More Than a Good Surprise: The Magic of Serendipity Enhances Consumer Satisfaction
Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video know you are tired of choice. Both streaming services recently introduced what might be the perfect hack: a shuffle button that eliminates choice and plays a randomly selected program for the consumer.
Under COVID-19 restrictions, the newly homebound were happy to have so many programming options, but this faded over time. New research we conducted with marketing researchers Aekyoung Kim (University of Sydney) and Felipe Affonso (University of Florida) suggests that being able to choose can backfire, because deliberate choice erases the magic of serendipity.
Here is a thought experiment: Recall a time when you heard a song come across the radio or stumbled upon a favorite movie while channel surfing. Chances are you felt more enjoyment from the song or movie when you landed on it by “accident” compared to choosing the same song or movie from your streaming menu.
These happy accidents become “happy” because they lead to feelings of serendipity, which our new research shows heightens enjoyment. When a product, service, or experience is positive, unexpected, and involves some degree of chance, our research team reasoned that this generates congruent feelings.
Consumers will feel that the encounter was a good surprise, make attributions to chance, and feel lucky that it happened — which we collectively call “feelings of serendipity.” We set out to test our contention that serendipity can be created in the marketplace through a series of carefully designed experiments.
Across multiple consumer domains (online subscription services, museums, movies, food consumption, and music), creating serendipity through positive, unexpected, chance encounters increased satisfaction, enjoyment, meaningfulness, willingness to pay, willingness to recommend a service, and interest. For example, members of subscription box services (e.g., Birchbox, Stitchfix) enjoyed their assortment more when they received a random selection of products compared to members who made selections themselves.
A similar phenomenon occurred during our curated experiments. For instance, we measured consumer satisfaction using two platforms, one delivering movie recommendations and another delivering music recommendations. Compared to a condition where consumers chose for themselves, enjoyment increased when consumers received a movie or song that appeared to have been delivered at random (even though it was, in fact, delivered from behind a virtual curtain). Increased enjoyment occurred because the randomly delivered product was thought to be a good surprise, attributed to chance and luck. In other words, serendipity was born.
This is good news for organizations. It suggests that marketers can capitalize on the power of serendipity to increase consumer satisfaction. To do this, marketers must go beyond surprising consumers, as serendipity is not just a pleasant surprise.
Serendipity involves a bit of additional unseen magic. Recall the 2001 movie by the same name starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale: The two main characters meet at a department store, share an ice cream, and exchange goodbyes. Each soon discovers that they have left a personal item at the ice cream shop, and return only to meet each other again. This chance reunion deepens their attraction and they make plans to spend an evening together.
Similar to this example, we reasoned that positivity and random chance had more to do with creating serendipity beyond mere surprise. To test this idea, our research team began to carefully remove one or more of the “ingredients” to see if the serendipity effect would go away.
First, we found that when an encounter was negative, consumers no longer felt increased enjoyment. In fact, there was a boomerang effect. A negative encounter that was unexpected and attributed to chance was perceived to be even more negative.
Second, when we increased and decreased the degree of randomness, we also exacerbated and attenuated serendipity. Consumers who viewed a movie trailer that was described as being randomly selected from one hundred possible options enjoyed it more than when it came from a menu of ten options, which made it seem less random. Moreover, making consumers aware that a marketer was selecting the options also decreased serendipity and enjoyment, as now it was clear that there was someone behind the curtain and selection was not random.
Finally, we reasoned that educating the consumer on a product or service would eliminate the serendipity effect. Coming to learn more about a product not only eliminates unexpectedness (a key ingredient for serendipity), it can create a sense of expertise that leads consumers to think they have the knowledge to make better choices.
[Related: Why Psychology and UX Design Go Hand in Hand]
In one experiment, we used a platform that recommends functional music that can enhance focus. Approximately half of the participants in this study were provided with information on which attributes increase a song’s ability to increase people’s concentration. When consumers were educated this way, encountering music from the platform in a serendipitous way later on (via random chance) no longer enhanced enjoyment. This suggests that aficionados may not appreciate marketplace serendipity as much as the rest of us.
In today’s digital marketplace that affords an abundance of choice, our research provides marketers with insights on how to build some magic into marketplace encounters.
When attempting to enhance serendipity, companies may sometimes want to increase perceptions that an encounter is the result of chance or randomness. For example, consumers may enjoy some unexpected events more as part of vacation packages or enjoy product samples that arrive randomly without a lot of information.
Companies should also eliminate marketing communications that highlight the targeting process, avoiding telling consumers that a product was selected for them based on what the company knows about their preferences. In such instances, an attribution to chance is replaced by an attribution to being watched and targeted by the company.
For consumers, they want options, but choice does not always lead to good outcomes — as Netflix and Amazon have come to realize. Serendipity is akin to the adage of being in the right place at the right time, as popularized by Humphrey Bogart in the classic film Casablanca:
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
Could serendipity revitalize marketing? The answer is likely yes. When it comes to Netflix, it is one click and we are thinking:
Of all the programming in all of the world, this program walked into my living room.
Kristina Durante, PhD, is a professor and the Vice-Chair in the Department of Marketing and the research director for the Center for Women in Business at Rutgers Business School. She has authored several articles on the psychology of women and families. She routinely speaks on her research across the globe, including a recent TEDx talk.
Juliano Laran, PhD, is a behavioral scientist who researches nonconscious influences on human behavior. He has published extensively on how the environment influences people’s behavior without their awareness, and has helped companies of all sizes (Fortune 500, start-ups) and in many industries (Health Care, Retail, High Tech, Beauty and Personal Care) understand their consumers and help them make better choice.
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