Surprise Is One Of The Most Powerful Small Business Marketing Tools Ross Kimbarovsky | June 18th, 2013


It has always been difficult to stand-out in a crowded market. When the products you sell are also available from thousands of other vendors at the same or lower prices, how do you differentiate your business and convince customers to buy from you?

Smart companies surprise their customers when customers least expect surprises. When you deliver what people expect, but add a surprise, you can create something unusual. People love surprises.

People remember unusual. People talk about unusual. And most importantly, being unique sets you apart from your competitors.

Why should you consider adding surprise as a marketing tool in your business?

Surprise can create delight and great word-of-mouth

Zappos (one of the most popular online stores for shoes) tells customers to expect an order within 4-5 business days. However, Zappos often surprises customers by shipping items to be delivered the next day. Zappos doesn’t charge extra for this service and doesn’t tell customers in advance that it will upgrade their shipping. But customers are delighted when they get their shoes the day after they placed their order. Customers not only talk about their delight on social networks, but also love the experience so much that when they next purchase shoes, they will again buy from Zappos.

Surprise can be small and inexpensive

You don’t need to spend a lot of money or time to create an elaborate surprise for your customers. It’s enough to use your imagination to design a creative and unique surprise. In fact, customers are often surprised by some of the smallest things that you do better or different from others. As reported in Neurosciencemarketing:

What does it take to make you happy? Not much. A classic study by psychologist Norbert Schwarz found that ten cents would do the trick. He and his cohorts repeatedly placed a dime near a copy machine where they knew it would be found. When the subjects who found the dime were surveyed shortly after their discovery, their overall satisfaction with life was substantially higher than other subjects who did not find a coin.

You have a similar opportunity to create a positive emotion and associate that emotion with your brand.

For example, when a buyer posts a project on crowdSPRING, I email them, thanking them for their business. The email also offers a few tips on how they can get the most out of their project. The email is automated, but I include my email address and direct phone number.

Most customers are surprised to hear from a founder, and even more surprised when the founder encourages them to send an email or pick-up the phone and talk to the founder directly. Some customers respond with a thank-you note or a question. Others call. An email from a founder is a small way that crowdSPRING personalizes our conversations with customers, and we’ve been thrilled with the many conversations the email has facilitated.

Surprise is more effective than other forms of retention-based marketing

Surprise is a more effective marketing tool than nearly all forms of retention-based marketing. In a 2001 paper assessing  customer satisfaction studies, Adam Lindgreen, as assistant professor of Marketing at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, and  Joëlle Vanhamme, an assistant professor of consumer behavior and marketing communication at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, argued that such most retention-based tactics often don’t work as intended. On the other hand, Lindgreen and Vanhamme found that customer satisfaction was higher when customers were surprised, and the more surprised customers were, the more satisfied they were with the product or service. Lindgreen and Vanhamme conclude:

Companies need to invest time in understanding their customers and in creating surprising aspects in – or around – the product/service delivered. But it does not need to be huge and expensive in order to be surprising. Adopting a ‘surprise’ strategy thus requires a careful analysis of the costs and benefits (e.g., in terms of increased sales, increased profit margin through customer retention, and reduced advertising costs) of such a strategy. It should also be kept in mind that the same ‘trick’ will not surprise forever because the schema a consumer holds is likely to be updated. However, little variation can keep the suspense (Pine and Gilmore 1999) and continue to surprise.

A few words of caution

Surprise marketing can backfire. Lindgreen and Vanhamme found this could happen when “the illustrations and/or descriptions [of the benefits] lead customers to build a schema divergent from reality”, such as when a “valuable free gift” turns out to be a fifty cent item. A different problem can develop when the surprise works too well: customers come to expect the surprise every time. For example, customers might come to expect free overnight shipping every time when a company surprises them with overnight shipping for their first few orders.

What creative surprises have you seen from companies? Do you agree that small surprises can have big results?

image: wtiphotos

From many minds, the perfect design. Post your project today and let the crowd wow you!

  • RaminAssemi

    I agree. I once stayed at a resort on a tropical island with my wife, and we went on a daytrip. The tour guide mentioned a nice homemade coconut ice that we passed along the way. When we went there, they had no ice cream (sold out). And what happened the next day? The owner of the resort brought us that ice cream after dinner, for free. That surprise cost them 3 minutes and $2, but I’ve since referred thousands of dollars worth of biz to that resort (of course, they did a lot of other things right too, but I always tell that anecdote).

  • Lavish

    Yes! Hospitality industry can benefit the most out of this!
    These surprises do work, don’t they?

  • Beres Post


  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    Wonderful story, Ramin. Thanks for sharing.

  • Harry

    Ross – Excellent point. Under promise and over deliver is what you need to delight your customers and keep them coming back. Zappos is a great example of how to do it. I put Amazon in the same league. No wonder they bought Zappos few years ago.

  • Brandon Batie

    Great article, I’m surprised not too see mobile apps as a marketing tool. You can add great features like ‘surprising’ you customers with a coupon for free or discounted products!


  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    Brandon – I’m not convinced that people today are surprised when they receive a coupon or a discount (on a future purchase). There are so many deals – that has become the rule, rather than the exception. But perhaps a location based offer next time you’re near your favorite restaurant might be a nice way to surprise a customer.

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    Harry – in what ways do you find Amazon surprises customers?

  • Brandon Batie

    Ross, Yes, I should have made that more clear, the coupon or discount is a feature of the mobile app. A popular one is after ‘checking in’ at certain location to get free stuff. Many small businesses I have encountered don’t realize the potential of the mobile app as a marketing tool, and I’m not just saying this because its my business.

  • Harry

    Their delivery time. They almost always deliver the order before the promised time.

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