The Unfinished Business: How Brands Harness the Zeigarnik Effect to Keep You Coming Back
Picture this: It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon, and you’re leisurely scrolling through your favourite streaming platform, engrossed in a gripping TV series. The tension is building, and you’re on the edge of your seat, eagerly anticipating the resolution of a cliffhanger. Suddenly, the episode ends, leaving you hanging, and the credits roll. What do you do next? Chances are, you’re already reaching for the remote to start the next episode.
This irresistible urge to continue watching, to find out what happens next, is a prime example of the Zeigarnik Effect in action. It’s that nagging feeling that keeps us coming back for more, even when we have other tasks to complete or responsibilities to attend to.
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Understanding Zeigarnik Effect
The Zeigarnik Effect is a psychological phenomenon that explains our tendency to remember and remain mentally preoccupied with uncompleted or interrupted tasks or activities more than those we have successfully finished.
Soviet-Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik first observed this in 1927 when she noticed that waiters in a restaurant had better recall of unfinished orders than completed ones.
The Psychology Basis: The Zeigarnik Effect is rooted in our brain’s natural inclination to seek closure and reduce cognitive dissonance. When we start a task, our brain creates a mental “open loop” to remind us that the task is incomplete. This serves as a memory aid, ensuring that we don’t forget to finish what we’ve started.
As a result, we experience a sense of mental tension or discomfort when tasks remain unfinished. Our brains prioritize these incomplete tasks, making them readily accessible in our thoughts. This heightened accessibility keeps us focused on those tasks until they are completed, helping us achieve a state of closure and relief.
In essence, the Zeigarnik Effect is a testament to the brain’s efficiency in managing tasks and maintaining our attention until they are resolved. Brands and marketers have seized upon this psychological principle to engage and captivate consumers effectively.
Examples from Everyday Life
Here are a few examples of how the Zeigarnik effect can manifest in everyday life:
The Zeigarnik Effect, the tendency to remember and revisit uncompleted or interrupted tasks, is a pervasive phenomenon in everyday life. Here are some common examples of how individuals experience this effect:
- Work Tasks: Imagine you’re working on a complex report at the office. As the workday ends, you’re unable to finish it. You may find yourself mentally going over the unfinished sections of the report even after you’ve left the office, and you might continue to think about it during your commute or at home until you can return to complete it.
- Household Chores: If you start cleaning your house but don’t complete all the tasks, such as folding the laundry or washing the dishes, you may feel compelled to go back and finish these chores, even if it’s not the most convenient time.
- To-Do Lists: When you create a to-do list for the day and don’t cross off all the items by evening, those unfinished tasks tend to occupy your thoughts until you can check them off the list.
- Conversations: If you have a conversation with someone and it’s interrupted before you can finish your point or respond to a question, you’re likely to continue thinking about what you wanted to say or your response until you can resume the conversation.
- TV Shows and Movies: Cliffhangers in TV shows and movies are designed to exploit the Zeigarnik Effect. When a show ends with unresolved plotlines or a thrilling cliffhanger, viewers are more likely to eagerly anticipate the next episode or sequel to find out what happens next.
- Video Games: Many video games use the Zeigarnik Effect to keep players engaged. Quests or challenges left unfinished encourage players to return to the game and complete them.
- Online Shopping Carts: E-commerce websites often employ this effect by encouraging users to save items in their shopping carts. People may leave items there intending to buy later, and the sense of unfinished business can prompt them to return to complete the purchase.
- Reading: A person starts reading a book but doesn’t finish it. They may find that they can remember more details about the story and characters than if they had finished reading the book.
- Puzzle: A person begins a puzzle but doesn’t complete it. They may find that they can remember where certain pieces belong, even if they haven’t worked on the puzzle in a while.
- Binge Reading/Watching: When reading a book, the author may use a chapter ending to create an unfinished task, making it more likely for the reader to continue reading the next chapter. When watching a movie or TV show, the cliffhanger ending can create an unfinished task, making it more likely for the viewer to watch the next episode or season.
- News Articles: If you start reading an intriguing news article but don’t finish it, you may be more likely to revisit the website to complete your reading, especially if the article left you with unanswered questions.
- Social Media Scrolling: Scrolling through a social media feed can be addictive due in part to the Zeigarnik Effect. Unfinished posts or comments can linger in your thoughts, prompting you to check back for updates or responses.
- Hobbies and Projects: Individuals who engage in hobbies like crafting, painting, or woodworking may start a project but leave it unfinished. The Zeigarnik Effect can push them to return to their hobby and complete what they started.
In marketing and advertising, understanding the Zeigarnik Effect allows brands to create content and experiences that leave consumers with a sense of incompleteness, encouraging them to revisit, engage further, or make a purchase to achieve closure. This effect is particularly powerful in driving consumer engagement and conversion.
“Thanks to the Zeigarnik effect, you’ll never forget that you still have to do your laundry, pay your bills, and call your mother back. But don’t worry; you’ll probably forget all about that vacation you took last summer.”
How do Brands Leverage the Zeigarnik Effect?
Brands have recognized the power of the Zeigarnik Effect and have devised various strategies and tactics to harness it effectively. Here’s how they use this psychological principle to keep consumers engaged and encourage action:
- Email Marketing Campaigns: Many brands send email newsletters or marketing messages that tease or partially reveal content. By piquing the recipient’s interest and leaving them with a sense of curiosity or incompleteness, brands increase the likelihood of recipients opening the emails and taking action, such as clicking through to a website or making a purchase.
- Limited-Time Offers: Brands often use time-limited promotions or sales to create a sense of urgency. Consumers who browse products but don’t immediately make a purchase may feel compelled to return and complete their purchase before the offer expires.
- Abandoned Shopping Cart Emails: E-commerce websites frequently send reminder emails to users who add items to their online shopping carts but don’t complete the purchase. These emails remind users of their unfinished transaction, leveraging the Zeigarnik Effect to encourage them to return and finalize the purchase.
- Interactive Content: Brands create interactive content such as quizzes, polls, and surveys that engage users partially and then encourage them to complete the activity. Users often want to see the results or find out how they scored, driving them to stay engaged with the brand.
- Storytelling and Content Marketing: Content marketing often involves storytelling that leaves audiences with unresolved questions or cliffhangers. This storytelling strategy encourages readers or viewers to explore further content or engage with the brand on social media to find answers or conclusions.
- Serial Content: Brands that produce serialized content, such as web series, podcasts, or booklets, keep audiences coming back for more. Each episode or installment concludes with a sense of incompleteness, enticing consumers to return for the next part.
- Live Events and Webinars: Brands host live events and webinars with the promise of valuable insights, discussions, or entertainment. These events often end with unanswered questions or a call to action for attendees to learn more, sign up for a course, or explore related products or services.
- Customer Feedback and Reviews: Brands encourage customers to leave feedback or reviews. When customers start writing a review but don’t finish, brands may send reminders or follow-up messages, capitalizing on the Zeigarnik Effect to prompt them to complete the review.
- In-App or In-Game Progress: Mobile apps and video games often employ the Zeigarnik Effect by leaving users with incomplete achievements, levels, or tasks. This encourages users to return and engage further with the app or game to reach a sense of completion.
- Content Teasers: Brands use teaser campaigns in advertisements or on social media. These teasers provide a glimpse of a product, service, or upcoming event but withhold crucial information or details. This motivates consumers to click through or seek more information to satisfy their curiosity.
- Rewards and Loyalty Programs: Brands offer rewards or loyalty programs where customers earn points or benefits for engaging with the brand repeatedly. The prospect of accumulating rewards fosters a sense of incompleteness until customers reach specific milestones.
- User-Generated Content Contests: Brands run contests that encourage users to create content, such as photos, videos, or stories. Participants may feel a sense of incompleteness until they submit their entries, and this encourages user engagement and content creation.
By employing these strategies and tactics, brands leverage the Zeigarnik Effect to maintain consumer interest, encourage repeat engagement, and ultimately drive actions such as purchases, sign-ups, and participation in marketing campaigns.
A Few Examples
IKEA’s Online Planner
IKEA’s online planner effectively uses the Zeigarnik Effect to engage customers and keep them coming back to the website. Here’s how IKEA achieves this:
- Incomplete Room Designs: When customers use IKEA’s online room planner to design their spaces, they often create incomplete room layouts. They select some furniture items and begin arranging them but may not finish the entire room in one session. This leaves customers with a sense of an unfinished task, triggering the Zeigarnik Effect.
- Saved Designs: IKEA allows users to save their room designs, even if they haven’t completed them. This feature is crucial in leveraging the Zeigarnik Effect. When users save an incomplete design, they are essentially signaling their intention to return and finish what they started. This creates a mental commitment to the task.
- Recommendations and Shopping Lists: IKEA’s planner often suggests complementary furniture items or accessories based on the user’s design choices. These suggestions may remain unexplored if the user exits the planner prematurely. To see these recommendations and create shopping lists, users need to return to their saved designs.
- Email Reminders: IKEA sends email reminders to users who have saved incomplete room designs. These reminders serve as triggers, reminding users of their unfinished tasks and encouraging them to revisit the planner for closure. The emails often include incentives like discounts or exclusive offers to further motivate return visits.
- Integration with Online Store: IKEA’s online room planner is seamlessly integrated with its online store. This means that when users are ready to complete their room designs, they can easily add the selected furniture and products to their cart for purchase. This integration makes it convenient for customers to seek closure on their interior projects.
- Sense of Accomplishment: When users return to the planner and complete their room designs, they experience a sense of accomplishment and closure. They have transformed their ideas into concrete plans, making them more likely to consider purchasing the products they’ve chosen.
By employing these strategies, IKEA taps into the Zeigarnik Effect, compelling customers to return to the online planner, finalize their room designs, and ultimately make purchases from the IKEA store. This approach not only enhances user engagement but also drives conversions and sales.
“The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” and its Expansion Packs
“The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” is an open-world role-playing game known for its vast and immersive game world. After players complete the main storyline, they often have many side quests, unexplored locations, and unfinished narratives left in the game. These unfinished elements create a sense of curiosity and a desire for closure among players, triggering the Zeigarnik Effect.
To address this, the game’s developer, Bethesda Game Studios, released several expansion packs, also known as downloadable content (DLC). These expansion packs introduced new storylines, characters, locations, and challenges, effectively providing closure to some of the unfinished aspects of the game. Here’s how they leveraged the Zeigarnik Effect:
- Unfinished Quests: Players often have multiple unfinished quests in their journal. These quests remain open-ended, with unresolved objectives or mysteries. Expansion packs like “Dawnguard” and “Dragonborn” introduced new questlines that not only added hours of gameplay but also provided resolutions to some of these lingering questions.
- Unexplored Areas: Skyrim’s vast world is filled with hidden caves, ruins, and dungeons. Many players may not have fully explored these areas during the main game. Expansion packs introduced new regions to the game world, encouraging players to return and explore these uncharted territories for a sense of completion.
- Character Storylines: In Skyrim, players encounter various non-playable characters (NPCs) with intriguing backstories. Some of these characters’ stories may remain incomplete in the base game. Expansion packs often brought back familiar characters with new developments in their narratives, providing closure to their stories.
- New Abilities and Challenges: Expansion packs typically introduced new abilities, weapons, and challenges. Players returning to the game to experience these additions would often find themselves revisiting and completing previously unfinished content along the way.
- Achievements and Trophies: Many players are completionists who aim to earn all in-game achievements or trophies. Expansion packs often added new achievements, motivating players to return to the game to achieve 100% completion.
In this way, “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” expansion packs strategically leveraged the Zeigarnik Effect by offering players closure on unfinished in-game experiences. Gamers were enticed to purchase and engage with the expansions to complete quests, explore new areas, and wrap up character storylines, ultimately enhancing the overall gaming experience. This approach not only retained player engagement but also generated additional revenue for the game’s developer.
Netflix is a master at leveraging the Zeigarnik Effect, primarily through its user interface and content delivery strategies. Here are some key areas where Netflix applies this psychological principle:
- Continue Watching: One of the most prominent ways Netflix uses the Zeigarnik Effect is through the “Continue Watching” row on its homepage. When users start watching a TV show or movie but don’t finish it, these titles are displayed prominently on the homepage. This serves as a visual reminder of unfinished content, encouraging users to click and resume where they left off.
- Episodic Content: Many Netflix series are designed with compelling cliffhangers at the end of each episode. This leaves viewers with a sense of curiosity and a desire for closure, prompting them to watch the next episode immediately. Netflix’s autoplay feature ensures that the next episode begins shortly after the previous one ends, making it easy for viewers to continue watching.
- My List: Netflix allows users to add titles to their “My List” for future viewing. When users scroll through content and see a movie or series they’re interested in but don’t have time to watch at that moment, they can add it to their list. This creates a sense of unfinished business, motivating users to return to their list and complete the viewing experience.
- Personalized Recommendations: Netflix’s recommendation algorithm keeps track of what users have watched and makes personalized suggestions based on their viewing history. By recommending content that aligns with users’ previous interests, Netflix taps into the Zeigarnik Effect by presenting them with shows and movies they’re likely to want to finish.
- Email Notifications: Netflix sends email notifications to users when new seasons of a series they’ve watched are released. This serves as a reminder and encourages users to return to the platform to catch up on the latest episodes. These notifications often contain phrases like “Don’t miss out” or “Continue the story,” emphasizing the need for closure.
- Limited Time Availability: Netflix sometimes labels content as “Expiring Soon.” When users see this label on a show or movie they started but didn’t finish, it creates a sense of urgency. They feel compelled to complete the content before it disappears from the platform, reinforcing the Zeigarnik Effect.
- Trailers and Teasers: Netflix provides trailers and teasers for its content. These previews offer a glimpse into the plot and leave viewers with unanswered questions. By piquing users’ interest and leaving them curious about what happens next, Netflix entices them to start watching the full content.
- Search and Browsing: Netflix’s user interface is designed to make it easy for users to discover content. The more time users spend browsing, the more likely they are to start something new. This aligns with the Zeigarnik Effect, as users may come across content they want to explore further.
In essence, Netflix’s user experience is crafted to keep viewers engaged by leveraging the Zeigarnik Effect. The platform ensures that users are continually reminded of unfinished content, offers personalized recommendations to match their interests, and strategically uses elements like cliffhangers and trailers to maintain curiosity and drive them to complete their viewing experiences.
In conclusion, in the world of marketing and consumer behaviour, understanding and harnessing the Zeigarnik Effect is akin to unlocking a powerful psychological tool. As we’ve explored throughout this blog, this cognitive phenomenon, rooted in our natural tendency to seek closure on unfinished tasks, plays a significant role in influencing our choices and behaviours.
Brands and businesses across industries have recognized the potency of the Zeigarnik Effect and cleverly integrated it into their marketing strategies. Whether it’s through loyalty programs that encourage us to reach the next level, incomplete narratives that pique our curiosity, or the clever use of visual progress tracking, brands have found innovative ways to keep us engaged and motivated.
The Zeigarnik Effect is a reminder that the human mind is wired to seek resolution, and brands that understand and leverage this innate drive can forge deeper connections with consumers, inspire brand loyalty, and drive business success.
So, the next time you find yourself enticed by an unfinished story, striving to reach the next tier in a loyalty program, or revisiting a website to complete a task, remember that the Zeigarnik Effect is at play, shaping your decisions and keeping you engaged. It’s a testament to the fascinating interplay between psychology and marketing, one that continues to evolve as brands tap into the unfinished business of our minds.