Scarcity – or the successful creation of the illusion of scarcity, is going to become one of the greatest, and most powerful ways brands can build excitement in the digital environment over the coming few years.
Scarcity is a brilliant motivator. The threat of missing out. The joy and pride of being one of the privileged few. The extra value it builds. The tension. The drama. The onlookers. The watchers. The almost guaranteed positive media coverage which only serves to increase the hunger, desire and value of an access pass.
Everything about scarcity, or the illusion of it, is simply undeniably powerful.
Who does scarcity the best for ‘hard’ products? Undeniably, it’s Apple. Every September Steve Jobs, and other high-ranking members of Apple’s elite development and marketing teams roll out new products. The promises are always lofty, and words like ‘magical’, ‘amazing’, ‘gorgeous’ and ‘wonderful’ are used liberally.
But the products generally don’t come out until at least a month later – and even then there’s always a shortage of supply. Why? Because Apple knows that there is no extra value in having equal amounts of immediate supply and immediate demand. There would be virtually no reporting of people camping outside stores, because if everyone knew that they could get a new iPhone or iPad whenever they felt like it there would be far less incentive to camp out overnight, and the value of being one of the cherished few dedicated enough to hold the latest and greatest Apple product, would be decimated.
Translating the value of scarcity online is far harder than a ‘hard’ product however – I’d argue that there’s only a few companies globally that could get away with it on a massive scale.
Google+ is not only a fantastic service, but also an excellent example of building value by not opening up the social network to everyone immediately. Forget Google Buzz and Wave, they’re not even in the same league as what Google+ is. Much of the ‘value’ and free, and incredibly positive reporting and online interaction has come from the inability to freely get access and try it for yourself.
Now, lets look at this objectively – no one anywhere seriously thinks that Google+’s systems aren’t built to deal with multi-millions of users. Of course they are. But when one page costs virtually the same to produce as 100,000 where and how do you build desire? Well, you build it by not making it automatically available to everyone. Similar to the Apple product scenario, there would be far less hype if it was freely and widely available to everyone. Additional incentive, value and pride is built by being able to invite select friends and colleagues to join, thereby giving the user power, and exclusivity – if only for a short while. The invitation system also, almost guarantees usage and positive experiences, as users initially are probably going to be interacting mainly with close friends and colleagues – why would anyone waste a precious invite on that person you barely know?
Facebook knows this all too well too. Facebook started in the dorms of Harvard, and then spread to Ivy League schools, and then other Universities, and then the US and then the World. It now reigns supreme as the planet’s largest social networking website. And one could argue that Facebook learned the value of limiting usage from the launch of Gmail, which also, for a long time followed the scarcity and access by invitation model of organic growth.