“Come up with something they can’t get enough of.” Apart from the dangling preposition, it’s a golden rule of marketing, and one that’s as relevant in today’s digital age as it’s ever been. It boils down to designing an addictive product, service or experience that is, in effect, addictive. That sounds simple if you say it fast enough, but doing so successfully involves taking a journey deep into the human psyche.

What motivates us?

Let’s start at the beginning and look at the drivers that motivate us to do the things we do, whether it’s to get out of bed in the morning or to pull out our credit card while we are on an ecommerce site. A couple of generations ago, behaviorists like Robert Hull, Abraham Maslow or even Sigmund Freud said that first and foremost we were motivated by basic physiological needs to eat, drink, reproduce and so on. The drive reduction theory states that most of the things we do, from buying a sports car to studying for an exam to getting into a fight with someone on a Saturday night, can be distilled down to meeting one or more of those basic needs.

Tap into those primary needs, said the marketers of the day, and you’ll get the world dancing to your tune. Think of the rat in the maze, where it does a better job of finding the exit when there’s a food reward waiting. It’s tempting from a poetic perspective to think we are all rats in mazes. But it’s not quite how we work. Harry Harlow’s well-documented studies on rhesus monkeys led to the concept of intrinsic motivation becoming an accepted phenomenon. It is exemplified by George Mallory’s famous reason for wanting to climb Mount Everest, but can equally explain why we log on to Netflix to watch another season of Narcos, or we sit late into the night playing a specific game online.

None of these activities have what you might call utilitarian value. They don’t get us food, and apart from the fact that Mallory was probably quite a hit with the ladies, they are unlikely to help us reproduce any more successfully. We give these activities their own intrinsic value, and we need to follow these experiences regardless of whether our more basic needs are being met. In other words, we might be cold and hungry on the bleachers, but we still want to watch a sports game to its conclusion before we get something to eat.

Providing what people seek

Humans, and indeed other animals, as Mallory demonstrated, seek out novel experiences, and companies make billion-dollar businesses by catering to that desire. We see examples that range from game developers to tourism agencies to book publishers. Sometimes, the mere fact that these novel experiences are there is enough. How many people spend hours browsing new lines of clothes on eCommerce stores, or movies on Netflix? The act of reviewing options, assessing their value, perhaps debating them with others, can be as rewarding as actually wearing the shirt or watching the movie.

Social reinforcement

That last aspect can be especially powerful, especially in this age of the “like” and the “retweet.” It’s not a new phenomenon, we’ve always sought out validation and approval, but it has been brought into sharp focus in the social media age.

It’s interesting to note that platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide more ways to express approbation than disapproval. In other words, the platforms are naturally biased to ensure your posts and your opinions or recommendations receive more reward than censure, ensuring that you are encouraged to share more, post more, engage more.

Randomness and the thrill of the unknown

So providing a source of novelty and backing it up with approval for reinforcement are important steps for marketers. But to really make something addictive, it needs some additional spice, which is the thrill of the unknown. Look at it this way, would you have still stood there cold and wet to see the sports game through to the bitter end if you knew with certainty that your team was going to win? Would people still enjoy fishing if the fish just grabbed the line as soon as they cast off?

We know the answer to those questions is no. It’s a concept called randomness in reinforcement and it is a major part of the reason casinos are so popular and potentially addictive. It’s telling to see how we are more likely to repeat behavior in case of randomness to reinforcement; just take a look at the example of randomness in slots as one of the top casino games. They are built on the concept of randomness, and players chase the big rewards, the value of which is only amplified by those spins that result in nothing.

It’s why high volatility slot games, where you might play 20 spins and get nothing back, but then get a reasonable win, are more addictive than low volatility ones that pay out small rewards more regularly.

Providing purpose

We are not, then, rats in cages, but we are all only a few decades removed from those children we once were who were as interested in playing with the box and the wrapping at Christmas as we were in the toy that was inside. When we explore, we find purpose, often in the act of exploring, and not just in what we ultimately discover.

It applies to browsing in shops, to playing casino games and to climbing mountains. Tap into those intrinsic needs, and marketers can deliver an addictive product to which customers will return time and again.

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