How to make people "get with the program"

You know those loyalty stamp cards you get in coffee shops?  Ever wondered why you get a few stamps free when you get them?  It’s because of something called the endowed progress effect –  you’re more likely to keep working towards a goal if you think you’ve already made some progress towards it.  So you’re more likely to return and fill the card up if there are nine total boxes to fill, and two get stamped for free, than if there are seven total boxes to fill and none are filled for free – even though the cost and effort is exactly the same for both.

Bob was convinced that milk was a better cleaner than soapy water

This idea was tested, not in coffee shops, but in a car wash.  In 2006, researchers devised two loyalty schemes that the car was would use.  Customers either got a card that needed ten stamps to earn a free car wash, but the card already had two stamps on it, or they got a card that needed eight stamps to earn a free car wash.  Exactly the same number of purchases were needed to get the prize, but half the customers were under the impression they had already made some progress towards the prize.  And it worked; the redemption rate was 34% for the card with two free stamps, versus 19% for the card without free stamps.

Not only that, but the customers with free stamps filled up their cards more quickly, and the time between washes got shorter and shorter as they progressed – the closer they got to the prize, the more effort they put in to get it.

How does it work?

Once we accept a goal, for whatever reason, we become strongly motivated to see it out.  We don’t complete everything we start, of course, but we’re more likely to finish something that we’ve already put some time and effort into than something that we haven’t started yet.  We like to get a return on what we’ve invested into.  This is partly the reason it’s hard to stop gambling once on a losing streak – the lure of getting something back on our investment is far more seductive than definitely accepting a loss.

Interestingly, this is true even if we haven’t actually made any progress, or put any effort into the pursuit of a goal – as long as we merely appear to have done so (to ourselves), we’re suddenly under the same psychological pressure to see it though.  By creating the illusion of progress, the car wash owners made it seem like the task of getting to ten stamps had already begun, and was incomplete.

Getting with the program

The basic principle is this: people are more likely to stick to the program if you can make it seem that they’ve already made progress towards its end goal. If this basic principle carries over to other domains, the possibilities are endless.

For example, if you run some kind of online course, offer the first two modules for free, and put a page up with a list of all modules, with the first two already ticked off.

If you’re in a role where you have to motivate people, then pointing out the progress that’s already been made should help.  You could create a performance-based points system, where the points can be traded for prizes at the end of the month, but each person gets a certain number for free.

If you’re promoting a book, give the first chapter out for free as an ebook.  This will not only get your work out there, but will set up an incomplete goal in your readers’ heads; and many will feel the need to complete the goal.

This technique doesn’t have to be used for commercial purposes, of course.  As long as it’s used for a task-based goal, it should work.  So, say for example you’re trying to raise awareness of an important issue.  Frame your information as a course, and give it an official sounding title, such as *your organisation* certificate in *your issue* awareness.  Then give out a leaflet which contains the first two ‘modules’ of your course, probably basic stuff like “Introduction to X”, and of course include module list on the final page with the first two modules ticked off already.  Then point to your website or other location they can find the rest of the course, and once you can confirm they’ve completed it, post them a certificate or provide one for print out.  The idea is, people will think they’ve already completed modules 1 & 2, and they’d better complete the rest or that would be a waste of time.

These are just a few ideas from the top of my head, I’m sure you can think of more for whatever your purposes are.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this little series of posts on persuasion, and it’s given you a few useful ideas as well as made you aware of how your mind responds to persuasion techniques and advertising.  Please, only use these principles for the forces of good.

Recommended Reading:


Nunes, J. C. & Dreze, X. (2006). The endowed progress effect: how artificial advancement increases effort.  Journal of Consumer Research. 32, 504-512.

Image: Bob Dobbs opens a car wash by Radio Rover


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