Digital scarcity as an acquisition technique

Email apps are an odd thing, in fact email itself could almost be called a necessary evil with many companies trying to disrupt it internally or externally. Google recently launched their own attempt at updating everyone’s inbox to something closer to a David Allen friendly ‘inbox zero’.

While the mechanisms that Google built into Inbox are interesting: action based swiping prompts from Mailbox, content filtering from Gmail tabs, pushing email to be tasked based through integrated reminders; it’s the distribution model and adoption that I found interesting. Google apps can meet either huge success, the YouTube and Google Maps apps current sit at positions 7 and 16 respectively on the iOS free app chart as I write this, but they tend to solve specific issues. With Inbox Google is not only going up against its own Gmail app, but every default email app in existence. Despite this the uptake has been rather impressive, and it’s still in beta.

Acquisition through engagement

On 5th November, there was a ‘Happy Hour’ where people could email the Inbox team and receive their invitation to use the serve. It took 30 minutes for an official Google email account to be so full that it just couldn’t take any more and people couldn’t email them any more. 30 minutes.

Why such engagement for an email app? Yes, I have it, and I love it. My iPhone dock has now permanently been changed to look like this:

iPhone dock

But while a well-designed product can engage people, and retain users, it’s hard for it to prompt the initial interest in the service. Memoir saw a massive uptake as it was one of the few apps to use flat design when iOS7 was released, but a year later my Twitter feed is full of Timehop.

The Google name might be enough to engage people, but then what about Google Wave? Buzz? Or even Google+? A brand name doesn’t automatically equate to success even if the service is design for a specific channel, Facebook couldn’t keep Poke or Camera alive despite the success of very similar apps like Snapchat.

Maybe email apps are a key source of interest to people? However Gmail has the most engagement as an email app, and that recently capped out at 11% of users being active within a 90 day period. (On a side note, how could 89% go more than 90 days without checking their emails on their phone?!).

Invitation to betas can be relied upon to gather interest, and sell associated products. The act of just being an interesting product in a beta no longer can be trusted to gather much interest.

I think the key lays within the design metaphor used by Inbox itself: The Golden Ticket!

Golden ticket

Digital scarcity: a new members only club

In a medium where everything is accessible through a quick two second press of your home button to validate the TouchID process, here is a clear sign of scarcity. The service itself is clearly not prompting scarcity, rarity, or exclusiveness with an Android app, an iOS app, and a desktop version, however there it is: a gated entrance.

Other services have used this approach in the past to interest potential customers. There’s the famous ‘Mailbox wait list’ of over 380,000 from 2013.


Ello used the same technique when 30,000 people an hour started trying to sign up. While anyone could join the queue for Mailbox, you needed someone to send you an invitation to Ello. This is the same technique used by ‘IRL’ private member clubs, such as Soho House: you need to know one of us, to become one of us.

This goes against everything that digital media promotes: filtering rather than freedom, waiting rather than instant gratification. These are concepts that we are no longer used to seeing when popping into our internet browser of choice…and this makes us want to join even more. Forced digital scarcity feeds straight into our primal brains, and just how we are driven biologically to desire rare resources like sugar and spices back in the day, we want what is just outside of our digital reach.

Acquisition isn’t engagement or retention

However caveat emptor! The same invitation technique was used to attract people to Google+ in 2011 with astounding success, but this did not turn it into the Facebook-killer that everyone hoped it would be.

Slack growth chart

Slack’s acquisition technique relies on quality, and designing around their audience and they show no sign of slowing when it comes to user acquisition and retention. In fact even as a business they’ve been valued at over $1 billion.

Scarcity cannot replace proper engagement techniques once the user has been acquired, and this is where marketing gimmicks fall apart. Approaching a service in a “build it and they will come” mind-set no longer cuts it, and “build it and they will use it” is just as much a fallacy. Whatever technique you use to attract users, you need to make sure the product is solid enough to engage them for the long-term. However planned into a business strategy, restricting access can help give a service the boost it needs to reach an amplified audience.


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