done on animals by making them complete a task in exchange for a reward (pushing a lever in exchange for a food pellet, for example), an interesting pattern occurs.

You get the best compliance when the reinforcement is intermittent. That is, it doesn’t happen every time.

So rather than the food pellet coming out every time the pigeon pushes a lever in its cage, it only comes out half the time.

It gets even more interesting. Compliance actually increases when it’s variable, rather than alternating. So instead of the lever triggering food in a YES-NO-YES-NO-YES-NO pattern, it works better if it’s broken up. For example, YES-YES-NO-YES-NO-NO. Or any variation where the ratio is roughly 50-50.

There’s a really common place we see this same principle at work in humans, too.

Casinos. Specifically, slot machines. Slot machines are almost identical to the test cages of a behavioral psychologist. Humans push a lever, and only sometimes do they get a reward.

The folks who make slot machines and run the casinos are masters at applying this principle. They’ve figured out just how much you have to win, and how frequently, to keep coming back until you run out of money. Again, they use intermittent reinforcement. You win just enough to get you to keep playing.

How does this apply to running sales in your business?

Well, you need to surprise your customers. Keep them on their toes. Give them good deals, but don’t be too predictable. Because predictability of sales will actually decrease their effectiveness. Initially it may lead to consistent spikes in sales — as I’ve experienced personally — but when it becomes expected rather than a positive surprise, the effect wears off.

That said, your business (or your client’s) may benefit from running a sale here — either leading into the end of the year, or as a strong start to next year. And to keep those revenue spikes coming, be sure to do the sales frequently, but in an irregular and unexpected way.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr

Editor, Breakthrough Marketing Secrets