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Want your customers to come back? Try using uncertainty.

(Stmool / Depositphotos.com)

(Stmool / Depositphotos.com)

Returning customers are usually better for your business than customers who come only once. So how can you get them to come back?

You can try to make a game out of it. A new study from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and published in the Journal of Consumer Research find that uncertainty about incentives can motivate repeat behaviors.

Professor Christopher Hsee and Luxi Shen’s study, “The Fun and Function of Uncertainty: Uncertain Incentives Reinforce Repetition Decisions” finds that people repeat a task more for an uncertain incentive than for a known one, even when the uncertain incentive is financially worse.

In one of the four experiments in the study, running club members were told they could earn points (exchangeable for a gift card or cash) for completing laps on an outdoor track. Half of the members were assigned to a group that received five points per lap. The other half would randomly receive three or five points after each lap.

Members who didn’t know which reward they would get finished more laps around the trap than those who knew they would get five points, the researchers found.

Consumers can get a psychological boost working with uncertain incentives, because of the satisfaction of resolving the uncertainty to learn what the reward actually is.

Hsee said some businesses keep rewards mysterious to give customers the fun of discovering the rewards. “The uncertainty keeps the customers coming back,” he said. WeChat Pay users sometimes get bonuses of uncertain size when making payments. Meal kit services sometimes send subscribers surprise groceries. Other businesses also make the entire product a surprise.

But, don’t add uncertainly in a haphazard way, the authors suggest: uncertainty only works as a strategy if the uncertainty is resolved immediately, and only after someone has engaged in repetitions.



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