If you’ve shopped online for an airline ticket recently, you’ve likely seen fares with a “four left at this price” message below them. Or, as the nice man in the Trivago ads points out, “Hotels call out there’s ‘only three left at this price’ to make you think time’s running out on a particular rate,” with the tacit subtext that you’d better act now. There’s even the stereotype of the car salesperson who’s quick to inform you the price of the Maserati you’re eyeing is “good for today only.”

These are all examples of what Dr. Robert B. Cialdini calls “scarcity,” the sixth and final principle he identifies in his landmark work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.**  Most people are afraid to make mistakes. They’re even more afraid of missing something if they don’t act. One might safely conclude this concept figures large in “Marketing 101” syllabi worldwide, as anyone with any marketing experience can identify a scarcity ploy when they see one.

So, how to make the best use of scarcity? In a great blog post for Psychology Today, Dr. Jeremy Nicholson takes a deep dive into scarcity and offers a few perspectives that may be helpful. Of particular interest was research he cited by Burger and Caldwell that found it especially effective to offer people something they perceive as being offered especially to them – that they’re getting what the researchers call a “unique opportunity.” Unique opportunity tactics include planting the impression the recipient may or may not be able to benefit from the opportunity. Once they learn they can benefit, they feel like they’re getting an opportunity others aren’t (it’s more scarce), so they decide to participate.

People also respond favorably when they’re told there’s something special or unusual about them that would make them important contributors to the matter at hand. Burger and Caldwell used this technique to get people to show up for research focus groups. (e.g., “Your responses to our questionnaire put you in the top ten percent of the people we interviewed for this study.”) The scarcity in this example is the respondent’s expertise.

We also like to feel we’re getting something for nothing. For example, people who believe they’ve won something (in the research study, it was a reduced price on a travel mug) were more likely to buy it – as opposed to those who were offered it at a discount rate. This is because winning something makes it truly unique and scarce; after all, anyone can buy something at a reduced price, but not everyone has the good fortune to win something. 

Would you more quickly decide to pay for concert tickets if you knew you were going to get front-row seats? This kind of scarcity happens when you get a lead on an opportunity for which you have an inside track; e.g., your brother’s in the band or the performer is your cousin. It may be there’s no motivation more compelling than the offer of an inside track to something. Who doesn’t want something not everyone can have?

The experts are quick to caution that scarcity can backfire if used improperly. Using scarcity happens so often in today’s marketing that this blogger is wondering if perhaps it’s one of Cialdini’s principles that hasn’t passed the test of time. For example, my subscription to the print edition of The New Yorker is about to expire. For months, I’ve been getting emails proclaiming I need to “renew (my) subscription now at this great rate.” Wrapped around the latest edition is a full-page appeal asking me to “renew today and save more than 65 percent off the cover price.” Here’s the thing: Were I to let my subscription expire and then call The New Yorker subscription people and tell them I want the deal at 65 percent off the cover price, do you think they wouldn’t give it to me? It wouldn’t surprise me if I could do even better than that.

As I close out this series on persuasion, this blogger encourages you to re-read the blogs regarding Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion and consider how they could help drive success for your advocacy campaigns. Need some additional input? The folks here are Velocity would love to help! Give us a call now. Time is running out! 

*Big Yellow Taxi,” by Joni Mitchell

**Read about the first five in earlier blogs that have appeared on this site.