Anna Fenko, Teun Keizer, & Ad Pruyn
Paper presented at the 16th International Conference on Research in Advertising (ICORIA). Ghent, Belgium, June 29 – July 1, 2017
Persuasion principles, including social proof and scarcity (Cialdini, 2001), are frequently used online, but little is known about their effectiveness in this context. This study aimed at investigating whether social proof and scarcity heuristics influenced consumer responses towards the online ticketing store of Dutch National Opera. Participants (N=268, recruited among previous opera visitors) were shown the ticketing website that varied in the presence of scarcity and social proof messages. We found a positive effect of scarcity on time pressure, but a negative effect on purchase intention. Our results suggest that using persuasion principles for certain consumer groups can backfire.
In recent years, online shopping has increased dramatically. In 2015, more than 70% of the Dutch population bought a product or service online (CBS, 2016). Every website is trying to persuade its visitors of something (Horvath, 2011): to download an information file, to sign up for a newsletter, or to buy a product. Cialdini (2001) identified six universal principles of persuasion, namely: commitment and consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. Some of these principles are often used online. For instance, the scarcity message presented on the website of EasyJet(‘Hurry! Only a few seats left’)is used to boost consumer purchase behavior.
Despite the frequent usage of persuasion heuristics, their effectiveness in online context has rarely been tested (Slattery et al., 2013). Several studies focused on the online effectiveness of scarcity and social proof heuristics on purchase intention of clothing, electronics, holidays, and consumption goods (Gierl et al., 2008; Jeong and Kwon, 2012; Klaver, 2015). However, little is known about the effectiveness of these heuristics in the context of the culture and entertainment industry. This study aimed at investigating the effects of two persuasion heuristics, scarcity and social proof, on consumer responses in the online tickets store. The purpose of this study was to find out whether the social proof and scarcity heuristics can be used to persuade visitors of Dutch National Opera & Balletto buy a ticket in the online tickets store. The scarcity and social proof heuristics were chosen because these are widely used in online shopping stores and have been proven to be effective in the offline context (Wann et al., 2004; Griskevicius et al., 2009; Aggarwal et al., 2011; Kaptein and Eckles, 2012).
Social Proof and Scarcity
The social proof principle implies that people strongly rely on others for cues on how to act, think and feel, especially in uncertain situations (Cialdini and Goldstein, 2002). Opera theatres have been familiar with the social proof principle for centuries. For instance, in the 19th century, the French theatre and opera hired so-called ‘claques’ to applaud during the encore of a performance (Lupyan and Rifkin, 2003). As a result, the audience followed the behavior of the ‘claques’. Marketers use the social proof principle to inform people that a product is a ‘best seller’ or ‘very popular’ by displaying positive product evaluations (Kaptein and Eckles, 2012).
The social proof principle also seems to be effective in the e-commerce. Jeong and Kwon (2012) found that the purchase intention was higher for respondents who were exposed to an online popularity claim (‘94% of consumers bought this product after viewing this site’) than for those who were not exposed to the claim. Booking.comuses multiple social proof messages on its website, including ‘booked 27 times today’, ‘6 people are looking at this moment’, and the ‘review score 8.7 (Fabulous) based on 4,448 reviews’. Based on the literature of the social proof principle, the following hypothesis was formulated:
H1: The presence of the social proof message will increase the product value and purchase intention compared to the absence of the social proof message.
The scarcity principle implies that restricted items are more valued than abundant items. This principle implicitly communicates to us ‘what is scarce is good’ (Dijksterhuis et al., 2005). Products or services that are ‘scarce’ serve as a cue for quality because they are perceived as ‘better’ than things that are easy to obtain (Cialdini, 2006). Marketers frequently use the scarcity principle to increase the subjective value of their products or services with phrases like ‘limited release’ or ‘limited time only’(Lynn, 1991; Jung and Kellaris, 2004; Gierl et al., 2008).
The scarcity principle is frequently used online. For instance, EasyJetand other airlines use the scarcity principle to persuade consumers to book a flight with the messages like ‘Hurry! Only 3 seats left at this price’. Based on the literature of the scarcity principle, the following hypothesis was formulated:
H2: The presence the scarcity message will increase the product value and purchase intention compared to the absence of the scarcity message.
Scarcity messages can tell consumers that they have to buy a product immediately or they will not be able to purchase the product in the future (Wu et al., 2012). Therefore, time pressure is an important variable that can mediate the effect of the persuasion messages on product value and purchase intention. Hence, the following hypotheses were formulated:
H3: Social proof and scarcity messages will increase time pressure.
H4: Time pressure will increase the product value and purchase intention.
Uncertainty Avoidance and Persuasion Knowledge
Jung and Kellaris (2004) found that the influence of scarcity on purchase intention was more pronounced among individuals who scored high on uncertainty avoidance. People high in uncertainty avoidance rely more on decision heuristics to avoid uncertainty (Jung & Kellaris, 2004). For example, if such individuals see that there are only a few tickets left for a concert, they are much more inclined to purchase a ticket to reduce the level of uncertainty compared to more uncertainty-tolerant individuals. Therefore, the following hypothesis was formulated:
H5: High uncertainty avoidance will increase the effect of social proof and scarcity messages on time pressure, product value and purchase intention compared to low uncertainty avoidance.
People are exposed to many persuasive messages on television, internet, billboards, or in stores. Across time, consumers develop personal knowledge about persuasion attempts and tactics (Friestad and Wright, 1994). The activation of persuasion knowledge involves suspicion about the marketer’s motives and skepticism toward advertising messages (Kirmani and Zhu, 2007). Persuaion knowledge can help consumers to resist persuasion attempts (Tutaj and van Reijmersdal, 2012). Therefore, the level of persuasion knowledge can have an effect on the effectiveness of persuasion messages. Consequently, we formulated the following hypothesis:
H6: High persuasion knowledge will reduce the effect of social proof and scarcity on time pressure, product value and purchase intention compared to low persuasion knowledge.
Online experiment was performed with a 2 (social proof vs. no social proof message) x 2 (scarcity vs. no scarcity message) x 2 (orange vs. green text) between-subject design.
Dutch participants (N=268) were recruited through the database of Dutch National Opera & Ballet. Most respondents (94.8%) bought opera tickets online at least once during the previous year. The age of participants ranged from 18 to 87 years, mean age was 56.4; 60.4% of the respondents were male. Most respondents (93.3%) completed a higher education: 29.5% had a college degree (HBO), 52.2% had a University degree (WO) and 11.6% had a PhD degree.
The data were collected in November 2016. Respondents were randomly assigned to one of the eight versions of the ticketing website of Dutch National Opera(see Table 1 for details).
The following persuasive messages were used (see Fig. 1):
- Social proof: ‘Popular: booked 39 times today’
- Scarcity: ‘Only 8 tickets left’
The following constructs were measured in this study: product value(Dodds et al., 1991), purchase intention(Lee and Lee, 2009), time pressure, manipulation check scales for social proofand scarcity(Wu et al., 2012), persuasion knowledge(Rozendaal et al., 2010), and uncertainty avoidance(Jung and Kellaris, 2004). All scales demonstrated sufficient reliability (Cronbach’s α> .78).
Scarcity had a significant main effect on time pressure. Respondents in a scarcity conditions experienced a higher time pressure compared to respondents in non-scarcity conditions.
Respondents in the scarcity condition with green color experienced higher time pressure compared to respondents in the scarcity condition with orange color, while respondents in the non-scarcity condition with orange color experienced higher time pressure compared to respondents in the non-scarcity condition with green color.
Respondents who scored low on uncertainty avoidance in the scarcity condition experienced a higher sense of time pressure compared to respondents in social proof condition. Combination of scarcity and social proof messages did not increase time pressure for these participants. Respondents who scored high on uncertainty avoidance experienced the increased time pressure both in response to scarcity message compared to non-scarcity condition and in response to social proof message compared to non-social proof condition.
Scarcity had a significant main effect on purchase intention. Respondents in the scarcity condition had a lower purchase intention compared to respondents in the non-scarcity condition. Respondents in the social proof condition with orange color had a higher purchase intention compared to respondents in the social proof condition with green text, while respondents in the non-social proof condition with orange text had a lower purchase intention compared to respondents in the non-social proof condition with green text.
A possible explanation for the negative effect might be the fact that the scarcity message communicates to respondents that many people already have bought the tickets. As a result, the appropriateness of the scarce product as a status symbol decreases and a higher degree of uniqueness can no longer be achieved by purchasing this product (Gierl et al., 2008). It could also be the case that the scarce tickets were not perceived as ‘luxury’ tickets. Perhaps the remaining tickets were perceived as ‘bad seats’ with a limited view on the stage that could not be used as a status or luxury symbol.
Another possible explanation for the negative effect of scarcity on the purchase intention might be the fact that the respondents were highly educated. The respondents might be familiar with the scarcity message as a marketing ‘trick’. If customers suspect that a retailer is manipulating scarcity cues to influence their buying choices, they may resist persuasion attempts (Parker and Lehmann, 2011). This might explain the negative effect of scarcity on purchase intention.
This study investigated the online effectiveness of social proof and scarcity messages in the context of culture and entertainment industry. The results have demonstrated that scarcity message increased the experience of time pressure, but had a negative effect on purchase intention. Social proof message was able to increase purchase intention only in combination with the attention-grabbing orange text. We conclude that persuading people with social proof and scarcity heuristics should be used with caution, because it can have a negative effect on the purchase intention for specific consumer groups, such as senior and highly educated people. Further research is needed to investigate whether similar effects can be found for different consumer groups and in different industries.