How do you persuade an entire country’s population to eat something they do not want? Something so reviled that farmers would not feed it to their livestock. Something so unpopular that it caused riots in Russia. Something so forsaken that clergy called it the “devil’s apple.” Answer: you create a scarcity.

For centuries, the leaders of European countries sought protections against famine. Wars and widespread crop failures throughout the continent wreaked havoc on agriculture, as well as the societies it fed. At the turn of the 17th century, one full third of the Russian population died of hunger. By midcentury, the majority of Central European countries had fought a continuous series of wars for three decades, killing hundreds of thousands. And, in the century’s closing years, famine had spread as far north as Finland. The population of Europe needed nutritious food… something easy to grow… something easy to store… something easy to eat. Behold the common potato.

Originally cultivated in the South American Andes, potato-farming grew across the heartland of Central America. Spanish explorers extended the potato’s reach into Europe in the 16th century. Soon after, folklore of the potato’s wicked ways took root in the minds of Europeans. Some said potatoes caused leprosy, a few called them the “Earth’s testicles,” and nearly everyone refused to eat them.

In 1774, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, introduced potatoes to his country. As kings often do, Frederick employed the surefire marketing tactic of intimidation. He cajoled. He demanded. He threatened. Yet, this strategy proved unsuccessful. He could neither sell nor give potatoes away. The more Frederick pushed, the more his people resisted. The citizens of Prussia had no desire for spuds. The abundance of potatoes was surpassed only by the soil in which they were planted—to a Prussian, the likelihood of eating either was about the same.

Citizens needed a staple crop, but all the king’s attempts at persuasion rotted in the ground. What was a ruler to do? Frederick needed to create demand for a product that everyone could use, yet nobody wanted. He needed to do far more than grow potatoes: he needed to cultivate desire.

…he needed to cultivate desire.

Frederick continued to grow potatoes in his royal fields, but he added a unique, new twist: he added armed guards. He placed his potato fields and harvests under his royal protection. Rather than sell or give potatoes away, Frederick hoarded them. Nearby villagers likely watched royal guards patrol the fields of growing potatoes, glittering like steel-clad scarecrows under the noonday sun. Over time (and perhaps embellished by legend), observers of these highly secured tubers began to want what they could not have. Potatoes were no longer abundant and unwanted: potatoes were scarce and protected by armed guards.

At night, the guards would allow thieves onto the farms. The thieves carried the potatoes back to their own farms for replanting, all with the secret blessing of the king. Planting led to harvests. Harvests filled storehouses. Storehouses fed families. By creating scarcity, Frederick grew much more than potatoes: he cultivated desire.

An experience starts with a perception—good, bad, or indifferent. We often perceive scarcity as an attribute of something valuable, from a diamond adorning a wedding ring to the common potato being placed under armed guard. Scarcity not only quantifies, it also qualifies.

Scarcity by amount

Tell a person something is scarce, and you have created a scarcity. By defining such an anchor, we create a perceptual contrast between it and any other subsequent data. “One of ten,” may convey a scarcity, whereas “one of a thousand” may not. We perceive scarcity through a comparison between what is offered and what is claimed. Eighteenth-century Prussians were offered millions of potatoes; however, no potatoes were claimed. Nothing claimed, nothing scarce. Once the majority of potatoes were claimed, the resulting comparison changed. A careful balance between these two sides creates scarcity while maintaining availability.

Sophisticated e-commerce solutions utilize stock counters to show limited availability. Rather than show 999 of 1,000 available, the availability is hidden until the careful balance is reached between what is offered and what is claimed. The display of “10 left in stock” compels shoppers to buy, because the perception is that far more than 10 were initially offered. As you could imagine, “10 of 10 left in stock” may make a product appear as undesired as the devil’s apple.

Scarcity by time

If you have ever attended an auction, you can appreciate the notion of scarcity by time. Auctions excite audiences by compressing the time between what is offered and what is claimed into seconds. “One hundred, do I have two hundred? Two hundred, do I hear three hundred? Three hundred, going once, going twice…” Offers fly off an auctioneer’s lips and onto bidders’ checkbooks quicker than you can say, “I’ve been persuaded by a scarcity marketing technique.”

Online auctions persuade and offer much of the same excitement, albeit with less pressure. Their durations last longer than offline auctions and the bidding is frequently automatic. Persuasion comes in the form of time, but wraps itself in the promise of a potentially good deal.

Limited time offers mimic the persuasive effects of auctions. The implicit promise of a limited time offer is a potentially good deal. After all, a limited time offer would not be very compelling if you perceived the deal improving after the time limit expired. Once we doubt such a promise, its persuasive effects become far less effective. Consider the furniture retail stalwart of a going out of business sale.

Scarcity by exclusivity

The labeling of an item with “special edition” connotes scarcity through exclusivity. It is the highest form of scarcity because, true to its name, its specialness is what delineates between what is offered and what is claimed. It is not merely scarce, but scarce for a reason.

Why more companies do not utilize special editions is perplexing. Who wouldn’t wish to buy a special edition over the humdrum, normal edition of a product? You could imagine a special edition thumbtack, jet liner, or tub of butter. All of which are somehow magically imbued with the touch of uniqueness, simply by being called a special edition.

Like limited time offers, the technique may backfire if not handled with care. Special software editions work best as unique branches off the main trunk of an application. Game publishers extend their reach to new audiences through licensed and seasonal editions. A visit to the App Store uncovers not only Angry Birds, but also Angry Birds Star Wars, Angry Birds Rio, and Angry Birds Seasons. Special editions of a main trunk may confuse audiences and are best avoided. The most recent, stable version of software is special enough.

Ask yourself if your creation could benefit from scarcity. Perhaps you release an application to 1,000 initial users, then collect additional email addresses on a waiting list. Premium memberships, per incident support, and limited availability of in-application items are all means to seed curiosity within an audience.

To this day, people still leave potatoes on King Frederick’s gravestone—an offering to an effective persuader. Persuasive techniques are often maligned for their manipulative outcomes. However, we should acknowledge the occasionally good outcomes as well. You need not save the world through your creations, but you will often find that scarcity can grow interest in even the most fallow of fields.

Key Takeaways

  • When handled appropriately, promotion helps users recognize critical information.
  • We must neither ignore nor smother users.
  • A just noticeable difference (JND) is the minimum amount of perceivable difference between two pieces of information.
  • Scarcity creates a perceptual contrast between what is offered and what is claimed.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Does an experience effectively communicate its benefits to users?
  • Am I smothering users with too much information?
  • Can I foster interest in a product or service by reducing its availability?
  • Is there an opportunity to create a special edition of a product or service (e.g., a pro version)?