The Social Psychology for Marketing Series (Part 2)

By Wired Messenger Email Marketing

Applying Scarcity with Abundance for better Email Marketing

To my mind the old masters are not art; their value is in their scarcity.

-Thomas A. Edison

When not too busy finding the 10,000 ways to not invent the lightbulb, Thomas Edison was a fountain of insightful thought and quotable quotes.  Despite the fact that he never actually succeeded in inventing the lightbulb, his quote on failure is still a memorable one. Lesser known is his take on the principle of scarcity and from that he borrowed from the art world.  So what does the inventor of the phonograph have to do with email marketing? We will return to Edison a little later in the article and find out.

In Part 1 of this series found here Using Social Proof for Content Development and Email Marketing to Influence specific desired outcomes in Consumer Behaviorwe defined  Social Psychology for marketing. We also introduced the work of Robert Cialdini and described some of his findings in the context of a Carpet Cleaning company and suggested email marketing tactics. The article concluded with the following:

……. “75% of new mothers in the city of  Richmond Hill, Ontario wished they had gotten their household carpets cleaned two months before the arrival of their newborn. Book your appointment with AwesomeZuper Carpet cleaning by clicking here”  

This combines social proof with another highly effective social psychology marketing tactic that will be discussed in the next edition of The Social Psychology for Marketing Series.

The highly effective social psychology marketing tactic referenced above is Scarcity (specifically time related) and is the subject of this installment.  

Merriam Webster defines scarce  as “deficient in quantity or number compared with the demand : not plentiful or abundant.” And scarcity as “the quality or state of being scarce

In social psychology terms, a quick look at Wikipedia, tells us  that Scarcity, in the area of social psychology, works much like scarcity in the area of economics. Simply put, humans place a higher value on an object that is scarce, and a lower value on those that are in abundance. For example diamonds are more valuable than rocks because diamonds are not as abundant.

Two types of Scarcity: Supply Related and Time Related 

The example above is actually a misconception.  Diamonds are not scarce at all…in fact they are ubiquitous. And when compared to other gems they are downright abundant.  So why do we perceive them as being scarce? Because of the De Beers corporation of South Africa. 

Scarcity Type 1: Supply Related

It should interest you to know that the De Beers corporation practically invented the notion of scarcity in the $80B diamond market.  Yes, you read that correctly…the words $80B and scarcity are being used in the same sentence. Until very recently, De Beers controlled the supply side of all diamonds globally. Essentially, to keep prices at a very high level, De Beers restricted the annual allotment thereby creating artificial scarcity. (OPEC does this very well too by limiting oil production) 

Furthermore, as any man about to propose knows, prices are determined by the quality of the diamond.  Diamonds with certain attributes are considered even more rare/scarce and are graded by those attributes.  De Beers invented that grading scheme, affectionately known to brides-to-be as “The 4 Cs.,” in 1939.

Combine these facts with a very clever slogan that implies abundance “Diamonds are Forever” and you have a very interesting and effective juxtaposition. (more on that in a bit)

Supply related scarcity is hardwired into the human psyche and acts on innate emotion.

Scarcity actually triggers various types of fear and can cause misperceptions around value thereby driving irrational behaviour.

Cialdini describes this as “primitive automaticity” and cites it as an essential part of understanding how our decision making is influenced. Since we often base decisions on only a small piece of the information available, and while this single bit of information could be relevant and appropriate, it could also result in some very odd or at minimum illogical behavior .

Not convinced?  Go to the opening of a Walmart the day after American Thanksgiving.  Just be sure to bring a mouth guard and a helmet. 

Still not convinced? At the time of writing, surgical masks are nearly impossible to find due to the coronavirus.  A black market for these items is now thriving with the average global cost of $10 per unit despite the fact that they usually sell for pennies if not made available for free.  Shortage of the masks has caused protests by a frenzied public. And no one seems to care that the masks actually do nothing to prevent the virus. In fact, one might argue that people care because they just can’t get these coveted items.

Amazon has mastered the tactic of employing supply scarcity.  While you are shopping for a particular item you’ve probably noticed embedded messages such as “Only 3 left in stock.” Or Perhaps you’ve been in the process of booking a hotel room on Hotels.com and noticed that there are “only 2 rooms left at this price.”  

Language like “while supplies last” “limited quantity” “while in stock” etc…are tired tactics and for very good reason: They Work!  

So how can the savvy email marketer use this tactic to affect a specific desired outcome?

All email marketers share one common goal:  They want their email to be opened and then read.  Using scarcity is effective at affecting this outcome.  Consider supply-related scarcity subject lines which are best determined by the product being sold.  For example, a client which Wired Messenger works, often publishes the quantity of seats on a given flight as the subject line for a very targeted email.  

For example “Fly to the Bahamas for $129: Only 3 seats available- open and start your vacation planning”

Perhaps you are managing a personalized email campaign for a shoe retailer and you are targeting those who might be interested in say, ThUgg boots and from the data you have collected are known to wear a size 6.  A subject line might read “ThUgg boots only $39 – limited quantities in size 6. See below for savings”

Scarcity Type 2: Time Related

All of the rules above apply to the time related scarcity phenomena too. Supply related scarcity revolves around products or commodities.  And the most precious commodity of all? Time. Time is finite, ever dwindling and always seems to be in short supply.

Have you ever bought a drink for last call at a bar even though you might not have felt like having a last one?  Or maybe you did feel like a nightcap and walked away from the bar with three?

Have you ever sipped on a Pumpkin spiced latte while nibbling on a McDonald’s McRib sandwich? Shopped for a mattress during a memorial day sale?  Or participated in the most manufactured and arbitrary sales event ever…Cyber Monday? Have you ever “act (ed) now before it’s too late?”

These are all examples of tactics used by marketers leveraging the concept of the limited time offer.  It’s a very powerful motivational tool that incites a sense of urgency in consumers. 

Once again let’s look at the marketing masters at Amazon for a unique take on this concept.  Amazon uses a countdown clock during the checkout process to subtly install a sense of urgency in the buyer.  Instead of a fear-based approach Amazon takes an incentive based time approach. For example while shopping have you noticed the following message?  “Order it in the next 1hr 6 mins 5 sec, 4s, 3s, 2s….and receive it by tomorrow at 12pm.”

How can savvy email marketers employ this concept effectively? 

A national restaurant chain with which Wired Messenger works employed a very simple time-scarcity based campaign and used an email subject line similar to this Happy Birthday NAME a free XXX dinner coupon.  Only available for download today!

 Consider using time based reasons to get a target to open an email. Use language like “sale ends today”, “ending soon”, “act now while there’s still time” or “don’t miss out”.  

Humour works well too – try: “If not read in the next 15 seconds this email will self-destruct.”  

Sceptical?  Ha! …I wonder which one of you readers is going to try it first?

These concepts are proven.  For example, according to the World Health Organization,  people are paying $10 for a 2c paper mask that doesn’t even work  for the purpose for which they are being purchased – all based on scarcity.  

Now are you convinced?  If so, you may have been influenced by the tactic that will be covered in Part 3 of The Social Psychology for Marketing Series; hint…it was used abundantly throughout this article on scarcity. 

To my mind the old masters are not art; their value is in their scarcity.

-Thomas A. Edison


To my mind there is old value in the masters;  scarcity is their art .

-a super Savvy Email Marketer

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