Scarcity in the digital age

In a world where bits and bytes are infinite, how does one create additional demand through scarcity? A number of tech companies are giving it a go.

It’s long been common practice for marketers to actively restrict the availability of products in order to increase demand.  At times, the reason for this scarcity has been put down to limited resources, difficulties with production or limited collaborations.  It’s difficult to translate these reasons in to the digital age.

Mailbox App Witling listHowever, we’re seeing a trend of companies using scarcity to boost demand for their product.  The most recent is Tempo, the iOS calendar app that was the tech media’s darling last week.  They followed Mailbox, the week before’s media darling.  Both apps have implemented a waiting list, preventing users from actually using the app until they’ve reached the front of the queue.

Mailbox, for its part, appears to have a valid reason behind its waiting list having suffered a major outage within its first few days.

Both apps are effectively front ends for what I can only imagine are resource intensive backend operations, but there’s no denying that but by implementing these waiting lists both developers have massively increased demand for their apps.  People want what they can’t have.

It’s also worth pointing out that it’s entirely possible to build flexible, scalable, elastic solutions to these problems using established platforms.  If these developers really wanted to support a million users on day one, they could.

This isn’t new in the tech world.  Google famously restricts access to their products when they launch, artificially increasing demand.  And before anyone questions whether this short-term demand is truly artificial, look at the case of Google Wave.  Limiting access initially created a surge of interest, with invites selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars.  Google Wave was not a successful product, and has recently closed.

Apple has been accused of doing the same with product launches.  People queue outside Apple stores around the world for the latest iPhones and iPads not only because they want the latest, greatest bit of shiny technology, but also because they know the odds of getting one on day two are slim to none.

Which makes the negative reaction to Microsoft running out of Surface Pros all the more interesting.  Even when Microsoft create something with a bit of demand (quite an accomplishment given that the Surface RT bombed, and Windows 8 is turned out to be a really hard sell) it still has a negative smell about it.