What is the ‘Sleeper Effect’, And How Can Marketers Leverage It?

The Importance of the Message

Simply put, we are in the business of persuasion. If we do not inform and persuade consumers or businesses or buy our goods and services, we are failing at our job as advertisers and marketers.

As communications professionals, we hold ‘the message’ in high regard. Public relations practitioners meticulously put together press releases and media advisories. Investor relations professionals spend hours putting together annual reports that contain the exact word or phrase they are looking for, so as to keep shareholders calm and happy about the performance of the business. Advertisers and marketers spend large amounts of resources to create the right ad or brochure that will catch the consumer’s eye and start the decision-making process.

While all these parties dedicate time and energy to ‘the message’, it is even more important┬áto know the latest research about messaging and credibility.

The ‘Sleeper Effect’

Some professors of psychology out of the University of Illinois decided to look at the “sleeper effect” when it came to communications. The Sleeper Effect, as it was commonly defined, happens when a strong message or argument is delivered by a non credible source, that the persuasiveness of the message grows over time. The audience would discount the message early due to the source. But research shows that over time, the audience remembers the strong message more, and pays less attention to the source.

Very interesting concept! If the professors already knew that, then what else needed to be studied?

They wanted to know if the opposite was true: what if a credible source delivered a weak argument? Is the ‘sleeper effect’ still present?

The researchers ran the study, and the results suggested the affirmative- yes, a weak message can benefit from the sleeper effect if it came from a credible source, a source that the audience would readily believe.

The Implications

Why is this a big deal? We always knew that we needed a strong brand, and that strong brands needed strong messaging to not only keep customers, but to continue to win customers over. This study suggests that we need to pay additional attention to the “carryover” of our messaging to see how our messages affect consumers over time.

Example: Let’s say Brand A is a very strong brand. It decides to try a new message or slogan as it attempts to reposition a product. As the campaign develops, the team sees that the message isn’t as strong as they previously believed.

Now, what should these marketers do? If they did what every other marketing team does these days, they would immediately scrap the campaign. However, if we examine the results of this study, one should hesitate to immediately change course. If Brand A has a strong brand and established brand loyalty with a core group of customers, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say to wait out the initial results, continue the messaging, and watch the ‘sleeper effect’ run its course.

As fast as the business environment likes to work, this suggestion would be incredibly hard to implement. But, if the results of this study can be replicated, it is definitely something to think about.



“Desirable Difficulty” And Why We Should Care

First, what does the phrase, “desirable difficulty” even mean?

The phrase comes from the education and psychology world. It suggests that if we make encoding, that is, interpreting information from one form into another, a little harder for the learner, then the learner will force themselves to start processes in their brains that will encourage long-term retention and learning.

It makes sense. We as humans tend to remember concepts that we really worked hard on; items and information we struggled to retain or learn but finally ‘getting it’.

Sure, this is important for teachers and psychologists to know, but why do we as marketing professionals bring this up?

It’s simple- it deals with consumer behavior.

When businesses and brands prepare something new for consumers, the common thought is to make it as simple and easy as possible. The easier the consumer can understand and use the product, the better product adoption is going to be.

And in a sense, that’s true. But we argue, though adoption for a simple and easy product is good, we believe that adding a little bit of difficulty to ‘product mastery’ could possibly increase the brand’s chances of creating loyal customers.

How so?

An easy and simple product doesn’t provide any real reason for the consumer to continue to use the product. Yes, it lowers the switching costs and risks for the consumer, but it doesn’t instill any real ownership or work for the consumer to consider the easy and simple product as valuable.

But, imagine if the product or brand made it just a little difficult for the consumer to use the product, getting the consumer to think about how to get the full use of it. Not too hard for the consumer to opt for the Path of Least Resistance route, but hard enough to create the ‘Ikea Effect’ Dan Ariely and other behavioral economists have discussed in detail.

Some examples for adding Desirable Difficulty-

-Making the consumer put the product together
-Having the consumer go through a series of steps to activate the product
-Forcing the consumer to give the product a name, label or number
-Having the consumer pass a test or tutorial before using (short, 3-5 question quiz)
-Intentionally making the UX a little hard to navigate

Should all brands and products do this? By no means. Commodities cannot survive with this strategy, but some products, especially in the digital and mobile realm, could reap significant results with this strategy.

Just something to think about.