Persuasive copywriting 5: Scarcity

by Tom Albrighton 12 May 2010 Persuasion

Persuasive copywriting is a matter of exploiting a number of proven, well-established principles. Those who persuade well know how to appeal to particular human desires and needs. By understanding these needs and appealing to them, we can become more persuasive copywriters.

The principle of scarcity states that people value something more if it is in short supply; perceived value has an inverse relationship to availability.

Some things are valued because they are useful, beautiful or powerful. And others are valued simply because they are scarce. Minerals such as gold and diamonds hold their value because they are so rare; all the gold ever found would fit into a 150ft cube.

For the purposes of persuasive copywriting, using scarcity means emphasising that your product or service (or something about it) is scarce or restricted in one or more of these dimensions:


Only a few exist, or are available. Examples: ‘limited edition’ products, ‘collectors’ editions’.

Just 500 of these beautiful limited edition Star Trek commemorative plates have been produced.

Easyjet uses temporal scarcity to persuade travellers to act

Easyjet uses temporal scarcity to persuade travellers to act


Only available within a limited time window. (See image)

Fantastic sale must end 31 January!


Other people might get there first. Most likely to be used in conjunction with another dimension of scarcity.

Demand for this unique cruise is sure to be intense. Act now to book your place before the May 30 deadline!


The opportunity will be taken away permanently if you fail to act.

Post Office closure plans are based on usage patterns. So use your local PO – or lose it!


Only available to certain prospects or existing customers. The group can be defined on the basis of age, buying history, geographical location or any another attribute.

As someone who’s previously bought Lawnmower World, you’ve been selected to receive details of this incredible subscription offer…


Only available if an existing customer invites you.

Spotify Free is currently in an invitation-only beta, which means you need to have received an invitation token to access the service.

Scarcity derives its psychological punch from two sources: loss of freedom and fear of regret.

As things become more scarce, we progressively lose freedom – and we hate to lose freedoms that we already enjoy. In our context, marketing and advertising, a product that was previously freely available is suddenly restricted somehow. We react against that by trying to grab it and keep hold of it (i.e. by buying it).

At the same time, we have a strong fear of regret – that is, an anxiety that acting (or failing to act) in a particular way will bring us remorse when it turns out to be ‘wrong’ after some irrevocable future event. If the fear of regret is strong enough, it becomes easier and more desirable to spend money on a purchase than to risk regretting not buying. Buying is effectively an insurance against feeling bad about not buying in the future – a psychological investment. And it may have little or nothing to do with the tangible benefits provided by the product.

To use scarcity, simply invoke whichever of the dimensions listed above are applicable to your product, service or promotion. Scarcity is often used to add impact to calls to action – telling the audience what to do while giving them a powerful reason to do it right now.

Of course, it may be that your product or service isn’t actually scarce in any way. In fact, it’s very likely you want to sell it to as broad a spectrum of people as possible, and manufacture or deliver it in massive quantities in order to realise economies of scale. But you still might want to artificially invoke one of the scarcity dimensions above in order to make it feel rare and desirable.

For instance, the ‘invitation only’ launches of Google Wave and Spotify made them feel exclusive and exciting. However, the actual number of invitations is infinite, since each new invitee is given ten invitations to hand out.

If you’re going to use scarcity, it’s important to remember that people aren’t stupid. A ‘limited edition’ that’s clearly mass-produced, with no numbering of individual editions, isn’t going to be that compelling. A time window that’s endlessly extended, like those shops that are forever having ‘closing down sales’ and then returning to normal trading, will soon lose its power to motivate.

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