Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, is the world’s leading authority on the psychology of influence and persuasion. His studies, summarised in the great book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, identify six principles of persuasion – essentially, six ‘buttons’ that, left to itself, the human brain responds to automatically.

I should point out here that Cialdini’s purpose in studying the psychology of influence is not to make people better at manipulating others for evil purposes; indeed, in the book he says that the reason he went into this area in the first place was because he was the sucker who always fell for salesman’s tricks, marketing scams, and the ploys of charities out to solicit donations.

Let’s start with the Scarcity principle. In a nutshell, this means that we equate scarcity with value, and the less we can have something, the more we tend to want it.

If you’ve ever been ready to pay for something in a shop, and the assistant interrupts the sale to answer a telephone enquiry, you may have wondered what was going on. Why would the assistant risk losing a guaranteed sale to answer what might be just a speculative enquiry? Who is more deserving of the assistant’s attention – you, who is standing right in front of the assistant, or this telephone enquirer who can’t be bothered to come down to the shop?

All is explained by the scarcity principle. Without even thinking about it, the assistant will ignore you and answer the phone, on the assumption that if they don’t, they may never get another chance to sell something to that caller.

The same principle operates if you’ve ever been to a seminar or taster event where you are offered a speciall discount that is only valid if you sign up for the next event that very day. Or in an ‘open house’ organised by real estate agents, where they get all the prospective buyers of a house round to view it at once.

I tried out this principle recently with the excellent ‘NLP Skills Builder’ DVD sets by Jonathan Altfeld that I used to sell in my online store (nowadays I only stock virtual products, so I put a direct link to Jonathan’s store if I want to tell people about his materials). These are well worth having, but they normally sell quite slowly. They had a reasonably substantial £79 price tag, and I wondered if people who wanted them were tending to put off the actual purchase until some future day when they might feel richer (in practice, that future day never actually arrives, as many people will always find something more pressing, if less important, than developing their skills).

So I decided to employ the scarcity principle by offering a £20 discount coupon. I could have limited its validity to a deadline date, but everyone does that – instead, I went for a limited quantity of only five coupons. First come, first served.

I also cranked up the scarcity a bit more, by telling my customers about them in stages. The first people to know were the graduates of my courses – naturally these are the people I want to reward the most. A couple of days later I told the people who had demonstrated some commitment by taking out annual membership of the Manchester Business NLP and Emotional Intelligence Group, then the rest of the mailing list for the group and my Twitter followers, and finally my overall 4,000 strong mailing list.

How diid this ramp up the scarcity? For each group that I told, I made sure they knew that I would soon be making the coupons available to larger numbers of people – so there would be quite a lot of competition for those five coupons! I wanted to nudge people who were tempted to buy the DVD sets anyway into buying now, rather than leaving the decision for another day.

It worked too! The coupon-driven sales brought in £649 of DVD sales in a week – plus a few other products that people added to their baskets while they were ‘in’ the online store. Previously I’d sold one set the whole year.

I should add that all the coupons for this offer have gone now. I will be doing more in future for other products – to make sure you know about them in time, subscribe to my newsletter.

Cialdini and his team have produced another book more recently – Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion – which is a set of case studies of how the principles can be used. They also produce a good monthly newsletter.



Influence: Cialdini’s Six Principles – 1. Scarcity

3 thoughts on “Influence: Cialdini’s Six Principles – 1. Scarcity

  • This is an interesting twist on the concept of marketing scarcity. However, I'm curious … how do you demonstrate scarcity (as you did above) without actually limiting your sales. Also, is there a relationship between scarcity as a persuasion technique and NLP, or was NLP just an example product for your discussion?

  • Hi Bryan,

    I only had a limited number of the DVDs to sell – the tactic wouldn't work with a product that you wanted to sell day in, day out (e.g. bread at a bakery).

    Cialdini's research is academic rather than coming from NLP, although all the NLP persuasion experts that I have come across have a great respect for his work and quote it extensively.

  • Andy, I think you could implement another strategy to not only sell more units but be more profitable. You mentioned you used scarcity (which is the mother of all triggers) to move more units. I know first hand the power of scarcity. One thing I think you could do as well is raise the price of the product. You mentioned it was "excellent" but in my opinion the price does not support your claim. Personally I am used to "excellent" costing more than 79 pounds. I would love to hear your results if you raised the price and used scarcity. I think the perceived value will be increased.

    Also regarding the bread store… Scarcity could work if they had daily sales or even hourly sales. So if their early AM sales are dragging they could offer better pricing in the AM and drive sales and traffic.

    Great job on your article. I really enjoyed it.


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