Why the persuasion principle of scarcity doesn’t always work

20 maart 2019

Applying scarcity in marketing communication can be a powerful means of attracting potential buyers. “first come, first served”, “offer ends today” and “only 2 items available” are expressions that you will often come across. Hardly surprising, because there are several studies that show that these kinds of expressions actually increase conversion.

But does Dr Robert Cialdini’s principle of persuasion ‘scarcity’ always work and with everyone? We will go into more detail in this blog.

Booking.com is perhaps the best-known website that makes extreme use of expressions of scarcity. For years they have been trying to convince their website visitors of the ‘scarce’ availability of the number of rooms. In 2014, it turned out that these statements were not always based on truth. Now, a few years later, they claim that everything is linked to up-to-date figures. Having said that, we will continue with the question of how to use scarcity as effectively as possible.

What doesn’t work

Many companies believe that all website visitors are by definition susceptible to scarcity. Experience shows that this is not always the case. It appears that visitors who are further along in their purchasing process are the ones who are most susceptible to scarcity. Visitors who are only at the beginning of their purchasing process could experience an expression of scarcity as being pushed into something. This can result in a visitor becoming irritated or even leaving the website and continuing the purchase elsewhere. Applying scarcity to the masses, therefore, does not work.

We will explain the above with reference to an example. A visitor is looking for a summer holiday. He looks at various islands in Eastern and Western Europe on a travel website. From this, it can be concluded that the visitor would like a holiday on an island in the sun. But we have no other information so far. We don’t yet know which specific island he wants to visit, whether he would like to stay in the city or outside the city and in which price range he is looking for accommodation.

Identifying purchase intention

In order to apply scarcity effectively, it is essential to identify the purchase intention of website visitors. If you know which phase of the purchasing process a visitor is in, you can respond to this by applying persuasion principles. But how can you identify the purchase intention?

Purchase intention can be identified by mapping the click, surf, search and scroll behaviour. The addition or removal of filters, selection of brands and the completion of a departure date can also be included. All behaviour is stored for each visitor in an individual customer profile in a Data Management Platform (DMP).


The customer profiles can then be divided into different segments. Visitors who end up in the same segment are very similar based on their behaviour on the website. The chances that this group is susceptible to the same principle of persuasion, in this case scarcity, are high. Various segments that are used include:

  • Visitors who mainly view many category pages and few product pages are defined as viewers. The viewer is still in the exploratory phase of their purchase process.
  • Judgers are visitors who carefully look at different product pages. This group will view and enlarge photos, read reviews and consider a purchase. They are really interested in a particular product.
  • A judger becomes a comparer if they look at several products and becomes temporarily inactive on a regular basis. One assumption is that the visitor is comparing specific products on the websites of other providers.
  • Fun shoppers are visitors who actively look around a site and add different products to their shopping cart or favourites list.

The comparers, judgers and fun shoppers are more susceptible to scarcity than viewers. This information can be included on a website. By dividing visitors into different segments, the persuasion principles can therefore be applied in a very targeted manner. As a result, an expression is always relevant for a particular segment.

Let’s go back to that visitor who is looking for a summer holiday. He now knows what he is looking for, and is visiting the travel website for the third time. He fills in various filter options such as his desired location Ibiza, travel company of 4 people (of which 2 adults, 2 children) and a hotel in the centre of Ibiza city. He then looks at a number of specific detail pages. Based on these behaviours, the algorithm concludes that this visitor falls within the segment of the judger and is therefore susceptible to expressions of scarcity.

Smart persuasion

As mentioned above, no two expressions are the same. It is important to adapt your scarcity expression to your segments and the selection. What works best can be investigated by performing A/B tests.

In addition to applying scarcity, visitors are also encouraged by principles of temptation such as authority, social confirmation and reciprocity. The authority of your website can be strengthened, for example, by placing quality marks, social confirmation is applied by showing purchases or reviews in a certain period and reciprocity is used, for example, by giving a discount in exchange for an email address.

Would you like to know how scarcity or other principles of temptation can be applied to your website based on segmentation? Request a free demo on our homepage. Together we will look at personalisation options for your company.