Let’s be honest with each other for a moment.
Both you and I know we are lazy when it comes to activities that don’t appeal to our self-interests. We stall. We resist. We ignore.
This is not a bad thing, mind you. In fact, it’s necessary. We do it to protect our limited resources. You and I only have so much time, energy, and money.
As digital marketers, however, with products we wish to sell, we need our audiences to overcome their resistance to taking action.
I love this line by Sonia Simone that perfectly sums up the situation we face:
You could have a product that granted immortality, robust health, unlimited wealth, and a lifetime of great hair … and people would still put off adding it to their carts.
First, you need to acknowledge that this resistance is a problem.
Don’t be ashamed
In a previous article, I talked about a common problem I see on landing pages, particularly when offering free opt-in content.
This problem is that when a product is free, many writers believe that they don’t have to offer much copy to their prospects. They think the word “free” will do all the work.
That’s simply not the case. You are asking “free” to do too much.
But there is another common problem I see when evaluating landing pages. It has to do with calls to action.
Of course all the pages I review have calls to action. I think we’ve impressed that principle enough on people that it’s become a convention.
But a standard call to action lacks power if it lacks a sense of urgency. A sense of scarcity.
At this point, two questions may be crossing your mind.
- “Does that mean I need to make something up to create scarcity?”
- “And if I make something up, isn’t that shady?”
To answer your questions: no, you don’t have to make something up, because, yes, that is shady.
In our effort to be known, liked, and trusted, we can’t lie in order to line our pockets.
And spin it any way you want, manufacturing scarcity is lying. Eventually you’ll be found out. And your short-term gains will lead to a long-term scarcity of customers.
That’s not the type of scarcity I’m talking about.
The return of FoMO
If you think about it, scarcity is just another species of what is known as Fear of Missing Out. It works on our brains in the same way.
Here’s the impact of what scarcity does to the mind.
A study published in May 1998, “Get’ em While They Last! Effects of Scarcity Information in Job Advertisements,” showed the number of application entries a company received from help wanted ads that listed how many job vacancies were available, as well as company image perception.
I think you probably know where this is going.
Companies that only advertised a few job vacancies not only received more applications, but the perception of Company A (with a few positions available) was significantly different from the perception of Company B (with an abundant number of positions available).
Now, our first impression of Company B goes something like this: since they have more jobs available, the chance of getting a job there is higher than the chance of getting a job at Company A.
So you might expect more applications to flood Company B. Yet the contrary happened.
People flooded Company A with applications because they made two assumptions about the company (whether or not they were indeed true):
- Company A paid better.
- Company A had to be a better place to work.
People interpret a company that has only a few positions available as highly sought-after employment. It suggests people really love to work for this company and don’t want to leave (perhaps they pay well).
By the way, these were positions for a restaurant server. Not some slick job at a Silicon Valley empire.
Another principle at work: social proof
The job advertisement example above is one version of social proof. It’s not the most common.
A common form of social proof is the long line of people running out of a restaurant and snaking its way around the corner. Without knowing anything else about the restaurant, you will assume that it’s popular, and if it’s popular it has to be good, and so you join the end of the line.
There is power in a “Join a million+ breath-taking readers” message.
A quick look at the social shares on an article will help us decide whether or not to read it. We may ignore an article with two shares, but if there’s one with 14,000 shares? We screech to a halt and investigate.
But the true — and crazy — potential of scarcity can be seen when a whole heck of a lot of people want a very limited supply of an item.
The freak show known as Black Friday
One of the most visible examples of scarcity at work in the minds of consumers occurs on a Friday. After Thanksgiving.
Consider the conversation going on in the head of a typical Black Friday consumer:
“Tomorrow Best Buy has Xbox One consoles on sale.”
“Yeah, for nearly a quarter of their normal price.”
“Our son really, really wants an Xbox One. His love for us would never end if we got him one for Christmas.”
“Yes. We need our son to love us for a very long time.”
“But there’s a problem.”
“Best Buy probably only has 40 of these consoles available.”
“And there are nearly 400,000 people who live within a 15-mile radius of that Best Buy — that’s at least 1,000 sons wanting the same console.”
“And 1,000 sets of parents with the same thought on their minds as us.”
“Greedy turds …”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“You get the tent. I’ll grab the brass knuckles.”
That scary mix of low price, low quantity, and high demand creates a powerful effect.
And so, how do you recreate that scarcity effect in a legitimate way?
Here are six ways.
1. Create competition
You can recreate a legitimate sense of scarcity by creating competition among participants.
For example, I used to work for a guy (whom I love dearly) who would pound his desk and tell me, “Tell them how many people we are sending this offer to.”
So a line in my email would read:
By the way, I think it’s only appropriate to tell you that we are sending this limited offer to 24,545 other people. In other words, if you are the least bit interested, act now. Tomorrow might be too late.”
Add a refund policy, and we never had any problem moving product.
2. Raise prices
The impact that higher prices can have on the human psyche is interesting. For example, in Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, he tells the story of a jewelry shop for tourists who sold all of their items after raising the prices.
But the price raises were actually done by mistake.
The owners were going out of town, and they told the person watching the shop to lower the prices. She misunderstood and raised the prices. Tourists, under the assumption that high prices meant a scarce product, scooped up everything.
Keep in mind, these are people with money who want to spend money. Let me explain why this is important.
In a study published in 1992, “Product Scarcity by Need for Uniqueness Interaction: A Consumer Catch-22 Carousel?,” researchers discovered a relationship between a phenomenon known as Need for Uniqueness (a deep sense that we need to stand out from others) and product scarcity.
In summary, this need drives us to seek out those scarce products that promise we will achieve and maintain a sense of specialness.
So, in the Cialdini example, the tourists were looking to spend money to satisfy that high Need for Uniqueness because you know they wanted to go back home and show off their newfound treasures.
Right after they posted a picture on Instagram and Facebook, of course.
3. State strict requirements to join
The other day, Jerod Morris and I had a good laugh over the fact that I’ve never been invited to any type of mastermind group. I guess I’m not mastermind material. Not that I’m complaining.
Some mastermind groups use a special form of scarcity that makes those groups more exclusive. Think of a millionaire’s club. You can’t join unless your income exceeds one million dollars a year.
Then there are the clubs for billionaires only. Where the big kids play. With their vintage car collections. On their private islands.
Top-notch universities keep the general population at bay through tough entrance exams. But that still doesn’t keep thousands of people from wanting to pay $45,278 a year for undergraduate tuition at Harvard.
Strict requirements don’t only have to be for items you are selling. You can use scarcity and exclusivity for free membership sites. Here’s the one I love to hate: Beautiful People.
In order to be accepted, those already inside must vote you in. Talk about intimidation. If accepted, though, you then become one of them — the beautiful people.
And you can brag about it.
4. Take it away
Scarcity also works on our desire to want something even more when we are told we can’t have it.
Once we’ve made a commitment — even a very small one — we don’t like to be told we can’t have something. Our half-baked pledge turns into a hellbent determination when somebody suggests we don’t measure up.
How. Dare. They. I’ll show them.
In some cases, this takeaway could be as simple as pouring on a ridiculous amount of value so the reader sees a better version of herself that she really wants and then saying, “You know what? This might not be for you. I don’t know if you are actually willing to do x, y, and z. I’ve seen it so many times. People say they want these changes, but they are not willing to do x, y, and z. ”
5. Pull it off the market
A variation of “The Takeaway” is pulling your product off the market.
Let’s say you offer a limited window of time for joining a training course — and then pull it off the market when the deadline arrives. That closing window of opportunity will get people off their duffs and pulling out their wallets.
They don’t want to wait another six months for you to re-open registration.
While your product is off the market, you can encourage people to join a waiting list with the promise that they will be the first to be notified when the offer becomes available again.
6. Make a product so irresistible that demand goes up
Finally, you can create scarcity by drumming up good, old-fashioned demand for your product.
I love the economic concept of supply and demand. My father, a trained economist, used to instruct me and my sister on this idea using stick rabbits on a chalkboard in our attic.
We — two blonde, boney kids — giggled until he got pissed.
But that lesson stuck with me. And now I jump on every chance I get to teach this to my own kids.
Now it’s your turn. The concept is simple.
- If supply is low and demand is low, your price will be low. You will never sell a thing.
- If supply is high, however, and demand is low, if you want to move product, then you’ll need to cut the prices even lower.
- If supply and demand are both high, then cut production and raise your prices.
- But if supply is low and demand is high, then you raise your prices.
The last bullet point above is the freelancer negotiating sweet spot — or the sweet spot for anyone in the service industry (where you trade your time for money).
Since your time is limited, an increasing number of people who want your time creates a pool of people who are willing to pay higher and higher prices for it.
Naturally, you are probably wondering: what’s the best way to increase demand?
Become a purple cow. And once demand exceeds supply, don’t seek to correct that gap.
Simply raise your prices. That’s scarcity at work.
A powerful way to get people to act
Scarcity is a powerful way to get people to act. Often, though, marketers manufacture scarcity and lose trust with consumers.
Fortunately, there are legitimate ways to create scarcity. But ultimately, you need to create a product or service people can’t resist — a product that drives demand up, which will lead to higher prices for your product or service.
This is the scarcity sweet spot.
Now that you’ve gotten a little lesson on scarcity, you should be able to spot examples out in the real world.
Why not share some of your favorite examples in our LinkedIn discussion. And drop me any questions or comments you might have.
You can also find me on Twitter.