Six lessons from Pandora’s box of behavioural tricks

Six lessons from Pandora’s box of behavioural tricks

I’m a fan of the online music streaming service Pandora.

Not only is the business based on an amazing algorithm that selects only those songs that share something in common with others you like, they have also been clever about how to engage its customers through behavioural techniques. They have turned what could have been a major irritation for customers into a service. Here’s how…

Are you still listening?

If you have not actively engaged with Pandora’s screen in a while (say a couple of hours), the music pauses and you get this message:

“Are you still listening? We pay for the songs we play, so we try not to play to an empty room. For fewer interruptions, upgrade to Pandora One.”


Here are six behavioural lessons we can take from this humble little popup box from Pandora. The message:

1. Deliberately disrupts the user to check that you are still interested

This interruption is a clever way of bringing the user back from System 1 unconscious awareness to System 2 conscious thinking. The benefit? Every time the user is brought back to Pandora they remind themselves that they use and like the service. This creates a positive, habit-forming loop.

For your business: are you losing customers at renewal because you’ve been taken for granted? Perhaps you’ve been too quiet and forgotten to remind them about the value you are delivering.

2. Couches the disruption in terms of eliminating waste

Playing music to an empty room is wasteful and most of us dislike the feeling we are the cause (‘loss aversion’ at play). This places a value on a free service that could otherwise be taken for granted.

For your business: when you are asking your customer to do something they may not want to do, can you communicate it in a way that makes them feel better about doing it rather than not? For example, customers don’t like paying your bill but giving them a discount for paying on time is preferable to ‘wasting’ more money by paying late.

3. Cues the user who doesn’t pay to subscribe, because the service is not without cost for Pandora

In other words, we are doing this for you even though you don’t pay a thing, which is a nice way of reminding the freeloaders like me that Pandora has to cover its costs somehow (thereby increasing tolerance for advertising on the site).

For your business: can your customers ‘see’ the cost of your effort? Are you showing them the sweat that’s gone into producing value for them? While you don’t want to be heavy-handed with this, make sure you give them a sense that producing what you have has not been without a commitment of resources.

4. Offers an upgrade path for those who hate the disruption

For those who really hate the interruption, an alternative is provided. This has the benefit not only of potentially upgrading some customers but of shutting down those who get snarky with Pandora.

Don’t like it? You can take action to stop it from happening. Too cheap to pay? You can decide it’s not so irritating after all.

For your business: if you irritate, can you also appease? Some people place a higher value on time than money and for others it’s the other way around. Can you cater for both?

5. Distinguishes the call-to-action buttons using different colours

Too many businesses forget that they need to present a hierarchy of calls to action (CTA) to cue the user as to the most important action to take. CTA buttons coloured the same are not as helpful.

Here Pandora has understood that the user will most likely want to click “Continue Listening”, so this is in the stronger colour. A more selfish business would have made the “Upgrade” button the most prominent, but this would have completely changed the tone of the “Still Listening?” message from one that was based around service for the user to one that was for the benefit of Pandora.

For your business: it’s pretty simple. Ensure your CTA have a clear hierarchy.

6. Forces the user to take action

The message remains until the user makes a decision and physically clicks on a button. A similar technique is popular in online shopping carts where the customer has to close the box to proceed – a good way of getting them to confirm that they want to do something and have done it correctly.

For your business: at what points is it appropriate for your customer to do something? If you are sending an appointment reminder, ask that they reply “Yes” to confirm. For your shopping cart, ask them to close the cart to continue shopping.

Six lessons from one tiny little message shows just how powerful behavioural techniques can be. Slightly different wording and this could have driven users away. Instead Pandora has communicated it in such a way that it seems like it is providing a service for you as one of its 75 million users*. Just imagine, customers being grateful for an unexpected interruption! That’s the true wonder of behavioural psychology.

*75 million active users as at March 2014.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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