Why do surprises delight us?

Marketers have been using ‘surprise and delight’ strategies and tactics for years, but why do they work?

Marketers have been using ‘surprise and delight’ strategies and tactics for years. The idea being that companies can better earn our loyalty by offering us discounts, goods, services or any other benefits that aren’t published or expected. We then become delighted, we become happier and we come back.

It works and it’s not a new concept. 

Learning from the Rat Guy.

More than half of a century ago, the noted psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner (A.K.A. the “rat guy”) recognized and documented with his rat experiments a concept he dubbed a ‘variable ratio schedule of reinforcement.’ He observed that, when a response was reinforced after an unpredictable number of triggers, it created a steady, high rate of responding.

Put more simply, when rewards are not exactly predictable, they can work better. Casinos and lotteries deploy similar concepts and have fine-tuned slot machines and scratch-offs, much to the chagrin of our wallets. 

Why do surprises work?

For many of us, participation in loyalty and frequency programs is a strictly financial endeavor. We understand the published rules of the program. We make purchases. We get something in return. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

That said, this predictability runs the risk of becoming boring, uninspiring, frankly, and we may begin to emotionally tune out of the program. Our participation may not decrease, but it just becomes habitual. We can’t really give a good reason why we’re still a customer. We just are.

Surprises aid in making participation in a program more emotional, more fun and more human. When we always know when the reward is coming, it’s not as potent and has the opposite effect—programs become cold, boring and mechanical.

Variable surprises tap into our emotions (and our endorphins) and help create a more human link with the brands and programs that offer them. These companies become our ‘friends’ and the bond between us grows stronger. It evolves into, well, a relationship. This connection is harder to break because it’s based on emotional bonds, not just economic ones. We want to feel valued and appreciated. We want the companies with whom we do business to demonstrate empathy and show us they care.

It’s the little things that matter.

Surprises don’t have to be overtly valuable or economically based. Our marketing plans are often full of dollars-off or percentage-off promotions, adding to the voluminous noise of the day-to-day bombardment that we all experience. From our inbox to our daily commute, each day we stare down countless promotions, messages, and advertising. It’s nauseating enough even without another coupon.

In fact, we must be aware and cautious that when the ‘surprise’ is a low-value item like a coupon, it may actually have an opposite, possibly insulting effect.

As marketers and brands alike, we should begin to tap into harnessing the power of human-like gestures of appreciation. It’s the handwritten thank-you note, the free dessert or the extra drink. It’s waiving a fee, not because I complained, but because you proactively recognized that I am a valuable customer. These little things truly do impact our experiences.

No strings attached.

Perhaps most important, surprises cannot, must not, have any strings attached.

We’re all so wanted. And not in a feel-good way but, rather, an exhaustive one. Marketers connect with us thousands of times a day, and most often it’s because they want something from us. We see this same ‘strings attached’ phenomenon in our personal relationships. For example, when a friend you haven’t heard from in a long time calls you out of the blue, and you quickly realize that he needs something from you, it sours the whole affair. Truly appreciative gestures don’t come with qualifiers.

Surprises. Harness their power to humanize your program.