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Consumer Psychology: Five Tips for Creating Positive (and Reasonable) Expectations

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You've probably had a few experiences that didn't live up to your expectations. We've all suffered through dates that turned into duds, parties that were a drag, online shopping fails that were frustrating, and vacations that weren't even Snap-worthy.

Being let down is pretty much a rite of passage of the pleasure-seeking human condition.

Sometimes, it's our own unrealistically high expectations that ruin an experience before it's even begun. In fact, this scenario—let's call it the "New Year's is the worst" effect—has become so universally recognized that psychologists have conducted fascinating studies about it to better understand just how influential humans' expectations are.

As marketers, it's critical for us to learn how to build excitement for our product, service, or event without overhyping and disappointing our customers (I'm looking at you, Fyre Festival). And the best way to master walking that fine line is by getting a better understanding of how and why people's expectations alter their experiences.

The Science of Expectations


Expectations really are everything.

Time and again, studies have shown that our expectations drastically influence how we think and feel about the world around us.

For example, if our preconceived notions tell us that a street performer will be of no significance, we're destined to miss the world-famous prodigy in our midst. Or if we expect a beer to taste good, we're likely to overlook even the nastiest of "secret ingredients."

As a rule, humans tend to be generally optimistic; they expect that things will turn out well—which explains why most startup leaders don't expect that their small business will fail, even though around 50% do.

Behavioral economists have referred to optimism as "the engine of capitalism," and they have given us the "planning fallacy" concept to refer to our ingrained human tendency to expect our plans to turn out unrealistically close to the best-case scenario.

The downside to that optimism, though, is that when we build something up in our minds, but then those expectations of ours aren't realized, we feel disappointed. And when we're disappointed, we complain. With rating and review apps at the tip of customers' fingers, disappointment can be very bad for marketers!

All that boils down to these important points:

  1. You can't force a positive experience upon your target audience members.
  2. And the more you try to, the more likely they are to be disappointed.
  3. But you can generate excitement for your product, service, or event by harnessing the influence of their expectations in creative ways.

Creating Positive (and Reasonable) Expectations

Just as expectations can shape our attitude about the world around us, outside factors—such as media, marketing, price, and reviews—can influence our expectations. That explains why most people believe wine tastes better when it costs more and why even bad pop songs sound good to us precisely because they're popular.

But with the power to influence your targets' expectations comes great responsibility. You must ensure that you're not setting them up for disappointment or setting your brand up for failure (still looking at you, Fyre Festival).

Engender enthusiasm and eliminate the threat of disappointment with the following five tips.

1. Emphasize the collectible experience you can offer

For some, a "good time" isn't the primary goal when selecting a product, service, or event. Instead, many are more interested in what Anat Keinan and Ran Kivetz call the "collectible experience"—something that isn't always objectively enjoyable, but has a once-in-a-lifetime feel to it. Think along the lines of participating in a Tough Mudder race or sleeping in an ice hotel.

If you can find fresh, bold ways to position your product, service, or event as something your target consumers can mark off their bucket list, you might attract a whole new crowd of followers.

By design, these productivity-minded type A personalities are expecting something unexpected, giving your brand an opportunity to break away from the competitive herd with a novel concept.

2. Help them savor the (future) moment

Our brains love the thrill of anticipation. Dopamine, a pleasure moderator in the brain, surges at the expectation of receiving a reward, more so than when actually receiving that reward.

When people are encouraged to savor the experience that's coming their way, they end up enjoying the experience more, and rating it higher than non-presavored moments, even when it's objectively worse. Among other delightful experiments, the savoring effect has been demonstrated in a college Halloween party. It probably even works for New Year's Eve!

Encourage customers to savor the image of what's to come through explicit reminders over time or the option to preorder a product before it hits the market.

3. Tease what's to come

Humans are curious beings. So curious, that one research team's working paper on the benefits of creating and resolving uncertainty reveals that people enjoy experiences more when they're teased beforehand. That's why movie production companies release movie trailers and don't just rely on posters to attract audiences.

When creating your marketing plan, try teeing up a surprise that will be revealed when your product is purchased or when service begins, or on your event's opening day. Then, entice consumers with provocative questions, clues, and gaps to resolve while they wait.

4. Distract from a common drawback

What's the most common complaint about any respectable product, service, or event? You guessed it: the cost. To distract consumers from how dissatisfying shelling out cash can be, find ways to decouple your offering with the pain of paying for it.

For example, consider whether a subscription model, which generates new, positive experiences every month, would distract from the upfront investment. Or determine whether an all-inclusive approach, full of desirable freebies, would help consumers overlook the cost (an open bar goes a long way!).

5. Let them see the gears turning

Any time you get consumers on the hook and make them wait for the finished product, excitement for your brand can begin to wane, shifting expectations toward the negative. But as research into operational transparency has revealed, pulling back the curtain can actually keep consumers satisfied while they wait: Just ask the restaurant goers who rate their food as tasting better when they can see the chef preparing their meals.

So, if your marketing approach involves building anticipation before the main event, give consumers a glimpse into what you're doing behind the scenes and why it's worth the wait.

* * *

Expectations are everything. Learn what you can from consumer psychology to turn your customers' highest hopes into their most memorable experiences.


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Charlotte Blank is chief behavioral officer of Maritz, a sales and marketing services company that helps businesses achieve their full potential by inspiring and motivating employees, channel partners, and customers.

Twitter: @CharlotteBlank

LinkedIn: Charlotte Blank

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