In my last article here I discussed how many consumers are exhibiting almost extreme anti-social behavior, how certain industries helped groom that trend and what to think about when catering to consumers in these conditions. We’re now going to talk about something similar and something also not really said aloud. Come a little closer because we’re going to tell you this crazy wild secret… shhh… keep this to yourself: A product developer and marketer’s goal is to play to the addictive personalities of the consumer and get them hooked.
Whoa… wait a second. That sounds crazy nefarious and evil. Nobody does that kind of stuff right? It would seem immoral to exploit people like that! Well, sorry to break the news to you but this is consumerism in a nut shell.
Think of everything you ever wanted, owned and enjoyed. Something got you itching to buy it. Something kept you coming back. Everything is designed to do just that. To hook you in and keep you coming back. You know those catchy songs, the ones that draw millions in to buy them? Pop sensations but also pretty shallow, mindless drivel most of the time, right? Well the melody that draws you in is purposely referred to in the music industry as a “hook”. They know exactly what they’re doing. What probably will make you feel worse is that most of these songs have very similar tunes. There’s a whole science behind the repetition, pitch, etc that drives the most common and successful hooks.
Your favorite entertainment is built off of hooks and trying to draw you into the next episode or sequel. Commercials are meant to hook you into products with certain buzzwords, imagery and trying to capture a feeling from behind the screen of whatever device you view it from.
It’s the entire basis of the conversation Priest had in Episode 14 of Inside the Marketplace with Nir Eyal. Nir wrote a book called “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” and is a bit of an expert on the entire concept of getting people so involved in a product that they are sucked into the concept to the point of continuing to spend money on it beyond the initial purchase.
The thing is addictive personalities reside in most of us. Self control levels differentiate how far we take things but think of this in everyday life. Many of us are addicted to all sorts of different things. Most of them are product based. Most of them tick off a lot of boxes about making someone feel good, heck even euphoric. Which in a world where there’s a very tough economy, extremely divisive politics and frankly the news is a constant downer, it is hard to find the wins in everyday life. So these wins, however you come by them can be a straight adrenaline rush. Of course, nobody wants that rush to end – especially when it means going back to the downer of the stress and anxiety of real life, so you’re going to immerse yourself heavily into whatever you’re into. Of course there’s a difference between making something a hobby and driving that hobby to obsession.
Think of the things that are not addictive in nature but that an addictive personality can turn into a major life issue. Marijuana for example. Anti-weed advocates often pretend most weed users cannot stop themselves from smoking all day and being some sort of horrendous drain on society. Most marijuana smokers are the opposite – productive employees that just need something to counter pain, anxiety, fear and stress. They’re not the stereotyped movie idiots that the non-smokers believe them to be. But even though marijuana itself does not have addictive properties, some people can still be addicted… as in their personality drives them to smoke constantly because it feels so good and they don’t want to stop the feeling it provides. There are people addicted to fitness, hoarding and collecting… anything (I kid you not), gambling. These are just the examples without the addictive chemicals making things worse (alcohol, other drugs). Often people with these personalities go from one obsession to the next so even if they lose interest in one thing, they hop onto another. Personally and anecdotally I have had family members that went from alcohol to gambling to prescription drugs almost instantly one after another. It’s like there’s a need to fill that void in their lives.
For companies looking to draw as much cash out of the wallet of consumers as possible, they dig deep for these hooks. They design and market solely to keep you coming and sometimes they’ll even play a role in having that next big product that drags you in once the old one has fizzled out.
Now I know I spent a lot of time sort of dragging the video game industry for their role in pushing isolationism as a tool to sell more hardware and software but it should be mentioned that they are one of the biggest purveyors of playing this role of pusher onto the addict for their wares. When you think back to arcade machines, the hook was a game with colorful, fun gameplay and very catchy music that was challenging if not fairly hard. The point was to drive home the idea that high score achievements were a major win so they put together high score screens and drove gamers to take every quarter they could find to push themselves closer to that goal. Once games moved home to the consoles the achievement had to change. Atari games, often poor arcade ports, couldn’t even save high scores so there was a lack of satisfaction in achieving much of anything as most of the games didn’t actually have real endings. They just sped up and increased the challenge level.
By the next generation of consoles games were more complex, often had level and final bosses to beat and more intricate obstacles to complete. The games retained a lot of that trademark 1980s difficulty though and beating those games was immensely satisfying and brag-worthy. They were fun too but this was a world of punishing yourself through some extremely complex level design and twitch movements (I’m looking at you Mega Man and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out) and being able to say you beat the games mattered in your circle of friends. You’d buy every magazine, every tip book you could find to get an edge. When all else failed, you were buying a Game Genie to cheat the game and accept that your best wasn’t good enough without it.
That was pretty much the lay of the land until the Xbox 360 came out and introduced Achievements. Game developers would program in extra little awards to show off you accomplished something in their games. Often little checkpoint or item pickup awards. The points accumulated to a never ending “Gamer score” which actually meant little to nothing. Accomplishing 5,000, 10,000, 25,000, even 100,000 points did nothing for you in real life. No Microsoft store credit. No real awards from any companies. Just… bragging rights. Bragging rights which can be pretty valuable as some gamers run up their scores and sell accounts on various marketplaces. Remember – there is no real world value to that score. Sony and Nintendo followed suit with their own versions of this and the next generation of gamers now had their own hook.
Nir Eyal actually talked about this a bit in digging into the hook of Fortnite. The very popular Epic Games creation has swept living rooms everywhere and is massively popular with kids, teens and apparently MLB players alike. The rewards system in these games draws people back into the game and it’s becomes such a social experience that not winning or doing well is having an effect on kids. To the point where their parents are trying to shield them from the distress or even potential ridicule of losing at the game by hiring Fortnite tutors to teach their kids how to play the game better. Some colleges, realizing the addictive nature of the game, even go so far as to use it to recruit potential students.
Beyond even that, many games have gone the way of treading into gambling territory and having governments both internationally as well as statewide here in the US diving into the legality of what they are doing. EA in particular built Battlefront II around a micro-transaction system that essentially forced you to pay more (to buy more objects) to have a chance to win the game. What took that a step further was most of these items had to be acquired in random loot boxes where you had to make a blind purchase and hope for the item you still needed or wanted. There were no guarantees of what you were receiving and you very easily could have just thrown money down the drain for items you had no use for. EA wasn’t the only offender as games like Overwatch and such have been doing this for years but the way EA was so blatant about pay to win in their game started to bring regulatory bodies to the subject.
They initially backed down a bit on their use of the loot boxes as the way to win but it helped tank sales of the game and EA still is headstrong about pushing ahead with the loot box strategy opening the doors for serious regulation in the future. If you’re pushing these envelopes, especially with children, a moderate bend but not break temperament is much more likely to work. In the early 1990s the gaming industry didn’t agree on anything and didn’t seem eager to work on anything related to the ratings fiasco it was facing. A metaphorical baseball bat to the kneecaps by Congress and Nintendo and Sega were pretending to be buddies and pals by the end of the saga – or at least just for the ratings system they helped create.
So why bring all of this up? Because even with addictive consumer personalities driving to win-win-win for that adrenaline rush, there still needs to be a line before greed overrides caring about your customers. A successful model doesn’t swoop in like a vampire and suck the victim dry in one shot leaving a corpse behind. No, it swoops in, bites them, takes a little blood and when they come back as loyal vampires themselves, you have a crew of people to work with. People that will spread word of mouth about your product, that will bring their friends and family in to experience it. You’re trying to hook them after all, not be happy with a one time buyer.
Now, loyalty programs can be a mixed bag depending on what you offer and let me be clear – regardless of what money, discounts, trinkets, whatever you offer the consumer if CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE isn’t your #1 goal, then anything afterward will fail. I mean that. Treat your customers like they’re the most valued, important person ever to come through that door. I cannot push this idea enough. If you treat them like gold, they’re coming back. If they’re coming back a reward program or something that says, “Thanks for being here for us, we appreciate you” makes a difference. It costs businesses 5-25 times more to acquire a new customer than keep their previous ones. Existing customers spend 67% more than new customers do on average. It just makes way too much sense to look for that hook and draw them in. However always remember, this isn’t hooking to kill… this is catch and release. Well until the next time they bite.