JeremySaid's Blog for Startups and Lead Generation

Using the Psychology of Surprise to Increase Your Conversion Rate

Posted by Jeremy Smith on Jul 24, 2014 11:37:32 AM

The Psychology Of Surprise

Surprise is totally underrated in today’s e-commerce world. In much of my research, investigation and trolling of my industry's newsletters, pundits, blog articles and expert advice, I have seldom seen anyone talk about the psychology of surprise.

It’s rather surprising, really.

I wrote this article to help fill that void, and to introduce a fascinating component of online sales and customer service that can turn a mediocre company into an amazing force.

First, I’m going to explain how surprise works. It’s a psychological phenomenon that you can harness for good. Second, I’m going to explain how surprise connects so integrally to the online experience today.

Finally, I’m going to give you a smorgasbord of ideas to put surprise into your business, including a variety of offline tips for surprise and delight marketing.


(Google image)

How The Psychology of Surprise Works

Surprise is an individual’s psychological and emotional response to experience that does not align with that individual's paradigm and expectations.

Jargony mumbo.

Basically, we get surprised when something happens that we don’t expect.

I think that understanding the functionality of surprise is important for realizing its importance in consumer behavior, so let me explain it in a little more depth.

Give a man a how-to list and they'll re-create a product; give them understanding of how it works, and they will build a successful campaign.

Why Surprise Happens

Every one of us has a matrix through which we view life. We hold rules, whether consciously or not, as to how life should work.

Sometimes, though, life doesn’t work according to these rules. When we come face-to-face with such a phenomenon, our response is to be surprised.

According to the Expectancy Violation Theory (EVT) of surprise, “violation” happens when an individual’s person’s normative schema are breached, infringed, or transgressed. The response to such violations is surprise, and a potpourri of other possible emotional responses — arousal, distraction, pleasure, etc.

Surprise has a range of possible durations, intensities, and responses.

There are three main categories of things that influences a person’s response to surprise:

  • Interactant variables — issues like race, sex, socioeconomic status, age and appearance.
  • Environmental variables — time, surroundings, proxemics, setting, etc.
  • Social norm variables — biological influences, behavioral patterns, social norms, cultural mores.

Your brain loves surprises.

Psychologically, surprise appeals to us. The human brain is wired in such a way that it turns its attention to things that are new or changing. That’s why you incessantly check your email. Your brain likes the dopamine drip that takes place every time you check for and receive a new message.


I want more.

It doesn’t matter that you hate your email and what it requires of you. You’re still addicted to checking it. It’s not necessarily that you’re surprised, but you like the sensation of newness that email provides.

Surprise works in much the same way.

We are wired to notice things that are new or different.

Many jokes work to satisfy our love for surprise. “Why did the chicken cross the road,” is the familiar start to a joke that ends with a surprising twist. We like that. We might even laugh.

Jokes with a storyline do the same thing. “Three guys walked into a bar ...” and we are surprised and humored by the different results we hear every time.

Sure, sure, humans like routine — the same vacation spots, the same car brands, the same venti, sugar-free, non-fat, vanilla soy, double shot, decaf, no foam, extra hot, Peppermint White Chocolate Peppermint Mocha with light whip, upside-down, 1 pump of peppermint, 1 and 3/8 pumps vanilla, heavy whip-cream, 3 ice cubes, 1/4 teaspoon Nutmeg sprinkled on top, with green sprinkles, light cinnamon dusted on, stirred, with no lid, double cupped, and a straw.

By the way, if you ordered that at Starbucks — in one breath — at least you’d be giving the barista a little surprise.

But routine does not mean that we each have a psychological penchant for surprise. Surprise is connected to the brain’s pleasure center, meaning that we get a kick out of being surprised.

To put it as perfectly as a PsychologyToday article on the subject:  “We are designed to be delighted by novelty.”


I really wasn't expecting that. (Image source Laurence Griffiths / Getty)

Your brain hates boredom.

Even though you like routine, you don’t like boredom. Boredom is the opposite of surprise. When life becomes a predictable, intractable experience of ennui, your brain gets sick of it.


Now what?

Boredom happens with the brain lacks stimulation. It’s craving that dopamine — the dash of unexpected, the dosage of challenge, the difference of setting, the need for curiosity, and the interruption of patterns.

What Surprise Does

Surprise can overcome reluctance, and make people want to buy.

Because surprise creates an emotional fluctuation in a person’s experience, they become more likely to do (or not to do) certain things.

Emotional uprisings create cognitive imbalance.

When some people get angry, for example, they do things that they know they shouldn’t do. When others become grief-stricken, they act in ways that defy common sense.

And when people get surprised, they respond in a way that may differ from how they would normally respond, based on life paradigms and constructs.

In other words, if you can effectively and positively surprise someone, you can influence them. How you influence them depends on how you surprise them. 


Bringing surprise to sales.

More and more retailers are realizing the power the psychology of surprise has on consumers across all industries.


(Image from PizzaMarketPlace)

Remarking on the restaurant industry, here’s what Jitendra Gupta (above) had to say:

“Surprise and Delight programs are so crucial to and successful at increasing long-term sales through engendering customer loyalty.”

Restaurants get it, but why don’t more online entrepreneurs get it?

The business magazine Inc. recently published an article with this apt title:  “Forget Customer Satisfaction. Think Customer Surprise.” The author, Peter Economy, referred to Chip Bell, the author of  9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service. Bell swore by surprise.

Here’s what the Inc. article reported:

“The secret to delivering great customer service is to give your customers a surprise — something they didn't expect. It's those unexpected experiences that leave customers with a story they are eager to tell.”

BBC ran a story a few months ago in which they cataloged one of the biggest surprises in the social tech world — Facebook’s $19 billion buyout of WhatsApp. Yeah, that’s a little bigger than the billion-dollar purchase of Instagram that we used to be surprised about.

The point of the article wasn’t the price tag, though. The point was the surprise. The article related this gem:

“Some of the most successful people and organisations in the world are those that embrace surprise. Embracing, rather than fearing, the unexpected is a key to really getting ahead, as well as being smarter and more adaptable.”

The article’s No. 1 takeaway for business leaders was this:

“First, focus on surprises — large and small — for the information it can reveal about what we are doing. The great management scholar Henry Mintzberg once said that managers should only pay attention to the unexpected.”


(Image source)

It's always about our individual expectations.

The Epic Effects of a Shocking Experience

To sum up, here’s what surprise does to your users:

It makes customers happy.

Customers who are pleasantly surprised, are a powerful force for a successful business. Pleasing customers is a chief goal of your business. When you achieve positive surprise, you have given your customers the very thing that your business is supposed to give them — satisfaction.



(Image source)

Now I want it.

It makes skeptics curious.

Surprise pleases people. And people like to be pleased. A person who hasn’t experienced the surprises of your business, but has heard of them is more likely to become a customer.

The only people who can have an experience with your company are those who have purchased. Everyone else is skeptical. But if you have delivered surprising results to other customers, the skepticism of non-customers morphs into a powerful sense of curiosity.



I just might want to try that.

And you know what curiosity can do.

It makes leads and customers remember you.

One of the great advantages to surprise is that it creates a memorable experience. In the mess of advertisers vying for a customer’s attention, it’s the surprising ones that will win.

People don’t easily forget their surprising experiences. You can make your company stick in people’s minds if you surprise them.

It makes reluctants ready.

The possibility of surprise can tip people over the edge into a purchase. The expectancy of surprise is a powerful catalyst for motion.

If you love hiking or climbing, you may have had the experience of encountering a hill or a bend in the trail. You are expecting a surprise when you crest the hill or round the bend. Although you are reluctant due to fatigue, you are nonetheless ready to go farther to experience the surprise.

Business and commerce leads can respond in much the same way. The potential of surprise can counter their reluctance, and push them to a conversion. As long as you are known to be a business that surprises people, others will come.



(Image from Erik Hajer)

Ok, I can do this.

It turns buyers into evangelists.

Surprise has a ripple effect that goes far beyond the single person being surprised. That’s one of the reasons why surprise is so powerful. Surprised people like to share their surprises with others. Others like to hear about those surprises, and, in turn, share them with others.

If you’ve never actually bought a pair of shoes or clothing from Zappos, then perhaps you know someone else who did. Perhaps they were pleasantly surprised by the rapid shipping times and friendly customer service.

The surprise value that Zappos is so famous for has an effect that has spread way beyond its pool of buyers. Your customers become evangelists.

(Image source)


Keep in mind, though, that surprise can be negative, too. If you provide an unpleasant surprise, it provides all those benefits, in reverse. It makes customers angry, it makes skeptics negatively biased, it keeps reluctants away, and it turns buyers into boycotters.

If you keep the focus on positive surprise, you’ll win. Let it slip, and you’ll have a huge problem on your hands.


How to Surprise Your Customers

I’m going to share some specific tips for surprising your customers in a little bit, but I want to first help you prepare for the project of surprise.

Set the stage.

To prepare for surprise, you must avoid any and all negativity. First impressions are crucial; so don’t botch it up before you have a chance to pleasantly surprise.


Your promises as a company set the customer’s expectation. If you make promises, those promises set the baseline expectation for the customer.

Most of us want to over-promise. It’s far easier to say that we can do something rather than to actually do that thing. Experience should tell us, however, that it’s safer to under-promise.

The real power is in the delivery. That’s where the surprise happens. Remember in the beginning of this article, when I sketched out the psychology of surprise? Surprise is a response to something unexpected.

If you make a promise, commitment or statement, and then meet it, you haven’t done anything remarkable. If you make a promise, commitment, or statement, however, that is less than what you know you can deliver, and then you deliver beyond that, then you can surprise your customer.


The logical next step of under-promising, as I’ve just explained, is over-delivering.

This is where true surprise happens. When we give a service that disrupts an individual's set of expectations, we’ve been able to create surprise.

Making consumer behavior part of your sales strategy could improve conversions and retention.

19Online Surprise

I’ve been discussing surprise in largely theoretical terms. I want to narrow in on the specifics of surprise in an online or e-commerce context. Many of the specifics that I outline below will have online applications. However, I’d like to address some of the specifics of a surprisingly good online presence.

Standout design.

Awesome design generates a surprise response. If you come across a website with a design that is cooler than most, you’ll be pleasantly surprise.



Great Content

As common as “content” is online today, there are few places to go for actually really good content. If you produce outstanding content, you can effectively unleash surprise, and create a positive experience.



Free Resources

Even though there are tons of free resources, there is always appeal for products with a price tag of zero. Go ahead and be free with some things.



Personal Interaction

The downside of online interaction is, well, that it’s online. It’s inherently impersonal. If you can overcome the impersonality of online experiences, then you can effectively create a more positive experience for your users. You can do this by personally reaching out — maybe even offline — to thank them for their business and to establish a relationship.


What are the areas in which you can surprise your customers?

Here are some ideas to get you started in the business of surprise:

  • Offer surprising levels of service instead of jaw-dropping prices. You might not be able to beat your competitor’s price. It’s a numbers thing. But maybe you can outdo their service level. Give it a try.
  • Overcome a common barrier. If there’s a common challenge that people face, you can surprise them by completely destroying it. For example, consider the company that provides mortgage loans to self-employed entrepreneurs. Let’s say a successful self-employed entrepreneur wants to buy a house. But he doesn’t have two years of tax returns with W-2 income to qualify him. He’s got plenty of money coming in, but he’s also writing it off on his taxes. Thus, he’s not qualifying for a loan. But if there is a company that says, “We will crush those obstacles and give you a loan,” then the entrepreneur will be surprised, and grateful. Surprise is service.
  • Be incredibly available. People don’t care what time it is, they just want to get in touch when they want to get in touch. “Normal business hours” — when your online chat is disabled or your hotline isn’t open — just don’t work for some people. If, however, you have live service 24-7, you’ll deliver surprise.
  • Create a perk for every group. Many stores have loyalty rewards. They give little incremental upsides for those who spend more, buy more, and come more. From hotels to coffee shops, this is a strategic model for retaining customers. But go beyond rewarding the loyal customers, and reward those who are new, or just in between. Maybe you can give first-time customers a reward. Will they turn into loyal customers? Maybe. What about second-time customers? Third? Might the third time be the charm? Surprising rewards will generate repeat customers.
  • Call them by name. After walking into my local branch bank a few times, I was surprised when I drove up to the drive-through and was greeted by name. The teller recognized me, knew me, and didn’t just wait to read my name on my deposit slip. I was surprised and pleased. If you can learn names, you can gain friends.
  • Do the overnight shipping thing. People love to get their orders fast. Can you afford overnight shipping instead of the typical can’t-believe-I-have-to-wait-for-four-to-six-weeks delivery time?
  • Be funny. People are pleasantly surprised by humor in unexpected places. Like this flight attendant who surprised flyers with a great safety speech:

  • Nail it with the details. Greg Ciotti of Help Scout described how he was surprised when a company sent him beef jerky. It was the classic surprise freebie, but with a twist. In some social media thread, he had extolled his love for Big John’s Teriyaki Beef Jerky. Some detail-oriented awesome person at www.UserTesting.com, dug it up and doled it out. Details for the win.
  • Send a personal thank you note. Handwritten thank you notes haven’t gone out of style. And they are a surprise winner for many businesses. Handwritten thank you notes work, regardless of your industry.
  • Give them an unannounced discount. Don’t you love the surprise that happens when you bring your bundle of merchandise to the checkout, and watch unexpected discounts start rolling off? Make this part of your sales strategy. Automatically apply discounts. You’ll have surprised customers.
  • Celebrate holidays. I’ve known companies that sent their clients a massive snack platter around Christmas or New Year’s. They didn’t announce it. They just did it. The clients loved it! Besides the surprise spread on social media, their happy surprise entrenched their loyalty.
  • Send them a small gift. Add an extra month's subscription, send them a Starbucks card, give them a pen, do whatever. Just give them something for free.
  • Follow them on social media. People love to feel validated by being followed on social media. Make an effort to give some surprise social love to your customers.




Surprising your customers requires intentionality, effort and thoughtfulness. But it’s possible. And when you succeed, it’s amazing!

Get involved in the surprising psychology of surprise for marketing, and I think you’ll surprise yourself with surprising others.



Topics: Business, Conversion Optimization, Social Media, user experience, Web Psychology

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