Why financial companies are giving customers the velvet rope treatment

Cliff Kenney, a 35-year-old living in New Jersey, joined the waiting list for Robinhood’s cryptocurrency trading platform in January. Robinhood let customers know gradually via email when cryptocurrency was allowed to be traded through Robinhood in their state, and New Jersey legalized it this month. In the meantime, he shared his referral link on Twitter TWTR, -0.52%   and hoped friends would sign up.

More customers might have a similar experience soon, as companies are capitalizing on “FOMO,” or a fear of missing out. “I think it’s smart,” he said about the waiting list. “It reminds you there’s something you’re waiting for. There are plenty of waiting lists you can sign up for, like season tickets for a team or concert tickets, and it creates a little bit of anticipation for it, too.”

More than 1 million people waited to get access to a cryptocurrency trading platform on Robinhood. (The company did not respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment.) And over 100,000 people have signed up in the last year for the waiting list for Petal, a no-fee credit card that has not yet launched, the company said. SoFi Money, a bank account through the lender SoFi, would not disclose an official number on its waiting list, but said it was “multiple tens of thousands.”

Most people have heard of waiting in line for an exclusive sneaker or Apple’s AAPL, -0.22%   latest iPhone, but for a debit card? The pre-ordering list for Acorns Spend opened June 5, and there are already 175,000 customers lined up for the account and debit card, which will be available Nov. 1, according to the company’s CEO, Noah Kerner. More than 350,000 joined a waiting list for Acorns Later in the months leading up to its April 2018 launch.

Some observers see the lists as gimmicks to drum up business, while others claim they’re necessary because of genuine demand for a certain product. The virtual equivalent of a crowd outside a nightclub or Harry Potter on Broadway, the waiting lists come as some parts of the once-wide-open internet are becoming more exclusive.

Wait lists can make customers feel like they’re getting a reward. Jeremy Wright, a 31-year-old in Boise, Idaho, said it’s “fulfilling” to wait for a service or product. He signed up for waiting lists for Robinhood, the peer-to-peer payment service CashApp and SoFi Money. Wright works for U.S. Bank USB, +0.77%  and said he likes to try out new forms of digital banking. “It makes you feel popular, albeit in a very faux, social-media-bubble kind of way,” he said.

That feeling of exclusivity is good for brands, especially when apps are clamoring for users. Some famous Instagrammers are putting their accounts on private, and celebrities and other beautiful people can now pay for their own private dating site.

Cliff Kenney said sometimes a waiting list can be gratifying.

Why do companies make you wait for their product?

Acorns said the company’s new debit cards are made from tungsten metal, which is relatively costly, and wanted to start with making just 100,000 while gauging customers’ interest, Kerner said. The pre-order list was “not a gimmick,” he added. “Once we saw how quickly people pre-ordered them, we started working on another round.”

Many people want what they can’t have, said Oliwia Berdak, a principal analyst of digital business strategy at research firm Forrester. And creating a waiting list is one way to drum up interest. “It makes it seem like you’re part of a very exclusive club if you join one of these accounts,” she said.

Some companies acknowledge that waiting lists create a buzz. SoFi started a waiting list for its checking account, SoFi Money, in January 2018 because “the exclusivity of a waitlist contributes to the appeal,” said Tony Morosini, vice president of banking at SoFi. The company began taking people off the waitlist in June, and the accounts will be publicly available later this year.

Financial technology companies also need to establish trust before they roll out their products. SoFi Money wanted to make sure the account was working correctly, Morosini said. “By controlling how many people are on the product at a given time, we have the capacity to ensure an overall positive user experience, with room to quickly and efficiently fix bugs as they’re found,” he said.

What if the product never comes out? Robinhood, SoFi Money and Acorns didn’t ask for any money up front, but consumers should be cautious about companies that do, Berdak said. Sometimes startup companies attempt to fundraise on crowdsourcing platforms, but they don’t reach their goal and can’t proceed. “If the product doesn’t get manufactured, you lose your money and there’s nothing you can do,” she said.

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