It’s easy and therefore, if you look around the business world, pretty darn common for people to focus all their creative energies on the first moment people arrive to their work. Whether we create content, build entire brands, deliver trainings, run people through a process — anything wherein someone else is on the receiving end of our work — it’s tempting to focus solely on what happens when people arrive:
Here, people arrive with an initial set of expectations. Naturally, then, our goal is to exceed those expectations.
If we do, it feels refreshing to them. It’s like a gift — the proverbial “surprise and delight.” We’ll call that the thrill of novelty:
It turns out that “surprise and delight” isn’t just pablum. There’s actual science underpinning the desire to deliver something new and refreshing to others — even if most of us aren’t aware of it.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh revealed that novelty of experience creates long-term memories in the brain. They examined the effects of surprises on students and their ability to remember their math lessons later in the afternoon. For some students, the researchers created a surprise music class they weren’t expecting to take that day. Those students remembered their math lessons which followed far better than peers who had the typical, expected day.
This is a phenomenon called “behavioral tagging.” When we’re surprised, our brains release a hit of dopamine, which helps form memories. Not only do we remember the moment of surprise, however, we remember the moments around it. That’s why students remembered their math lessons in the afternoon following a surprise music class in the morning. When we’re surprised, we remember that experience and those which surrounded it.
This is an evolutionary trait. When our ancestors stumbled upon a patch of delicious berries in the woods, it was rather useful to remember both the berries and the path they walked to arrive there — even if, while walking that path earlier, they weren’t consciously trying to remember it.
And so, when we deliver something to others that creates a thrill of novelty, behavioral tagging sets in…
…and a memory of us forms:
Unfortunately, it’s right here where we tend to lose our way as creators and strategists responsible for experiences. We want to do one thing that feels refreshing and then, once we deem it successfully, we often put it on repeat because, apparently, it can work forever now.
Of course, ONE interaction is never enough. Trust is earned over time. Advocacy requires ongoing commitment. Relationships are formed through deeper engagement.
No, regardless of what we create, results don’t happen thanks to one moment, one interaction with us.
We need a plan for what happens once someone begins to engage with us more deeply. Because as they do, they start to pick out certain traits that make the experience identifiable. In other words, by agreeing to come back or to spend more time with our work, others begin to make sense of it.
Let’s call that process “identifying anchors.” Anchors are the traits of a project or a brand which others can recall and we can control. People identify a few key traits to remember us and to describe us to others (word-of-mouth). They identify those anchors while engaging with our work more deeply than that first moment they arrived. It looks like this:
Crucially, as people identify anchors, it creates a new set of expectations, and this hurts our ability to return to that initial successful thing. What was once refreshing no longer is, and in fact, it grows stale rather quickly.
So, no, we can’t rely on that “first-moment creativity” that created an initial, positive memory of us. This is the paradox of exceeding expectations: once we do, we’ve now changed their expectations. They agree to engage more deeply, which causes them to identify anchors and make sense of our work to know what to expect, and therefore, they think they know what to expect. Their expectations have changed compared to the first moment of interaction.
Sadly, our work often does NOT change, and if that’s the case, if we return too often to the “tried and true,” something called Emotional Decay kicks in. Emotional Decay is the process by which an initial moment of innovation stagnates as others lose interest and we lose results.
The first time they experienced our work, it was thrilling and new. It was refreshing. That created a positive, long-term memory of us. But then that memory starts to fade rather quickly, as they update their knowledge of our work. If we hand them the same exact experience as before, it might feel good, but not as good as the first time. The third time might feel okay, the fourth fine, the fifth a bit annoying, until eventually, over time, they tune out. They loved it. Then felt good about it. Then fine. Then stopped caring. And we PANIC! We try to pull a random stunt to get back up to that initial thrill of novelty, that initial moment of innovation.
And it’s all because we’re changing our work AFTER it’s too late.
We need to get proactive about the tweaks we make to our work. We need to change before stagnation hits. We need to change what’s working while it’s still working. That way, we avoid Emotional Decay. We change things along with their expectations changing. Right as they know what to expect, we add in something refreshing that they didn’t, a tiny change on the status quo. We can call those wrinkles.
If we do that, we can renew their interest in us. Which again creates a thrill of novelty. Which again triggers behavioral tagging, forms a brand new positive memory.
Once again, however, they update their knowledge of us. They think, “Okay, THIS is what I can expect from them.” So once again we add in a little wrinkle. Again they renew their interest in us, again they experience a thrill of novelty, and so on, and so forth. It’s this constant, continual flow of others changing their expectations and us exceeding them by changing what’s working while it’s still working — not through huge stunts, but small yet refreshing changes on the status quo, all the time. Wrinkles that we can add consistently in order to teach others to expect the unexpected from us. Wrinkles that create a sense that we’ve mastered this art of reinvention.
First-moment creativity is never enough. It’s all about consistency.
Consistently great work consistently changes.
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