Dopamine-Rush Timed Marketing: Keeping the High Alive


Late this afternoon I was talking with our data scientist about some numbers I’d been curious about, hoping he could research them and get back to me with some findings. In particular I was looking for statistics on product usage via apps, and if we could find some metrics for how long after purchase people interact with products in-app after before they hit a tipping point where usage falls off. The hope is that by better understanding product lifecycles we’ll be able to better serve customers additional products and experiences at the point when they’ve exhausted the benefit of their previous purchase.

As I explained to him my user story, hypothesis and possible campaign strategy, I found it was remarkably easy to explain the concept of appropriately-triggered, personalized lifecycle marketing as a kind of quest to deliver a “continual high.” The basic concept is that for our product (as with many others), one of the main purposes is to help customers achieve pleasure. Whether that’s aesthetic pleasure, physical pleasure or even the pleasure of accomplishment doesn’t matter so much as the fact that pleasure is the main goal.

It is a basic tenet of our nature to continually seek out pleasure and minimize pain in our lives (yes, this is my philosophy and psychology backgrounds talking), and as such, most of the decisions we make in life are with this “maximization of pleasure” in mind. When we achieve these “pleasurable experiences” our bodies undergo a process in which they create additional dopamine, which is what gives us the highs we experience when we encounter a desirable sensation or accomplish a goal.

The problem is that, just like with drugs and alcohol, the dopamine increase is a short-lived phenomenon, and in order to continue to experience the physiological benefits of that dopamine, we have to continue to create it. It’s why games have different levels or achievements – each time you beat a level or unlock an achievement you’re given a sense of accomplishment, which can lead to pride, which leads to an increase or rush of dopamine.

Over time, however, the novelty or surprise of accomplishing the same goal begins to wane…

Over time, however, the novelty or surprise of accomplishing the same goal begins to wane, and with that reduction, the amount of dopamine is reduced as well. Think of the first time you see a movie in comparison to subsequent viewings: that first time is full of surprises, each of which can give you a chemical rush – but on later viewings you know what to expect, and since you know the story and what will happen, you lose some of the impact the next time around. Yes, you can still derive pleasure from watching Anchorman for the hundredth time, but much of that pleasure is derived from a different place. For example, Will Farrell’s ad-libbing as he warms up for the camera can give you pleasure the first time because basically comedy works on the premise of delivering something different from what would normally be expected – but when you see it several times it loses its ability to surprise us, as we’ve come to expect the on-screen behavior due to previous experiences. This doesn’t mean, however, that the jokes lose their value – they still retain some of that value even after multiple viewings because we see the joke in the context of the greater story that’s being told, and within that framing it will remain absurd – but it does lose some of its original punch. Likewise, the reason for the pleasure we experience by watching the same movie again and again is that we can receive pleasure simply by anticipating a result and seeing that result occur – a kind of “pleasure in pride.”

… message customers at the time when the high starts to wear off.

Eventually though the effects fade enough that we give up on an experience once we’ve exhausted its pleasure-causing ability, and seek out a new stimulus to give us a stronger high – and this is where understanding of customer behavior and expired perceived utility can be most important. Rather than looking at the more time-focused approaches of lifecycle marketing where you look at the time for messaging a customer based on when they are likely to physically need a new product (i.e. how long until you need new contacts or your shoes are likely to wear out) I believe it can be much more appropriate to message customers at the time when the high starts to wear off.

So, instead of sending out a promo for new shoes at the same time frame you see customers needing new shoes (say, seasonally), instead learn when the excitement of those new shoes starts to wear off. Of course this won’t work for all customers (a guy buying work boots is buying mostly for utility) but if your customer is purchasing shoes for fashion, they are much more likely to be acquiring their pleasure through the novelty of the new shoes and the responses he or she gets from others by wearing them. Once they’ve exhausted this psychological utility (i.e. no one notices them), then at that point the shoes have lost much of their actual perceived value, and that would be the time to message the customer about a hot new pair of shoes.

The same general concept can be applied across most products and services. Look at what the psychological reasoning is for wanting to acquire a product. If you’re selling records, your buyer probably wants to experience the aesthetic value of good music, and gets their dopamine rush from that. Again, that fades (and it’s why pop songs are called what they are) – so then it’s time to pump out another pop song to keep the audience engaged, rather than seeking out a new form of rush like (heaven forbid) a book.

By focusing on how customers use product, helping to increase their perceived value from that product (a topic for another post) and messaging them with the next product at the right time we can keep them engaged with our products and brands.

Remember: people will always seek out pleasure. You want to do your best to make sure that your product is the one they choose each time their pleasure starts to wane and they seek out that all-new high.

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