How Wordle used scarcity bias to become a worldwide smash
By Dan Monheit, originally shared by Marketing Mag 15.2.22
Wordle has become an almost overnight sensation. It recently sold for an anonymous “seven figure” amount to New York Times. How did this simple game become a global success? Dan Monheit, explains how Wordle became a viral phenomenon.
What is Wordle?
If you’re on social media, your timeline, like mine, has been saturated by friends’ posting their cryptic Wordle score. It’s become distinctive, in the form of a distinct green, yellow and white, up-to-six lines cubic graphic. For the uninitiated, Wordle is a simple daily online word game. Players get just six chances to solve a new mystery word each day in as few moves as possible.
In November 2021, the online game was played by just 90 people. By the start of 2022, 300,000 were on board. In February, player numbers grew to two million including international celebrities. After being acquired by the New York Times, the number has expanded to three million and rapidly counting.
In our modern world, when there’s an overabundance of TV shows, movies, videos and indeed games that you couldn’t consume in 1,000 lifetimes. So, how did Wordle cut through and become so successful so quickly?
The phenomenon of Wordle
Curiously, the New York Times games section inspired creator, Welsh software engineer Josh Wardle, onto the winning formula. Wardell and his partner Palak Shah (for whom Wardle created the game) are regular users of the NYT’s daily crossword and seven-letter word game, Spelling Bee.
The operative word that inspired Wardle’s success was daily. On its initial launch, users could play as many Wordle games as they liked. Then in a pique of genius, Wardle twigged what made the daily crossword so compelling was that it appeared just once per day. It was something to look forward to, a little treat. Wardell then employed the tactic of deploying a new daily Wordle game before it disappeared into the ether by the end of the day. Suddenly… it was game on.
What both the NYT and subsequently Wardell had tapped into was a potent cognitive bias known as Scarcity Bias. This is our tendency to place more value on things that we perceive to be rare, in short supply, high demand, or only available for a limited time. If it’s in abundance, we lose its value.
In 1975, psychologist Stephen Worchel at the University of Virginia first identified Scarcity Bias in what could be the most delicious scientific study ever undertaken. First, researchers split 134 university students into two groups. One group was given a cookie from a full jar. In comparison, the other group received their biscuit from a jar that had minimal cookies. The students were then asked to rate the cookies for attractiveness and how much they’d pay for them. The cookies perceived to be in short supply were rated more highly. It showed that participants were willing to pay 25 percent more for them. The conclusion is that humans tend to place more value on things that we perceive to be scarce.
Over the past two years, we’ve seen first-hand the negative psychological impacts of scarcity during the pandemic. Who could forget the videos of people going full ham on each other due to supermarket shortages?
It makes sense that we’re wired to want things in short supply. Historically, resources were legitimately scarce when food and shelter were hard to come by. However, even with the world’s current supply chain issues, there is limited actual scarcity in modern Western society. While there is still only one front row at a concert or one top floor of an apartment complex, most of today’s scarcity is artificial or manufactured. This can be pinned to brands (especially luxury brands) producing goods in small or limited runs.
We’re willing to pay a premium on rare things because getting our hands on something that’s in demand feels so good for our ego. As social creatures, who arrange ourselves in hierarchies, we’re attracted to scarce things. They crudely demonstrate that we have access to money, power, contacts or influence. Even if we deny it, deep down most people love the idea of other people wanting what they have.
Tesla’s Scarcity Bias
Since its inception, Tesla has successfully employed this strategy, selling limited editions of its cars, surfboards, and even flamethrowers! A case in point is Tesla’s 2023 Roadster, which is being released in a limited edition of just 1,000 cars. With a starting price of $280,000 per vehicle, the small run will bring in a lazy $280 million.
Back on home soil, Holden was selling so few cars they were forced to cease production and shutter the brand in 2020. Today, a five-year-old Holden that you could have bought new for $45,000 is impossible to find for less than $60,000. Objectively, the car is no better today. In fact, it’s probably worse. So what’s the difference? Scarcity.
Using time limits is another way to leverage Scarcity Bias. It’s also a hallmark of most telco’s, which offer plans that have short term expiries. There’s no reason why a plan deemed to expire in three hours and 12 minutes can’t be sold for another week, month, or year, apart from the fact that it drives scarcity. Ever booked a hotel room because the website informed you that there was ‘only one left at this price on our site’? You’ve been shifted by the power of scarcity bias too.
Scarcity Bias shaping products
The more you look, the more you see the role of Scarcity Bias shaping products, brands and at times, entire industries. From exclusive sneakers (where overnight campouts have become the norm) to dating apps (Bumble limiting response times to 24 hours) and of course diamonds (a category built almost entirely on artificially constrained supply). Scarcity can be one of the most powerful tools in a marketer’s arsenal.
However, Scarcity Bias doesn’t always make for long-term success. For example, the social media site Clubhouse used Scarcity Bias by making their app only accessible if you had an invite code. At the height of its popularity, invite codes were exchanging hands for $550, and there was talk of a $4 billion acquisition by Twitter. Now, the app is sitting at 504 in its category in the App store. As it turns out, the product never lived up to its scarcity fuelled hype.
Meanwhile, Wardle compared his game to eating a croissant on Wordle. He wrote on Reddit, “Enjoyed occasionally they are a delightful snack. Enjoyed too often and they lose their charm. I wanted Wordle to fall more in the ‘delightful snack’ category.”
Well, he got that right.
Dan Monheit is the co-founder of the creative agency built on behaviour Hardhat, and behavioural science expert.