21 February 2009

How ‘Surprise’ Helps Word-of-Mouth and Viral Marketing


Emotional engagement is the key to viral marketing success. People share their everyday experiences by communicating them to others in and outside of their network. This social sharing is more rampant when the individuals develop intense feelings like fear, disgust, sadness, joy, anger and surprise.

Of all these emotions, surprise is a necessary ingredient which encourages people to pass on information they come across. Now let’s look at what surprise is and its impact on viral marketing. As partial reference, I’ll use a study from the Journal of Economic Psychology, one that examines surprise and its relationship to word-of-mouth.

What is Surprise and What Causes it?

Many researchers consider surprise a neutral and short-lived emotion that is elicited by unexpected phenomena or what is known as a ‘‘schema discrepancy’’. A schema is a theory that each person has about the nature of situations, objects and reality. The disruption of this schema is what leads to the element of surprise:

In order to have a proper representation of reality, individuals continuously check whether their schema matches the inputs coming from the surrounding environment. This check is, however, relatively unconscious As soon as inputs diverge from the schema, surprise is elicited. Schema discrepancy is the one and only cognitive cause of surprise, but the latter may also be elicited by non-cognitive causes

In other words, surprise is an emotion that occurs when something breaks the habitual pattern of thoughts we have. Such a disruption may occur on a physiological level (e.g loud sounds) or it can be deeply mental (e.g. something that challenges your world view).

Surprise’s effects are immediate: An stronger focus of attention on the stimulus, a heightened consciousness, better retention of memory at the expense of other stimuli. All of which eventually result in curiosity and exploratory behavior. This arousal also intensifies subsequent reactions, the excitation from being surprised transfers over to other experiences.

After detecting the schema discrepancy, the individual will evaluate it: the emotion of surprise is often followed by a positive or negative emotion, what we normally call a pleasant surprise or an unpleasant surprise. An interesting point to note about surprise is that most people will assume that what is surprising to them will also be new/useful information for others.

Using Surprise to Generate Word-of-Mouth

Our everyday reactions to our environment is habitual. Going through the same shop in the mall, we select and purchase items with more or less neutral emotions. Buying a pair of shoes does not involve ’disruptive’ or ‘intense’ emotions. Nothing here encourages us to share this experience with others. But this can change if you add the element of surprise.

For example, if you’re offered an unexpected and attractive freebie (e.g. bottle of wine) along with the product, it short-circuits your schema and generates surprise. You’re now much more likely to talk about the pair of shoes you bought or your feelings about the boutique or brand.

The goal here is to think about ways to elicit positive surprise by enhancing the experiences of your audience in unexpected ways. Making them feel privy to an unique situation encourages them to share or recommend your idea/product/service/brand. What does this mean? Only that one needs to invest time on understanding your audience’s schemas.

Its important to note that surprise can be used as a tool in many ways. For instance, it can used in a stand-alone format, in the form of viral ad or online video with a single message or you can integrate it into your sales or fulfillment funnel. Think about each juncture when you interact with your customer and inculcate elements of surprise wherever necessary.

Surprise can be used in large scale million dollar, multi-media/multi-platform viral marketing campaigns (e.g. The Dark Knight) or in smaller, repeating gestures like birthday cards, freebies and other addons you can attach to the product/service. Viral campaigns are short-term and hence easier to sustain surprise, while other repeating initiatives may lose their power after the audience comes to expect specific behavior and hence, develop a new schema.

Here's an 18-second viral that surprisingly attracted a quarter of a million hits... and still counting...