9 Ways to Use Scarcity in Ecommerce Marketing

Getting people to make a purchase is easier said than done, especially through email.

The challenge lies in email’s fundamentally passive form and how the human brain processes information.

“Many of the problems that affect conversions,” writes Neil Patel, the founder of KissMetrics, “are issues of cognitive friction – people think too hard, wait too long, or simply don’t respond to our calls-to-action.”

Simply defined, cognitive friction refers to any speed bump – real or perceived – that costs effort. People are easily discouraged from taking action. And, naturally, doing nothing is the easiest action of all.

The question is: how do you overcome passivity to create emails that get opened and clicked?

The answer: by using one of the most universal and powerful cognitive biases to topple cognitive friction.

Sound complicated? It’s not. In fact, it all comes down two words: scarcity and urgency.

Scarcity – one of Robert Cialdini’s six weapons of influence in his classic book Influence is based on a straightforward premise: humans are innately greedy. We covet what we can’t have. And leveraging urgency is really nothing more than applying scarcity to time.

Unfortunately, theory is one thing. Application is another. So instead of an academic tome, let’s look at nine effective and ethical ways to drive urgency in your email marketing using the principle of scarcity.

1. Flash sales for urgency emails

You already know that flash sales mean offering your products or services at heavily discounted prices…for a short period of time. The shorter the time, the higher the fear of losing out and, hence, the more urgency.

As per an Experian report, flash-sale emails have at least 14% higher click-to-open rates, 59% higher transaction-to-click rates, and twice transaction rates compared to average marketing emails. Additionally, they build brand awareness when coupled with social media, improve customer engagement, and boosts short-term profits as well as offload supply overages.

Two ingredients are vital to successful flash sale emails. First, the discount has to be legitimately jaw-dropping. Second, the time frame must be clear.

Even better, flash sales don’t have to be a one-and-done approach. Wayfair, for instance, has built their email marketing campaigns around near continuous flash sales. Let’s look at one example:

From their subject line to their email copy, Wayfair uses urgency-driving language. “Limited Time” and “New Day, New Deals” inspires action. They also highlight multiple product categories with specific discounts tied to each.

Unfortunately, what Wayfair doesn’t do – as we’ll see later – is quantify exactly what they mean by “Limited Time.” Urgency lives and dies by narrow windows of opportunity.

2. Seasonal sales for urgency emails

By restricting certain products to special times of the year, you build anticipation, excitement, loyalty, and profits: think Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte or the McRib.

Whoever says that happiness can’t be bought has clearly never received a genuinely exclusive “holiday” discount in their inboxes. However, you don’t have to wait for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or the New Year to take advantage of seasonal shopping mania.

Any special event tied directly to your target audience – Valentine’s Day, a new school year, even a celebrity’s birthday or pop-culture event – can be celebrated using irresistible promotions.

Charming Charlie does this through their “semi-annual” sales, but notice in particular how they move from the big picture to the small:

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Similar to the first example, Charming Charlie opens with a clear and compelling subject line loaded with urgency triggers: “final,” “sale,” and “ends tonight.”

The bright and bold design is in sync with brand personality. The copy isn’t down-to-earth – “This Way to Savings” – it’s focused exclusively on the main purpose of the email and the stripped down categories and prominent numbers make it easy to scan. What they don’t include, however, are enticing product images to bring each category to life.

3. Reminders for urgency emails

As mentioned, sales emails are not one-and-done messages. For both flash and seasonal sales, send out reminders once a day…from the first day of the sale to the last. Your reminder sequence should start gentle and get progressively more urgent as the deadline nears.

Create no more than three to four emails in this sequence. Don’t bombard inboxes. Also, don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel each time. Slight changes in your subject line and email body related to the duration of the same is all you really need. This makes creating an urgency sequence easier than expected.

Take for example these three emails from PetSmart. The first announces the sale.

The second reminds:

And the third ratchets up urgency:

All three display consistent branding and – more importantly – a relentless focus on one thing: the sale. It’s tempting to want to add new products or other content to sequences like this. Don’t.

Make the main thing the main thing. Notice how the only changes PetSmart includes relate to the timeline. With reminders, singularity is king.

4. Set Deadlines for urgency emails

Which of the following two stirs you to act ASAP:

  1. Storewide savings: 70% on all furniture and bath items
  2. **ENDS TODAY** 70% savings on all furniture and bath items

If you’re like most people, chances are you said “b.”

Nothing spurs urgent action more than a concrete deadline. The fear of missing out (FOMO) kicks in when we realize that our desired object is moving out of our reach. Even habitual procrastinators are not immune to the lure of deadlines.

There are a few ways you can go about adding a purchase deadline to your emails:

  • Offer ends on MM/DD/YYYY at 12:00 am
  • Offer ends in 48 hours
  • You only have 2 days to save

Here’s a fairly standard deadline-focused email from VistaPrint:

There’s nothing glaringly wrong with this email. But then again … there’s nothing glaring urgent about it either. Be cautious of sending urgency-based emails just for the sake of sending them. Urgency is a tricky thing, and nothing inoculates your subscribers against your message more than overexposure, particularly when the deal doesn’t include anything worth writing home about. So what does spur urgency on this front?

5. Countdown timers for urgency emails

Mentioning a deal’s expiration date is good. It’s better than nothing. But showing a ticking timer – a vivid symbol of passing time – that’s urgency gold.

Why? Because 90% of all the information that enters our brain is visual. Visuals are also processed 60,000 times faster than images.

“If you remind users that time is passing — that the clock is ticking — it raises the urgency level and compels action,” writes Neil Patel.

Seeing a clock count down the seconds quickens your pulse rate, prompting the impulse to shop. In fact, it’s a hardwired response. Barnes & Noble incorporates this tactic deftly:

The timer is placed front and center. The large fonts and bold colors increase urgency. And there are zero extraneous elements. The only clickable options are to go the in-store coupon route or to go online. It’s focused, forceful, and fierce…just like your incorporation of countdown times should be.

6. Free shipping for urgency emails

As ubiquitous as sites like Amazon have made free shipping, it’s still a powerful lure. Free shipping is the number one reason more than 80% of customers shop online. And over 50% of shoppers abandon their carts because of unexpected surcharges, like high shipping costs.

Limited-time free shipping can nudge wary or undecided shoppers to make a purchase like Wayfair does here:

The word “earned” in the subject line is a powerful touch. But, 30 days doesn’t exactly spark an “I’ve got to act now” feeling.

Instead, limit your free shipping offer by tying it directly to a real-world deadline. The NFL shop does this by personalizing their free-shipping email in a number of ways:

7. Loss aversion for urgency emails

“We feel the pain of a loss more acutely than we feel the pleasure of a gain,” writes Carl Richards, a New York Times columnist. This is loss aversion. And thankfully that loss doesn’t even have to be “life-alteringly awful” to drive urgency.

Done right, making customers aware of the negative consequences of not acting immediately will escalate their curiosity and enhance trust in your brand. Just be warned: the loss aversion strategy induces fear. Use this tactic responsibly. Trying to scare your subscriber with exaggerated claims of negativity can easily turn you into the “brand that cried wolf.”

LastPass, a secure digital wallet app, walks this line with skill:

The shocking subject line immediately highlights the risk – “losing important documents” – and drives readers to the solution.

If you sell a preventative product or service, the same one-two punch can bring whatever adverse future state that most people overlook kicking and screaming into the present. Just be sure to prove the reality of that future state both through simple, emotive language as well as – unlike LastPass – concrete data.

8. Pain relief for urgency emails

Setting aside materialistic desires, what is the single reason people buy things? To find a solution to a frustrating problem or a painful condition.

“Pain is not a sales gimmick, but it is a powerful neuroscientific reality,” writes Jeremy Smith, a serial entrepreneur, trainer, and conversion consultant. Research shows that the areas of the brain responsible for the pain and reward cycle the same that motivate purchase decisions. Never exploit pain. But do study the behaviors, challenges, and shopping habits of your target audience.

PetFlow centers one of their new-subscriber emails around this very idea:

The email is a perfect mix of education and concern. Rather than attacking their subscriber with fear, the subject line and “Limited Ingredient Diets!” lines are benefit-centric. The final block, in particular, urges readers to consider shopping by allergy type.

While not urgency-related, text-only coupon code at the top right is a smart touch in case a recipient has their images disabled. Overall, every element of this email is chosen to breed trust in PetFlow as a brand with diverse merchandise and unabashed love for your furry friends.

9. Urgency words for urgency emails

That subhead might sound meta. And it is. Our final way to add urgency isn’t so much about a specific tactic…it’s a catch-all about words themselves.

The most enticing discounts will go out in vain if you can’t tease your subscribers to open your emails in the first place.

Two points deserve special attention before we conclude.

Number one, don’t hide urgency in the body of your email…instead, lather your subject line with friction-reducing and scarcity-think language:

Number two, major on two words in particular: “you” and action verbs. “You” is universally recognized as one of the most persuasive words in the English language. So make your subject line about them by talking directly to your subscriber.

Moreover, as Olivia Allen, a digital strategy coordinator at Kforce, stresses: “Subject lines that begin with action verbs tend to be a lot more enticing, and your emails could be drastically more clickable by adding a vibrant verb at the beginning.”

Urgency emails for an urgent world

Using time-based scarcity to drive urgency has repeatedly proven its effectiveness in increasing open rates, click rates, and conversion rates.

Urgency overcomes both passivity and cognitive friction. It makes the cost of doing nothing higher than the cost acting. And that’s the hurdle that stands between your email marketing and making a sale.

Unfortunately, less-than-ethical marketers often misuse these potent tactics for their own gain: lying about deals, faking out-of-stock situations, and manipulating pricing.

When it comes to urgency – at the risk of sounding cliche – keep it real and respectful.

I’ve shared my 10 favorite examples of urgency, what are your favorite scarcity-based tactics to increase conversions?


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