When I was eleven years old, I saw an advert in my local Devon newspaper promoting an auction that was to take place in a few nights time in Torquay high street.  The auction promised to deliver electronic goods at remarkably low prices, and best of all, they were offloading Sega Game Gears (Game Gears, you hear me, not those inferior black and white Gameboys, but 8 bits of full colour Game Gear awesomeness!) at prices verging on criminal. My eleven year old self was hooked.

After a non-stop and meticulously planned campaign of nagging, whining and foot stamping, my parents eventually acquiesced to my demands, and come the night in question, my mother and I got in the car and heading into Torquay town centre.

Going, going, gone!

Going, going, gone!

The auction house (actually an empty shop that had been taken over for the night) was full, and as bidding began, a palatable sense of excitement filled the room. Everyone loves the energy of a good auction (if the success of Bargain Hunt and Storage Hunters is anything to go by), but professional auction attendees know not to get too caught up in the excitement of the moment – alas, the audience that night was not made up of  professional auction attendees.

High ticket items flew off the shelf at what seemed to be remarkably low prices, but no matter how hard I waved my hand, tugged my ear, or shook my brochure, my bids seemed to be ignored, and I watched in vain as the Sega Game Gears passed me by. Sulking, I stopped bidding and started to watch the dynamics of the auction room.

Now safely ensconced away from the group hysteria that had seemingly overtaken the room, I began to notice a pattern. High ticket, branded items appeared to be won by the same customers over and over again, whilst other non-branded electrical goods (read low ticket tat), were won by random members of the public.

I began to smell a rat. It was looking like there were plenty of professionals in the audience that night after all, just not the legitimate kind!

A few days later, the mock auction (as I later discovered they were called) was featured in the same newspaper it had originally been advertised in, but for an entirely different reason.

So, what has this story to do with Digital Psychology?

Quite a lot, as it happens.  On the night of the auction I witnessed several heuristic forces at play in the crowd that the scammers were able to take advantage of.

Social proof was introduced through the use of stooges planted in the audience.  These were the folks that kept winning the high price tickets, and proudly showing off their quality branded wares to the surrounding members of the public.  These folks also repeatedly bid for the low ticket items, pushing up the prices, without ever seeming to win (odd that!).

Scarcity and Urgency were also heavily at play.  The ‘one night only’ format of the evening was designed specifically to encourage punters to take risks that they wouldn’t, under normal circumstances, have ever considered, and the auctioneer keenly enforced the limited availability of every item on sale.

All of these forces are of course also strongly evident in online auctions, such as Ebay.

Let’s look at the example below:

Online auction example

Take a close look – there are actually three separate urgency triggers working the crowd. The orange “ending soon” banner in the top left, the bold red clock counting down in the centre top, and the green “Limited time remaining” announcement in the centre bottom.

But that’s not all – we can also see two examples of social proof – “the 36 bids” nudge, to remind us that 36 other people (or one person, 36 times!) are also interested in this product, and the seller’s star rating, which is based on feedback from previous buyers.  Although not in this particular example, Ebay also often regularly features the number of customers that have added the item to their watch lists as an added incentive.

The only thing that’s missing is a nudge telling users how many people are looking at the product in live time, but I’m sure Ebay are working on it.

So there you have it, lessons learnt from the dubious world of mock auctions, and applied legitimately to online ones.

Can your business also advantage of social proof, scarcity or urgency to drive more revenues into your business?  Talk to us if you think so.