Amy Webb is an author and futurist
and the founder of the Future Today
Institute, a leading forecasting
and strategy frm that researches
technology for a global client base.
She is the author of The Signals
Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is
How to Keep Them
Coming Back for More
Strange as it may sound, one
key to success is not giving your
customers what they want
thousands of times a day. Every new interaction
with our phones, like every new hand in poker,
promises a bit of the unknown: who liked your
Facebook post, what song is up next on Spotify, if
the new vendor meeting got scheduled, whether
your favorite client renewed its contract, and
if trafc is jammed on the commute home. If our
phones had limited functionality, or if all the apps
we downloaded ofered one standard feature set
and basic transactional functions, we’d get bored
and stop using them. (If you don’t believe me, well,
how many BlackBerrys do you still see around?)
So your company’s future doesn’t necessarily
involve apps. But if you want to keep your
customers’ attention, you have to create variable
rewards and learn how to play hard to get.
The most successful companies do this by
tapping into our essential human needs. Twitter,
Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram play of our
desire to be praised and admired and stoke the
release of dopamine that follows—while purposely
withholding what we crave. Those platforms’
messages, likes, retweets, and comments appear
haphazardly. That’s why we compulsively click
refresh, to see if there’s been a response—sometimes
every few seconds. It seems counterintuitive, but
not giving customers what they crave is how the
most successful Silicon Valley companies became
Variable rewards work in the negative, too.
For all the outcry about Uber’s business practices,
In the analog world, customer loyalty programs are experimenting with variable rewards.
Athletic clubs are giving active members a free month, but the perk isn’t doled out on any
predictable schedule. Starbucks occasionally gives Gold status to customers when they make
just one purchase—a cushy reward that typically requires them to spend $150. Amtrak ofers
deep discounts, travel points, and free travel—but the primary way I, an Amtrak rewards
member, know they are available is by going to its rewards website throughout the week.
It isn’t an app that addicts but how information is presented. That’s why, if you go all in on
variable rewards, you’ll fnd a customer base that just can’t stay away.
ONE CURRENT DEBATE in technology circles concerns whether mobile apps are still a must-have or on their way out. The correct answer, of course, is that’s the wrong question to ask. To understand why, let’s talk about Texas hold ’em. What makes playing that game so seductive and addictive, in part, is that it triggers a response to what behavioral economists call variable rewards.
Regardless of how well you’re able to read people’s emotions or how
good you are at math, there are too many possible hands at any
moment to be certain of any one hand’s outcome. If you get two pairs
on the fop—the opening hand, for the uninitiated—you still have only
about a 17 percent chance of getting a full house by the time the fnal
card is shown. And if you’re playing with people who don’t know how
to bet, you could win big with a terrible set of cards.
Variable rewards are also why we can’t seem to stop using our
phones. The average smartphone user now touches her phone
TECH 78 - INC. - NOVEMBER 2017