Scarcity Marketing (plus 5 examples of when it’s sleezy)

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Scarcity marketing sucks (unless it’s real).

Scarcity tactics in marketing are all the rage – particularly for online courses and ecommerce businesses. You know, things like countdown timers, limited spaces and all the added bonus content that gets lobbed on to persuade someone to take action. 

But honestly, it’s a dangerous game to play, so I’ve put together 5 examples of when it works well. Plus what to avoid so you don’t fall into an icky, trust breaking, slimy trap. 

So let’s look at when it’s ethical to use scarcity in your marketing. And when you should give it the big old elbow. 

1. Countdown timers

Countdown timers can be a really great visual aid to compel people to take action on a time limited offer. They very quickly communicate a deadline to take action. 

When it’s real 

If you’re running a genuine time-limited offer that expires at the same day/time for everyone, or need people to sign up by a certain date or they’ll miss the boat – countdown timers are great. 

They make it crystal clear how long someone has to make a decision, without relying on them reading all the copy on your page (and potentially missing the deadline).

When it’s icky

When they update depending on when someone lands on the page, when they’re refreshing and running all the time – they’re unethical and icky. And they destroy trust. 

Using countdown timers in this way is misleading. Heck, let’s be honest, it’s lying. Duping people into panicking to take action isn’t ok. 

2. Limited spaces/stock

scarcity marketing last chance

Letting people know that there is a limited supply of something can help get them off the fence and move them into action. FOMO is very real – and very effective, but is it ethical to use it in your marketing? 

When it’s real 

If you genuinely have limited supply of a product, then it makes sense to tell people so they can decide how urgently they want it and whether they want to run the risk of it selling out. If it’s real, it’s good marketing to tell people so they can make an informed decision. 

When it’s icky

When you know you have reams and reams of stock or unlimited places on a course/membership programme, it’s unethical to dupe people into thinking they have to make a snap decision just to boost your bottom line. 

When you use it to push and pressure people into saying yes to the offer without time to think about it – it’s icky and manipulative.

3. Bonus content

scarcity marketing bonus offers

Adding bonuses or free gifts as long as people sign up by a set deadline is a tactic used to give the impression of higher value (for lower cost). 

When it’s real 

When the additional gift or bonus content has had no impact on the price of the thing you’re promoting, then it’s a genuine incentive for people to buy. If it’s stuff you know will help them and you’ve bundled it in to add value at no extra cost – that’s a genuine bonus. 

When it’s icky

If you’ve rounded up the price of your offer to cover for the cost of including all the ‘free’ stuff, it’s not free. And that’s unethical. You can instead run an upsell and give people the choice about whether they want to pay more for the extras. 

If it’s stuff that’s free anyway to people who don’t buy from you or stuff that doesn’t really hold much value, it’s unethical. 

And if you blow the proposed value up beyond what the extras really sell for, that’s also unethical. For example – bonus 1 (worth £350), bonus 2 (worth £600), etc – but in reality you’ve never sold, nor would expect to be able to sell those bonuses at those prices. 

4. Flash sales

scarcity marketing flash sale

Surprise sales lasting a short period of time are a great way to inspire an uptake in purchases. Typically a flash sale will last 24-48 hours.

When it’s real 

If it’s a genuine limited time sale that’s available only for a short period, then a flash sale is ethical and a brilliant way to build excitement and prompt customers into action. It’s a great way to generate a quick cash injection and give your audience a great deal that they’ll appreciate. 

For example, when I ran a flash sale on my email sequences offering 50% off – it was a genuine offer that was limited for one weekend only. I never offer this kind of discount usually and it was a bargain for people who’d been wanting to buy but were put off by the investment. 

When it’s icky

If you run flash sales all the time, they are less valuable than your standard offers or you extend the deadlines to prompt more sales, you’re tricking people into buying quickly without thinking. 

Equally, if you inflate the ‘normal’ price of your product in order to offer the illusion of a discount – this is bad form. We see this a lot around Black Friday, where businesses increase their prices before the sale, so they can offer a discount that looks generous but isn’t real. 

5. The limited launch price

scarcity marketing low price

When you first launch a new product or service, you can launch it at a founding members/buyers rate to increase early uptake and give your launch a boost. 

When it’s real 

When it’s a genuine one-off offer to buy a product or service at the lowest price it’ll ever be (and you stick to it), it’s a great incentive for people interested to buy first time around. It’s fair to let people know that waiting may come at a cost, so they can make an informed choice about whether to jump in or take the risk and wait. 

For example, when I launched Underdogs Unleashed for the first time, I had limited spaces and a founding member offer. Those who invested first time around got 12 weeks of live teaching PLUS lifetime access to all future course content. They also got to buy in at the lowest price the live course will ever be.

I’ve since launched the self-paced version of the course and eventually decided to make it pay what you can. In order to do this, I had to talk to the OG students first and compensate them so they didn’t feel duped or ripped off.

When it’s icky

We’ve all seen the promises that it’ll never be this price again – a clear attempt to get us to buy now through fear that it’ll cost us more later. When the ‘thing’ goes on sale again at the same price (or lower), this creates serious distrust with your customers. If you’re not certain that the price will never be this low again, don’t say it! 

The Scarcity Marketing Bottom Line

One of the biggest things we need to do with our marketing is to build trust. If you manipulate, mislead or misrepresent what you’re selling, you destroy trust and potentially your reputation.

Urgency does sell, and using scarcity in your marketing can really drive action. Just do it honestly and think about the people on the receiving end first.

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Written by Rikki S

Hi, I'm Rikki. I'm a copywriter specialising in helping pet businesses with copy that attracts, engages, and converts.

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