Graham likes the notification on Hotels.com where it says something to the effect of “This hotel has been booked 8 times in the last 24 hours.” Why is this relevant? There are two possible purposes. One, if a lot of people are booking it, it must be a good place. This is social reinforcement. Second, if a lot of people are booking it, it might be full soon. So you better hurry up. This is an urgency cue.
Both of these are basic survival motivators. We evolved to be sensitive to scarcity because if there was only a little left of something important (and all resources could be in scarce supply 200,000 years ago), it was important for survival to get some - just in case. We evolved to be sensitive to social cues because being part of the tribe was also a key to survival. So viscerally, these techniques are effective. This also makes them effective as sales techniques, at least in the short term.
I like urgency in games because I am not suspicious of the ulterior motive when it comes from a salesperson. I see urgency in a sales context as the equivalent of those infomercials that scream at you “Buy Now!” and they have a 30 second countdown when the deal will end. I wouldn’t buy from those just out of spite!! So I prefer designs like Kayak that give you a simple notice of remaining inventory. “3 Tickets left at this price.” It is still urgency, but it seems more honest. The design is also clear because it is within a list of flights where some have 2 left and some have no notification at all (more than 5 left I guess).
Social reinforcement can serve two purposes from a sales context. For one, it is a signal of quality. If many people are buying something, then you won’t look like a fool if you get one too. The signal is even better if it comes from your social network – 8 of your friends have bought this. When it comes from your friends it adds a dimension of appropriateness. If my friends like it, and I have things in common with my friends, then there is a better chance that I will like it to. This is a closer match than 8 random other people.
So urgency and social reinforcement cues can be effective, but only if they are designed right. Urgency has to be relevant and seen as authentically intended to help you rather than to pressure you. If a shopper is just at the beginning of the search process and is not ready to buy, then urgency is oppressive. This is the fundamental psychological motivator called “The need for autonomy.” We want autonomy, and we rebel from anything that seems intended to constrain us. So urgency cues should be very subtle at early parts of the shopping funnel and more salient later.