Netflix released series 11 of The Great British Baking Show in September 2020. It popped up on my home screen, and I was excited to dive in. After a challenging, isolating six months, I was looking forward to a cheery escape into the cozy, familiar baking tent.
I sat down one evening, ready to devour two-thirds of the season in one go, only to find that they were releasing the new season one episode at a time. What was this, 1998?!
Like many other viewers, I have grown so accustomed to the Netflix binge over the past decade or so that I had frankly forgotten we used to live another way. And I found it so odd that Netflix, the disruptor in the television space that had turned us all onto the binge in the first place, was now taking us back to the pre-streaming stone ages with a weekly drip of episodes.
So it got me thinking, if Netflix is doing it, there has to be a solid business case for it. Is there something to be said for reintroducing anticipation back into our lives? And how can marketers use anticipation to strengthen a brand’s messaging?
The Psychology Behind Anticipation
In the lyrics to Perpetual Anticipation from A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim wrote:
Perpetual anticipation is good for the soul
But it's bad for the heart.
It's very good for practicing self-control,
It's very good for morals, but bad for morale.
Those who know the show are aware that the song is about romantic anticipation. But in today's world, haven't we all lusted after products like the latest model iPhone? The gulf between an Apple product page and a Tinder right-swipe might not be as wide as we think.
In the song's lyrics and structure (it's an off-kilter round), Sondheim, genius that he is, hits upon a real psychological principle inherent in anticipation. It has the power to be both tedious and anxiety-producing and thrilling and enticing.
It’s all about what you create anticipation over. Studies show that anticipation for experiences leads to excitement, whereas anticipation for a thing makes people feel impatient and irritated.
That’s why day-dreaming about our first post-COVID trip to Europe makes us feel giddy, but thinking about when we’ll be up to receive the COVID vaccine makes us jumpy.
That’s also why anticipation works in the realm of television. When left with a cliffhanger of an episode, we look forward to the experience of watching the next segment of the story unfold the following week.
Balancing the Pleasure and Pain of Anticipation
Understanding how to toe the line between excitement and annoyance is valuable for anyone aiming to hook and maintain an audience. Marketers: I’m looking at you.
The research above provides some necessary guardrails for how and where to create anticipation. For example, don’t focus on creating anticipation for a product. People will get annoyed. Instead, focus on building anticipation around an experience.
That's all well and good in a television series, but what if you’re creating content around a product launch? Unless you’re Beyoncé, you can’t just drop something without warning and expect it to take off. Instead of building anticipation around the buying process, which makes people antsy, build it around the experience they’ll have using the product.
Let’s return to those aforementioned iPhone launches. People camp out overnight in front of Apple stores to be one of the first to purchase the latest model. But it’s never about a desperate need for a new phone. Most of these people are tech-lovers who already have the immediate predecessor of the new release.
Apple is wise to this and doesn’t focus its marketing on the phone, but rather on the experiences you can have with it.
Remember the “shot on an iPhone” campaign? Apple encouraged iPhone users to send in incredible photos taken with their phones’ cameras. The pictures are stunning and often feature gorgeous, exotic locations.
The campaign was not really about the camera itself. Instead, the ads invited viewers to imagine themselves, new iPhone in hand, trekking up to a vista in the Alps or rising early to catch first light on the African savanna. Now that's something worth waiting for.
Using Storytelling to Build Anticipation
If we're going to focus on building anticipation around experiences rather than things, we're going to need some good storytelling techniques. This dive into the concept of anticipation all started with Netflix. And with good reason—television folks know the power of building anticipation into their stories. When it comes to maintaining excitement around messaging for your brand, what lessons can we learn from them?
Start with a drip, not a drop. Shows that get released all at once generate big buzz on Twitter for one glorious weekend, but the hype is gone as quickly as it started. Anyone else remember Tiger King? It was released less than a year ago, and it’s already a distant, albeit disturbing, memory. Shows that are released weekly keep the watercooler talk going for months.
When it comes to your branding, find ways to extend your message. You'll often see brands take this approach with Super Bowl ads. To get the most out of the spendy game day spot, they'll release a teaser in advance to get people talking ahead of the actual ad.
Next, create a cliffhanger. End each message on a high note with anticipation for what’s coming next. Did anyone else love the CW show Jane the Virgin? Taking a page out of the telenovela book, those writers knew how to leave audience members on the edge of their seats at the end of each episode.
Similarly, Doritos achieved a cliffhanger with its Flat Matthew Super Bowl ad teaser. There was tons of buzz prior to the game about who Flat Matthew would be (Matt Damon? Matthew Perry?). Turns out it was Matthew McConaughey.
And finally, make sure you have a good story to back it all up. Using tricks to create anticipation can only get you so far. But once your audience has realized you've inflated the hype, they'll feel cheated. Instead, create a rich story that has something in it that's really worth waiting for. Whether or not the Doritos team gave viewers the story they craved with Flat Matthew is up for debate.
Perpetual anticipation may be bad for morale, but anticipation with an end-date never killed anyone. In fact, if you know how to use it properly, anticipation can become a powerful tool in your marketing repository. Just remember to keep the focus squarely on experiences and storytelling, and you’ll create a hook your audience can’t resist.