a woman with a surprised face looking at her laptop
The element of surprise creates a memorable experience. But sometimes that experience can be bad or downright ugly PHOTO: Shutterstock

The best mystery novels rely on surprise plot twists to keep the reader hooked through the end of the story. Some of our favorite movies use misdirection and surprise endings to entertain.

Creative ads and campaigns that include an element of the unexpected are often the ones that grab the most attention.

So surprise is always good, right?

Well, while surprise can be highly effective for engaging audiences, attempts to surprise can also go bad, sometimes turning downright ugly.

Here are some things to keep in mind as we incorporate surprise elements into marketing initiatives.

Surprise Creates a Memorable Story

Everyone loves a good story. And what could be better than a good story with a surprise twist?

Think of all the great movies that depend on surprising the audience: "The Sixth Sense," "Shutter Island," "The Others," "The Usual Suspects" and the all-time classic, "Psycho." The themes are similar: invariably, the good guy or the heroine are not who we think they are after all — like Leonardo DiCaprio in "Shutter Island" or Nicole Kidman in "The Others."

The surprise tactics work in these movies because the audience is invested in the story. The surprise punctuates the story, creating a lasting memory.

Surprise is one way to breathe life into our brand storytelling and content marketing. When we weave a good story in our marketing, the surprise twist matters and helps to create a memorable experience.

Anticipation Keeps Buyers Engaged

The science of neuromarketing tells us we can combine suspense with surprise to capture interest as the story unfolds.

For example, we get locked into watching this Dirt Devel commercial to see exactly what the surprise twist might be at the end. And we can’t help but smile as we wait to see what this Liverpool Street train station happening is all about. HINT: This second bit won the Commercial of the Year and brought the term “flash mob” to the masses.

These examples use both surprise and anticipation as an engagement technique. For this to work, we need to ensure the audience will care about what happens next. And, that next thing should be relatable, but not necessarily predictable.

Big Data Can Be a Trap

Applying big data to determine “next best action” can improve how we target product offerings. According to Closing the Gap in Experience, there is a 10 percent potential sales lift from personalization.

But with all the digital information available to us, as this Harvard Business Review article maintains, “we risk robbing brands of opportunities for serendipity — the delightful surprises that happen when we least expect them.”

For example, most of us instantly recognize the MasterCard “Priceless" advertising campaign. A year or so ago, it launched a corresponding initiative called "Priceless Surprises" to delight its members on social media by giving them spontaneous gifts and prizes ... like a trip to an exclusive Gwen Stefani concert or even VIP tickets to the Grammy Awards.

As marketers we should be mindful to take advantage of key moments — often unlocked by big data and digital analysis — to surprise, delight, and reinforce brand loyalty, engagement and messaging.

Surprise and Delight Builds Brand Loyalty

Zappos surprises its customers with free express shipping. That’s good, even great. And it fits perfectly with the quirky Zappos brand promise to “deliver WOW through service.”

This DMA post expresses so well why thoughtful surprise is important:

“Catching the attention of the target audience with a thoughtful reward or incentive program, that’s personalized and customized can help to provide that memorable element of surprise and delight. Better yet — it creates a lasting impression that pays off in the end.”

But not all surprises are created equal.

Good surprise: When Oprah gives you a car just for being in her audience. This is just one of the many techniques Oprah has used to build her brand. And her followers are VERY loyal. Flocking for example to any of the books she recommended back in the day with her Book Club, and buying her brand on the force of her generous personality.

Bad surprise: The surprise online coupon discount that went missing. This happened to me just last month. I was presented with a pop up surprise 20 percent off discount code that was nowhere to be found when I received the actual invoice. When I complained of the mistake, I was told I didn’t understand how the coupon worked. I eventually messaged with the manager of customer service who apologized and made it all right.

Ugly surprise: Google’s April Fool “Mic Drop” surprise that included something extra. Google created a special button that automatically silenced other users in a message thread, the proverbial mic drop. But the surprise was that it also attached silly animated .gifs of Despicable Me Minions to the messages, including serious business missives and even condolence messages.

Moments to surprise and delight are an opportunity to grab attention and build loyalty, but only when handled properly and aligned with brand promise. This is true whether you are the Oprah brand — personal, relatable with a promise for a better life; or an online retailer — with a promise of good merchandise at discount prices; or even Gmail — with the promise of trusted, reliable delivery for its users.

Don’t Forget Brand Promise

By successfully engaging with genuine surprises, marketers can delights customers to deepen and expand connection with the brand. A recent study by Marketing Magazine found 95 percent of respondents said surprise and delight experiences boosted their positive perception of the brand. And, according to CMO.com, 61 percent of consumers will tell friends and family about their experiences.

Suspense, plot twists and unexpected endings have all proven to be worthy marketing techniques, but there is also an underlying fundamental expectation operating here …

A brand needs to deliver on its promise, and behave in context to that promise, even when undertaking to surprise and delight us.

And that’s no surprise!