Influence in direct marketing: scarcity at work

Scarcity as an influencer should be of no surprise to those who know basic economic theory – as a good gets more scarce, assuming demand remains the same, the price will rise.

Given this, you might think it has no impact on nonprofits, as we sell no goods.  Even the corollary to the supply and demand argument – the idea that there is a psychological fear of missing out that makes people want an item more – doesn’t work for nonprofits, given that one person’s donation makes you no less able to donate.

And yet scarcity can be a powerful motivator in nonprofit direct marketing when harnessed correctly.  Here are five ways how:

Back-end premiums.  This is a way of mixing scarcity with reciprocity.  In the reciprocity piece, I mentioned that back-end premiums (aka the public radio tote bag model) can help increase your donations.  Now, what if there were only so many of those tote bags, calendars, or whatever other premium you have available to go around?  By limiting the premium to only the first X number of people who donate (or take whatever other action you are aiming for), you can have scarcity working for you.

I would recommend layering on a third influencer – social proof – and setting the number of giveaways above what you would expect to get in terms of actions.  This not only mitigates the likelihood that people will take your action and not get the potential reward.  It also has the benefit of making it seem like many people will be taking this action.

Matching gifts.  A matching gift deadline can create scarcity of time – by limiting the amount of time someone has to make a gift in order for it to double, you create urgency in the desire to give that gift.

Exclusivity of information.  In reciprocity, I mentioned that giving someone information that they wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere is a good way of creating the desire in them to reciprocate.  The key part of this is that the information must be scarce – giving someone something that the general public would or could know does not trigger the desire to reciprocate.

Done well, you can also build in authority and/or social proof to this.  Let’s say you do a conference call with a select group of high-dollar donors (scarcity).  The lead speaker is an expert on the harm that your cause is trying to end (authority); supporters can ask questions of him/her (reciprocity and scarcity, as you are providing a unique experience for them) and hear that there are other interested donors on the call (social proof).  Then you follow-up with a transcript of the call for everyone who was invited but couldn’t attend to make sure they can this important information.

Exclusivity of opportunity.  This can also work well with social proof.  Which one of these volunteer opportunities is more appealing:

  • We desperately need more people to help serve lunches this week to the homeless.
  • There are only six slots left to help serve lunches this week; we may have more opportunities available next month, but it is first come, first serve.

Through a reframing, you have turned your lack of volunteers into an exclusive experience for those people looking to help.

Event exclusivity.  Many of your high-end type events are exclusive in terms of guest list, but there are opportunities for exclusive beyond just this velvet rope effect.  Table sponsorships are one: as you will only have so many tables, you can advertise the number left (and, if you are doing well, ask sponsors to reserve their spots for the following year).

Then there are auction items. In a traditional (non-Dutch) auction, auction winners are like the Highlander: there can be only one.  The exclusivity of a package leads to higher prices as both the auction structure, which economics shows is the way to get the good to the person willing to pay the most, and the fear of missing out on an exclusive good conspire to maximize the price achieved.  The best nonprofit auction images are experiential items that cannot easily be purchased on Amazon – this exclusivity makes it so that only one person can possibly get the item.

The exception to this was a nonprofit I worked with that had an auction item go far beyond the expected price.  Apparently, while the bidding was ever-increasing, they were able to talk with the person providing the experience and negotiate another package.  Thus, at the end, they were able to provide a package to the second-place bidder as well, doubling their rewards.  This was a brilliant strategy – using exclusivity to get the maximum possible price, then expanding the pool (only slightly, so as not to cause regret among the first-place bidder) to maximize returns.

This week has been dedicated to the idea of major influence levels you can use in your direct marketing and development areas.  I would be remiss if I didn’t once again recommend the original book itself, as it has examples behind what I’ve provided here.  Thanks for reading and I’d love to hear examples you have from influence in the comments section or (if you are willing) in a guest blog post – just email me at nick@directtodonor.com if you’d like to post your success story.

Influence in direct marketing: scarcity at work

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