Shock and Ah-ha!: Embracing the power of surprise to move people

At Communispace we feel quite strongly about … well, feeling. Emotions, conscious or unconscious, are some of the strongest drivers of brand loyalty, passion, and ultimately, purchase. Data mining and direct questioning can tell you all about what your customers do, and can even help predict what they’ll do in the future, but they can’t explain what moves them to action. So we use various humanistic and collaborative methods to uncover the underlying emotional drivers and motivations behind observable and self-reported consumer behavior.

Among the most powerful of these emotions is surprise. As Scott Reddick outlined recently on the HBR blog, there are many reasons why. For one, surprise is actually addictive, chemically speaking. There are numerous studies, dating back to Skinner’s rats in the 1960’s, which show that unpredictable rewards stimulate our pleasure centers much more than predictable rewards do. Just think of the tiny rush you feel every time you get a new message or alert on your smartphone — part of that excitement comes from the irregular nature of these pings.

We have experimented with this “random reward” system in our online communities, awarding sporadic gifts that are not tied to a specific activity or participation level. We have seen that these unpredictable awards generate much more enthusiasm and goodwill among consumers than do predictable incentives, which quickly become expected.  Rewards — be they monetary or intangible — become more authentic, meaningful and personal when they don’t feel like quid pro quo.

Which is why, in an age of big data, it’s important that your well-oiled marketing machine at least not feel so precise. Finding ways to use data-driven tools to deliver a personalized, even quirky, experience to your customers will be essential for keeping the element of surprise alive in your relationship.

The good news is, it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money, time or effort to infuse the element of surprise into your brand. Think of Google’s daily doodle, another artful ping infusing the brand experience with pleasure. Or the deal site Woot!, which has elevated the unknown into the coveted with their “random” apparel sales and infamous “Bag of Crap.” Imagine: consumers rushing to buy your worst-selling items, sight unseen! Now that’s the power of surprise.

Another way brands can harness the power of surprise is simply by showing their humanity. In our communities, members are frequently shocked (and thrilled) when the CEO or other executive steps out from the corner office and makes a short video thanking them for their time. Or consider Domino’s about-face of the last couple of years, admitting past failures and opening up their entire business to public scrutiny. What initially seemed like an outrageous stunt has turned into a brand reinvention success story.

Of course, “surprise” is not always followed by the hoped-for “delight.” As Reddick points out, surprise “turbocharges” emotions, amplifying whatever you’re already feeling. So while a “good” surprise can turn happiness into joy, a “bad” surprise makes bad news even worse.  Anyone remember what happened when Bank of America “surprised” their customers with some new fees?

We see this dynamic play out among our clients all the time: some are more comfortable than others facing the unexpected. In a sense, surprise marks the distinction between validation and insight. Some clients thrive on the unknown and are truly energized by a consumer insight (which is, by definition, something that makes us think differently). Others prefer to have their hypotheses confirmed, to feel the pleasure of knowing they are heading in the right direction. However, engaging in true collaboration means opening yourself up to surprise, even the scary kind, letting it move you the way it moves your customers.

As marketers increasingly turn to data-driven models and analyses to try and eliminate uncertainty from their campaigns, it is essential that we not overlook, and certainly not fear, the element of surprise. After all, surprise is at the heart of both insight and innovation — because without some degree of cognitive dissonance, we will never be moved to change.  And, in the future, our industry will need research professionals who feel comfortable living in that hazy space between fear and the status quo, where surprise is the best part of the job.

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