Imagine one day that you and a friend meet for coffee. After ordering and paying for your drinks the barista hands you a loyalty card and explains that each time you buy a cup of coffee, they will stamp your card. The Barista further explains that once you have collected ten stamps, you can claim a free cup of coffee. You take the card noticing that they have already stamped your card twice indicating the progress you have made towards gaining that free cup of coffee. That progress could be framed in two ways. You are 20% of the way towards achieving that free cup of coffee. Or it could mean that you have 80% left to go.
But which is more likely to motivate you to complete the task? It turns out the answer could provide valuable insights, not just in making coffee shop loyalty programs more successful, but for anyone looking to influence either themselves, or others, to complete a task.
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In a paper recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research Professor Ayelet Fishbach from the Booth School of Business in Chicago and Minjung Koo from Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea proposed that an individual’s motivation to complete a task could be enhanced if their attention was focused on the smaller amount of progress they had made rather than the larger amount of effort that remained.
One potential reason why directing attention to a small area of progress might increase motivation is because the marginal impact of each action can appear larger. For example, an action that takes someone from 20% completion of a task to 40% is a doubling of progress. In contrast, moving from 60% completion to 80% represents just 33% progress.
To test these ideas a series of studies were conducted including one in a popular sushi restaurant.
Over a period of four months over 900 customers were enrolled in a loyalty programme where they would receive a free meal after purchasing ten lunches. Half of those enrolled were given a card and received a sushi-shaped stamp on it each time they purchased a lunch. As a result their attention was directed towards the progress they were making towards the free lunch. Let’s call those the ‘progress accumulated’ group.
The other half of the sushi eaters were given a card already printed with 10 sushi-shaped stamps. Each time these folks bought a lunch one of the stamps would be removed (with a paper punch). As a result their attention was focused on how much progress remained before they got the free lunch. We’ll call them the ‘progress remaining’ group.
The results indicated that those in the ‘progress accumulating’ group were almost twice as likely to return to the restaurant to collect subsequent stamps compared to those in the progress remaining group. Not only were they significantly more likely to return, they did so in a faster time too, typically returning four days quicker.
So whether your goal is to increase the success of a customer loyalty program or to encourage others (or even yourself) to complete a task this set of studies is telling us that at the beginning of a task we can increase the chances of success by focusing on the smaller amount of progress made so far rather than the larger amount that remains. A phenomenon the study authors refer to as the Small-Area Hypothesis.
But what about when the progress remaining on a given task is actually smaller than the progress made to date? For example if someone has already achieved 80% of a task would they be more motivated to complete if their attention was focused on the larger amount of progress they had already made or would it be more effective to focus their attention on the smaller 20% that remains?
Well it turns out that the researchers considered these questions in their studies too and found that their Small-Area Hypothesis held true. Put another way, at the beginning of a task people were more motivated to continue working towards that task when their attention was focused on the smaller number progress made so far, “You are already 20% of the way towards your goal” compared to “You have 80% of the way to go.” But when progress passed the half-way mark people were more motivated to complete the task when their focus shifted from the now larger progress they had made to the smaller progress that remained, “You have 20% left to achieve your goal” compared to “You are 80% of the way to achieving your goal”.
So when seeking to persuade people to keep committed and consistent with a task or goal that they are working towards it appears that the science is telling us that we can increase our effectiveness by focusing their attention on the ‘small area’ whether that represents progress already made or progress that is remaining.
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So what are the practical implications for you? Well any business that has a customer reward program will likely also have a feedback mechanism built in so that customers know how much progress they are making towards that free flight, extra hotel night or, in the case of coffee houses, their next free double chocolate mocha! This Small-Area Hypothesis suggests that regardless of where a particular customer is on that reward journey, focusing on the small area will help frame subsequent actions as being more impactful in achieving that goal, potentially leading to more participation, adoption of new products, and increased spending over time.
Managers too might find focusing on the small area a useful way to keep staff motivated towards reaching sales and performance targets. In the early stages, providing feedback along the lines of “one week in and you have already achieved 15% of your quarterly target” and as target attainment gets closer “only 10% of your target to go now”.
And when it comes to motivating ourselves, recording the small area as evidence of our progress towards a symbolic and specific goal should also prove useful. For example, a personal weight-loss or fitness program should be recording progress by emphasizing whichever is smaller: the weight we have already lost or how much we still need to lose to reach our desired goal.
Koo, M. and Fishbach, A. (2012) “The Small-Area Hypothesis: Effects of Progress Monitoring on Goal Adherence." Journal of Consumer Research. Vol.39, No.3, pp. 493-509.
Which areas of your business do you think would benefit most by applying the insights from the small area hypothesis study?
What other approaches have you employed that have proven to be effective levers for persuading others to complete a task or achieve a goal?