This is a guest post by Alexander DePaoli, Visiting Assistant Professor of Marketing, Northeastern University
Let’s talk about goals.
Many people think of New Year’s Resolutions as made to be broken, but a lot of us make them anyways. About 12% of all gym memberships are purchased in January, but up to 80% of those New Year’s members will stop going by the end of the year.
While many of us may never follow through, the fact remains that people do make resolutions and do make an effort to act on them. New Year’s is a very motivating time of year, and in this post, I want to explore some of the ways that same motivation can be fostered year-round.
The tradition of the New Year’s Resolution inspired a forthcoming paper by Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman, (both of UPenn’s Wharton School of Business) and Jason Riis (of Harvard Business School). The core idea of their research is simple: what if the drive to set a New Year’s Resolution is more than just a tradition? What if people are actually more motivated to set and pursue goals when they feel they have reached a “new beginning”?
Sure enough, the research seems to support the idea that people see new beginnings as a chance for a “fresh start” for their goals. In one of their examples, they looked at attendance records at a university gym that automatically recorded whenever a student swiped their ID card to enter. They found that not only was attendance higher earlier in the year, but it was also higher earlier in each month, and even in the early days of each week. Furthermore, as the use of student ID cards allowed the researchers to collect individual-level data, they found that gym attendance was higher in the months immediately following one’s birthday. Whether starting a new week or a near year of life, new beginnings prompted greater goal pursuit. A fun side note is that gym attendance was higher following every birthday except a student’s 21st birthday, which the authors found amusing.
The paper also includes two additional examples of more immediate relevance to online marketing. The first was a simple look at Google searches for the term “diet.” As with the gym study, they found that more people are actively searching for diet-related content at the beginning of each year, month, and week, as well as immediately after federal holidays.
The second relevant example was a look at stickk.com, a website that encourages users to set goals and give themselves cash incentives to achieve them. Users create “commitments” by setting a goal, choosing someone they know to confirm whether or not they achieve it, and then (optionally) putting some of their own money on the line. If they succeed, they get their money back, otherwise the money is given to another person or organization of their choice. Again, more commitments were made following the beginning of a new year, month, week, or birthday. Not only are people looking to work towards their goals after new beginnings, they are even paying to do it.
The existence of “fresh starts” has immediately obvious applications. First and foremost, if you have a product which helps people achieve a goal, then you should make it more visible at the beginning of each month and at the beginning of each week. For example, a clothing retailer may want to spend more energy promoting their athletic apparel on Mondays, and shift their emphasis to other products as the week goes on.
Another way to think about fresh starts is the same way we think about seasonal promotions. Colored lights and heart-shaped candies are marketed more heavily at specific times of the year because people are more likely to be looking for them. In the same way, your potential customers are more likely to be looking for products that will help them pursue their goals, or at the very least, they are more likely to be interested in such products.
Speaking of seasonal promotions, recall that holidays and birthdays can be considered fresh starts as well. Surprisingly, this implies that on a customer’s birthday (or immediately following it), they may be more interested in offers that appeal to achieving their goals rather than a “treat yourself” celebration of the occasion. For example, Gap might have more luck promoting its Athleta brand than its Piperlime brand on birthdays:
The essence of a fresh start is that consumers perceive a new beginning, meaning a chance to ignore past shortcomings in favor of future opportunity. This idea can be extended to produce some even more interesting applications: for example, could it be the case that people are more optimistic about their goals at the beginning of a new day? Research on self-control seems to suggest that customers’ willpower may be stronger in the mornings, meaning that they may be less susceptible to marketing appeals. However, if the appeal involves pursing a goal that is important to them, a greater level of willpower is exactly what may motivate them to engage with a relevant product. While just a hunch, it may be that workout clothes should be marketed more in the morning.
While I’ve mostly discussed health and fitness goals, any product that helps a customer strive toward any goal should also benefit from these fresh start opportunities. Furthermore, any time a consumer can be said to want something, they may be said to have a goal. Presenting and describing products as means to some desired end is therefore a way of making almost anything appear at least somewhat goal-related. The specific goal, and the extent to which it can be made to feel relevant to a customer, depends on the specific product.
This approach has an additional benefit: people value a product more when they believe it can help them achieve a goal (this is summarized nicely in Markman & Brendl, 2000). Therefore, not only are people willing to view products as means to an end, but doing so will make them like the products more. In a classic example, people who are made to think about hunger are willing to pay more for their food.
This brings us back to why “treat yourself” may fall flat. The act of treating oneself, while arguably a goal, is too general and does not bring attention to the individual goals that products may help achieve. Rather than a generic call to action, more specific and goal-oriented appeals are likely to elicit more product interest and higher product valuations. Note how this Athleta ad places its apparel as helping achieve customers’ goals (“amaze the world” and/or “look amazing”) through promoting the means to those goals (e.g. “run” or “work it out”).
Again, the goal in question must be important to the customer, and will vary depending on product and person. Returning to the Piperlime versus Athleta example, consider that the goal for designer clothes could even be the same as the goal of athletic clothes: to look good. The most important thing is that a goal is made obvious so there exists an opportunity for customers to connect with it.
The lesson of the New Year’s Resolution tradition is that goals are important, and this is very true from a marketing standpoint. In 2014, why not resolve to think about your products as means to achieve goals, and be sure enjoy all of your fresh starts throughout the year!