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Happy accidents: how serendipity increases product success

Can serendipity increase our customer satisfaction?
Image: ©Sunny_Smile / Adobe Stock

The serendipity theory

American sociologist Robert Merton introduced the serendipity theory to the social sciences. It can be defined as an instance of accidentally making a new and unexpected discovery while in search of something else. Many groundbreaking human discoveries were actually by-products of entirely different research plans, including Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin and the invention of Post-it notes. These small handy pieces of paper came about by chance as a result of Spencer Silver failing to invent a superglue.

Serendipity can also positively influence people on a personal level.

If we’re on the brink of a decision and discover something that surprises and positively influences us during the decision-making process, this coincidental find may be more satisfying than a decision we would have reached of our own accord.

A team from the marketing department at Rutgers University in New Jersey has investigated when and why serendipity can give people an impressive product experience and what impact that could have on product development.

Serendipity and how it influences success

The reason why marketing professor Kristina Durante started exploring this topic in the first place was all down to – you guessed it – chance. While in the car, she happened to hear a song on the radio that she particularly liked. Later on, she searched for the song on a streaming platform and added it to a playlist. To her surprise, she realized that having the song readily available made listening to it again a more jaded experience that evoked less positive feelings than when she randomly discovered it in the car.

This led Durante to ask herself to what extent a “happy accident” can be more gratifying than a planned, positive experience.

The magic of chance

Drawing on various studies, Durante and her research team examined to what degree and in what scenarios serendipity can increase customer satisfaction. The first conclusion they drew was that the element of surprise alone is not enough to make consumers elated. Instead, a feeling of fate has to be added to the happy accident for a product to win over customers on a lasting basis.

One of the studies focused on streaming providers offering movies or music. Participants were less impressed by a large selection of movies or songs than they were by a platform that randomly suggested a movie or song that was to their taste. Together with the surprise factor, the “perceived satisfaction” of having discovered the offered product thus played a role.

The paradox of choice phenomenon explains why the participants were more inclined to feel happy from the random selection tailored to them than they would be with a wide variety of options. According to this concept, which has its roots in decision theory, the following applies:

Although an especially large product range can boost the interest of potential customers, it reduces the likelihood of a purchase actually being completed.

If our brain has to process a big selection, it quickly becomes overwhelmed with the information overload, making it difficult for us to then make a definitive choice. If, on the other hand, products are suggested to us from this range that we could have basically also picked out ourselves, and we don’t actually have to actively make the choice, it makes the process less stressful. Mental overload is thereby turned into a serendipitous experience, even though the suggestion was indeed tailored to the consumers.

The more random the recommendation, the greater the satisfaction

The research also revealed that the participants felt happier the more random the recommendations appeared to be. Durante and her team split the participants into two groups who were to interact with a made-up platform for suggesting movie trailers.

Neither group was able to freely browse the platform. One group was told that the platform would show them a trailer selected from 10 trailers. The other group were made to believe that a trailer would be randomly played to them from 100 trailers. The result: the second group enjoyed their trailer more than the first group. Durante explains this by the fact that a spot-on suggestion from 100 options is more likely to be put down to fate and luck than a recommendation from a smaller number of trailers.

In fact, though, it is irrelevant whether the suggestion is actually made at random as long as it comes across as that to the recipient. Consequently, premeasured data and algorithms can significantly improve the customer experience.

Chancing it is all well and good, but the result has to be appealing

Serendipity can positively influence the success of a product. However, the element of randomness still has to strike a chord with consumers. If an apparent suggestion is deemed unsuitable in their eyes or it evokes negative feelings for them, then that’s not really the idea of a happy accident, of course.

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