In the last post, I discussed how looking at the same options from various perspectives can lead to making different choices. Particularly, I explored research that showed how individuals are often more motivated to pick an option when they are thinking about it as trying to avoid a loss (rather than when they are considering it as securing a gain). As a result, to balance out our own decisions and motivations, it is important to consider options from multiple points of view and frames of reference.
Nevertheless, what if you want to persuade someone else to pick a specific option you prefer instead? What if you want to make a particular choice more desirable and motivating for them than the rest? In that case, getting them to think about that particular option in terms of avoiding a loss could be quite helpful.
How can that be accomplished? By making them think it is scarce.
Using Scarcity to Persuade and Influence
The persuasive power of making something appear scarce, limited, or hard to obtain was first reviewed by Cialdini (2009). By surveying the scholarly research and analyzing compliance professionals, Cialdini (2009) identified that such scarcity tactics were one of six main social influence principles used to elicit compliance, agreement, and choice. Specifically, in that evaluation, Cialdini (2009) noted two main ways that the power of scarcity was used:
- In Short Supply: In some situations, the option was made to seem scarce by described it as being in short supply. Perhaps it was described as a limited amount of a particular item for sale (e.g. "only 10 in stock"), or some other reason for the shortage was suggested. In other instances, a vague notion of scarce supply was simply presented instead (e.g. "limited supply").
- For a Limited Time: In other instances, the option was made to seem scarce by being described as only being available for a limited time. The most common example of this approach was a sale for a limited time (e.g. a weekend sale, or the count-down clock on the TV infomercials). In a less structured way, the general statement of "act now, before it's too late" taps into this limited-time scarcity too.
Those general types of scarcity messages were further evaluated by Aggarwal, Jun, and Huh (2011). The researchers conducted two studies exploring the effects of such messaging on purchase intentions. Overall, the results supported the notion that both types of scarcity messages were effective. Nevertheless, creating scarcity by suggesting a limited supply or quantity appeared to be more persuasive than messages suggesting limited time. This was particularly true when trying to sell a product that was described in more symbolic terms (stylish and creative), rather than with more functional attributes (fast and durable).
Later research by Burger and Caldwell (2011) added to these scarcity techniques too. Instead of limiting supply or time, however, the pair evaluated the effect of presenting participants with what they were led to believe was a Unique Opportunity. This scarcity-through-uniqueness was explored through four different studies:
- In the first study, participants were asked to apply to take part in an experiment at a later date. While responding to the initial screening questions, some participants were told that "we can't use everyone in the study." Ultimately all participants were accepted to take part in the later experiment. Nevertheless, those participants who believed their being selected was a more unique opportunity were more likely to actually chose to show up and participate.
- In study two, Burger and Caldwell (2011) invited some participants back for a later experiment by leading them to believe their initial personality test scores were rare ("It's pretty uncommon. Only about 10 percent of the people who take the test fall in that range. But you are one of those people."). Other participants were invited back but were told their scores were more common. Those participants believing the opportunity was more unique (and scarce) were again more likely to show up and participate.
- In study three, some participants were told that they had won a drawing, entitling them to purchase a product (travel mug) at a reduced price. Other participants were simply offered the mug at that reduced price ($5, instead of $15). Those participants who believed the discount was more unique (because they "won" it) were more likely to purchase the mug.
- In study four, Burger and Caldwell (2011) presented participants with a hypothetical scenario, offering 40% off a $1,200 snowboarding package. Some participants were led to believe the deal was more unique and scarce (being provided by a friend's uncle who runs the resort), while others were led to believe the deal was more common (open to all members of specific groups which they belonged—teachers, veterans, etc.). In this scenario too, those who believed the deal to be more unique were also more likely to say they would buy it. Thus, the scarcity produced by making an opportunity unique appeared to be persuasive in multiple decision-making situations too.
Adding one final scarcity tactic to the list, Aguirre-Rodriguez (2013) made the distinction between messages that suggested limited quantity due to being in Short Supply (supply-related scarcity) and due to High Demand (demand-related scarcity). Results of the first study, comparing the two approaches, indicated that participants found supply-related scarcity messages more credible and more persuasive. In the second study, however, the specificity of the message was shown to impact that comparison. Particularly, when supply-related scarcity messages added specific details ("Only 500 households can claim a coupon"), the messages were seen as more deceptive than demand-related messaging. Nevertheless, when the supply-related scarcity messages were more vague ("A maximum number of households can claim a coupon"), they were viewed as less deceptive than similar demand-related messaging. Therefore, when details are vague and the audience is not thinking too deeply about the message, generally suggesting something is in short supply can be persuasive. When folks are paying attention and numbers are involved, however, you might be more persuasive speaking about a specific high demand instead.
4 Ways to Use Scarcity
If you would like to use scarcity to influence and persuade, the above research offers four main strategies:
- Short Supply: Generally, the research points to the notion that suggesting the quantity of something is limited (and therefore more likely to be "lost" or missed out on) is an effective way to persuade via scarcity. In turn, one of the main ways of getting people to think that the quantity of an option or product is limited is to describe that it is in short supply. Nevertheless, such descriptions might be best left vague ("limited supply" or "while supplies last"). Otherwise, more specific details might reduce the impact of the approach.
- High Demand: The quantity of an option can also be insufficient for an individual (triggering the threat of loss), if they perceive the demand to be high. So, to elicit scarcity, you can also suggest that a particular choice or opportunity is in high demand and popular. This might be a particularly good option when you do not have control over (the perception of) the actual supply. Although it is seen as a bit more deceptive an approach overall, it might be better to choose when you have specific details and a thoughtful audience for your message ("100,000 already sold").
- Unique Opportunity: Taking a different approach entirely, scarcity can also be used by making a choice or option unique, special, or selective too. Approaches like preferred memberships and VIP access tap into this approach. So, suggesting that some opportunity is reserved or unique for a particular individual could be a good way to persuade them to buy it or try it too.
- Limited Time: Last, but not least, a choice can be made scarce by putting a time limit on it as well. While the above research might suggest this approach may not be the most potent, it is fairly easy to just put an arbitrary deadline on an option. Therefore, it is easy to utilize—especially to combine with any of the other tactics above. Therefore, as someone decides on the option you have described, remember to remind them to "act now, before time runs out" too.
© 2018 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Aggarwal, P., Jun, S. Y., & Huh, J. H. (2011). Scarcity messages. Journal of Advertising, 40(3), 19-30.
Aguirre-Rodriguez, A. (2013). The effect of consumer persuasion knowledge on scarcity appeal persuasiveness. Journal of Advertising, 42(4), 371-379.
Burger, J. M., & Caldwell, D. F. (2011). When opportunity knocks: The effect of a perceived unique opportunity on compliance. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14(5), 671-680.
Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.