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Expectations Are Everything

Charlotte Blank
Chief Behavioral Officer, Maritz

Editor’s Fun Fact: I know the person who rented their Bahamas house to Billy McFarland – Fyre Festival kingpin – during Fyre Festival. 


Editor’s Funner Fact: I also know that he made Billy pay in advance. 


Now that is managing expectations.


By now, you’ve probably had a few experiences that didn’t live up to your expectations. We all have: dates turned into duds, parties that were a drag, online shopping fails, vacations not 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 on this phenomenon to better understand just how influential humans' expectations truly are.


As a marketer, it’s critical for you to learn how to build excitement for your product, service or event without over-hyping and disappointing your consumers (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 humans' expectations alter their experiences.



The best way to walk that fine line is by getting a better understanding of how and why humans' 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 and 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 percent do. Behavioral economists have referred to optimism as “the engine of capitalism,” and 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 and our expectations aren't met, we feel disappointed. And when we’re disappointed, we complain. With rating and review apps at the tip of customer fingers, disappointment can be a real bad scene for marketers.


All of these insights boil down to this: You can’t force a positive experience onto your target consumers. In fact, the more you try, the more likely they are to be disappointed. 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. This explains why most people believe wine tastes better when it costs more, or why bad pop songs sound good to us precisely because they’re popular.


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



Ensure that you’re not setting your consumers up for disappointment and your brand up for failure.


Engender enthusiasm and eliminate the threat of disappointment with these tips:


1. Emphasize the collectible experience you 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 consumers can mark off their bucket list, you might attract a whole new crowd of followers. These “productivity minded” A-types are expecting something unexpected, by design – giving your brand an opportunity to break away from the competitive herd with a novel concept.


2. Help them savor the future moments.

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 it.

When people are encouraged to savor the experience that’s coming their way, they end up enjoying the experience more, rating it higher than un-pre-savored 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 pre-order content before it hits the market.


3. Tease what’s to come.

Humans are curious beings. So curious, in fact, 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 marketers pique our curiosity with “mystery gifts” and teaser trailers before showing us the goods.


When creating your marketing plan, try teeing up a surprise that will be revealed when your product is purchased, 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 if an all-inclusive approach, full of desirable freebies, would help consumers overlook the cost — an open bar goes a long way!


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 and turn your customers’ highest hopes into their most memorable experiences.


Learn what you can from consumer psychology and turn your customers’ highest hopes into their most memorable experiences.
Charlotte Blank
Chief Behavioral Officer, Maritz


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