Four Ways to Delight – Not Annoy – Visitors With the Element of Surprise

During its most recent keynote event, Apple announced that it had a surprise in store for their customers: every iTunes accountholder in 119 countries would receive a free copy of U2’s latest album “Songs of Innocence.” This giveaway translated into over half a billion albums given away, representing the largest release in history in a deal that is speculated to have cost Apple $100 million dollars. U2-AppleIt would be easy to assume that Apple’s customers would be thrilled by this generous gesture. While many certainly were, there was also a very vocal segment who were not so pleased to see this album suddenly appear in their music collection. Many of these naysayers took to social media to express their concerns, which were centered not as much on the album itself but rather on the way that its delivery had been handled. While Apple undoubtedly thought that they were providing a convenience by automatically pushing the album out to all iTunes accounts, in doing so, they took away the customer’s ability to choose whether or not they wanted to receive this gift. What was meant to be a nice surprise came across as an act of overstepping the bounds of privacy for some customers – definitely not what Apple was hoping for when they conceived this promotion. Employing the element of surprise in marketing and in web design is tricky business. When done right, it can delight your customers, but if handled incorrectly – as with the Apple giveaway – it has the potential to frustrate and alienate them instead. Let’s take a look at four ways to use the unexpected to make a favorable impression on your website visitors and leave them wanting more – and the pitfalls to avoid along the way.

Surprise! Here’s a free gift!

Freebies have long been a staple of marketing and promotion. From product sampling to contests to incentives for joining a mailing list or sharing contact information, they are an effective way to break the ice when building relationships with new customers. There’s nothing wrong with a good giveaway – as long as you obey the fundamental rule of trustcasting, recognizing that all promotional efforts must be founded first and foremost in building trust with your customers and website visitors. As we touched on above, the problem with Apple’s U2 album promotion had nothing to do with the giveaway itself but rather with its delivery. Permission is a key element of trust-based marketing, and Apple’s circumvention of the act of permission seeking was perceived as a violation of trust by some iTunes customers. A direct contrast to this is MailChimp’s free t-shirt promotion. When a new customer opens a paid account and sends their first email campaign, they receive a message of congratulations along with the offer of a free t-shirt. In order to receive the t-shirt, however, the customer must select the size they would like, thereby accepting the offer; the shirt doesn’t simply turn up unexpectedly in their mailbox. Mailchimp Of course, we have no way of knowing how many people actually decline this free gift, but regardless of whether it’s zero percent or fifty, the most important aspect is the respect for the customer demonstrated by the act of seeking permission. MailChimp allows the customer to maintain a sense of control over the transaction rather than removing that control the way that Apple did. As this comparison shows, permission is a make-or-break element between a surprise that delights and one that compromises trust and goodwill.

Surprise! You’ve got mail!

Email is definitely an area of online marketing that’s fraught with pitfalls. You can be a welcome presence in your customers’ inboxes, or you can be a nuisance that’s banished to the junk mail heap. One way to practically guarantee that you’ll end up in the latter category is by “surprising” your customers with a flood of emails that they did not expect to receive. Undoubtedly, you’ve experienced this scenario at some point: you make a purchase from a website or register for an account, and all of a sudden your inbox is overrun with promotional emails from that company trying to get you to come back to their site and buy, buy, buy. Make no mistake: the simple act of placing an order is not an invitation to unleash a deluge of spammy messages. Again, returning to the theme of permission, the first step to ensuring that your emails are welcome is by allowing your customers to explicitly request to receive them. A common way to accomplish this is by including a mailing list opt-in on your site’s checkout form accompanied by a message affirming that the customer wishes to receive updates with special offers and future promotions. In and of itself, this is a fine practice. If someone wants this information, allow them to receive it! The problem is that many companies have this option selected by default, and as a result, in their rush to complete their transaction, many customers will overlook this feature entirely and will unwittingly opt in to the series of emails that will follow. Again, this is an unpleasant surprise that does not contribute to improving the customer’s perception of your brand. If you are going to employ a mailing list opt-in checkbox anywhere on your site, make sure that it’s unchecked by default and that customers must actually see, read and make a conscious effort to elect to receive ongoing communication from you. Your mailing list won’t grow as quickly this way, but you will avoid surprising unwitting subscribers with emails that they did not expect or want. But obtaining permission to send these emails is only half the story. You also need to make sure that the content of your messages is designed to delight. Anything that is purely self-promotional in nature will be regarded as nothing more than an annoyance. You must use your carefully garnered inbox privileges to provide value to your customers – whether that comes in the form of special offers, fun promotions, reminders about upcoming events or just plain useful information. Your focus should be on crafting email campaigns that leave your customers looking forward to seeing what you’ll send next – not hitting the “spam” button as soon as it lands.

Surprise! Let’s watch a video!

Video content is a great way to engage with visitors to your website. As much as we writer types are loathe to admit it, people don’t like to read. They like to look at pretty pictures, and even more, they like to be entertained by videos. If you can create compelling videos – whether they demonstrate your products, offer helpful tips or are just flat-out amusing – your visitors will be delighted that you’ve gone the extra mile to give them the kind of content that they prefer rather than forcing them to wade through page after page of written text, and you’ll be head and shoulders above your competition. But there’s one important caveat to video content: never, ever, ever set your videos to auto-play on your site. Uncued audio, video, animations and pop-ups are completely taboo in modern website design, and if you use them, you’ll provide an unpleasant surprise that sends visitors scrambling for the back button to get away from this sensory onslaught. Don’t insult the intelligence of your visitors by forcing content upon them. It’s the online equivalent of having a pushy salesman pounce on them the minute they walk in the door and hound them into looking at products or services that may not be relevant to their interests at all. Instead, provide contextual clues on the page that indicate what your video is about, and allow your visitors to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to view it. This removes the element of unwelcome surprise without eliminating the value of the video content itself.

Surprise! We’ve made changes to our website!

Inevitably, there will come a time when it’s necessary to make changes to your website. These changes could be as minor as adding new types of products or services or as significant as a complete redesign. The problem comes when regular visitors return to your site expecting one thing (the site that they have become familiar and comfortable with) but receive something else instead (the new site). Of course, it goes without saying that any changes you make to your site should be driven by the objective of creating a better experience for your users. Make sure you carry this objective through to the launch of your new site or its new features by smoothing the transition for your regular visitors. After all, every website comes with an inherent learning curve. If you’ve done your job right, that learning curve should not be very steep; yet, it will still exist as visitors determine where they need to go and what they need to do to accomplish their goals. Therefore, when you make a change, you can ensure that it’s well received by visitors simply by alerting them to these changes and guiding them through the process of navigating them. One example of how to execute a re-launch right is Citizens Bank. Weeks before the release of their new site, they posted a message on their existing home page announcing that changes were ahead and signaling the date when the newly overhauled site would launch. They also offered a preview of the new site complete with an overview of new features and instructions for where to find commonly used tools. Did every customer see this message and take the tour? Of course not, but many did, and as a result, they were not taken aback by a jarring surprise on the day of the new site’s launch. Instead, they were already acclimated to the new features and functions, thereby maintaining a sense of certainty and control throughout the transition process. By demonstrating to their customers that their needs and desires were an important consideration in the bank’s plans for their new site, Citizens Bank was able to create a positive experience out of their redesign and avoid the potentially hazardous pitfall of forcing their customers to stumble unassisted through the process of re-learning how to use their site.

In summary

Going above and beyond to provide customers with unexpected value can be a powerful way to separate yourself from the competition, but if done incorrectly, it can also backfire in a big way. In the case of Apple, the company had to release a tool to allow customers to remove the free U2 album that they had been gifted – something they clearly did not foresee as necessary when they conceived the promotion. When you are considering how to implement the element of surprise in your marketing and website design plans, remember never to lose sight of your customers and their needs. Always ask their permission, keep the power in their hands and allow them to remain in control of the process as much as possible so that your surprise will be welcomed with delight and satisfaction.