Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The Zeigarnik Effect and the Power of the Incomplete

Tamoor Mir discusses how to induce engagement by leaving your audiences wanting for more.
Published 12 Mar, 2024 10:14am

In 1927, the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was having lunch with her professor and a few colleagues. Amongst the pleasantries and pedantic discourses, a waiter emerged to take their order. Being a rather large group, the orders came in thick and fast, and one member of the group helpfully suggested that perhaps the waiter should write down their order to avoid any mistakes. The waiter assured them they had nothing to worry about.

The table waits, certain that the waiter’s hubris will undoubtedly ruin their meal. However, he returns with the exact order. Surprised by this unexpected turn of events, they continue to observe the waiter as he remembers every order from the adjacent tables without a single error. Zeigarnik’s table even ordered more side dishes and desserts just to throw the waiter off, but every single time, he returned with the exact order. Given that the table was full of researchers, they conducted one final experiment. They covered their dishes and then asked the waiter to tell them the names of the dishes he had brought to their table. They assumed, since he had correctly remembered every dish, he would be able to recall their order, but the waiter could not remember a single dish on that table.

Unknowingly, this waiter had sown the seeds of an idea in Zeigarnik’s mind; one that would go on to become the Zeigarnik effect. If the example above has not clarified it already, let me elaborate.

The Zeigarnik effect states that people remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones. To give another example, do you remember the authentication code you entered to access a new app? I would be correct in assuming that you retained that code until the moment it was entered into your phone and not a second longer. Once your task is completed, your mind no longer feels the need to retain the information. On the other hand, you remember your ATM PIN code because you know you will need to use it next time.

For advertisers, the Zeigarnik effect can be an amazing tool to enhance the impact of a campaign. How? Remember that unfinished thoughts and ideas can grab and hold attention, and we know that nothing is more valuable than retaining the attention of our audience.

When we speak about unfinished thoughts and ideas, we don’t mean to imply that we should present half-baked ideas to our audiences. What it means is creating ideas that allow audiences to fill in the gaps using their imagination. This creates engagement between the brand and the audience, and keeps them coming back for more.

Our media landscape is littered with examples of the Zeigarnik effect in action. Think about why every season of your favourite TV or streaming show ends with a cliffhanger, or every ad break occurs after an exciting incident. This is because writers understand that the audience will not switch to another channel or fail to come back for the next season if they create a feeling of incompleteness that keeps them wanting more.

Netflix applies the Zeigarnik effect to keep its audience engaged by displaying the next episode button at the end of every episode. This creates a sense of unfinished business, which keeps audiences engaged. Social media companies also use the Zeigarnik effect to keep people engaged. Every time you see a notification about what your friend Sarah has posted or what your friend Atif has liked, it creates an urge that compels us to click and see what our friends are up to, thus keeping us engaged with the platform.

Retargeting ads also use the same effect. Every time a social media platform or website shows you ads based on previous ads you have liked or previous items you have purchased, they are relying on your curiosity to keep clicking. I would argue that the entire clickbait model is derived from this effect. Anything from ‘these 10 facts will shock you’ to ‘what did SRK say to Karan?’, give us just enough incomplete information to keep us clicking.

Every time McDonald’s runs a campaign where they recreate their arches by simply hinting at its design, they are using the Zeigarnik effect. Every email you receive promising to change your business in five simple steps and every survey that asks you which character from Friends you are, is using the Zeigarnik effect to keep you hooked.

However, there are some ground rules that need to be followed to fully use the Zeigarnik effect.

1 Never over-explain and allow your customers to fill in the blanks. What does this mean? If you have established brand equity, use anything from your brand colours, logo or tagline to hint at something your audience will recall. This will make the idea more engaging as it will require using their imagination to understand the message. It will also create a sense of satisfaction when they ‘get’ your message.

2 Create a cliffhanger where the audience is given just enough information to keep them coming back (as I mentioned, complete information allows audiences to forget and move on). Your messaging should be communicated in a way that it compels audiences to come back for more. A good example is the ‘Long Long Man’ campaign for Sakeru Gummy.

These two steps will allow you to use the Zeigarnik effect to your advantage and create powerful campaigns that stick in the minds of your customers. However, there are also drawbacks that you will need to keep in mind. Firstly, be wary of overusing this technique; it relies on teasing your audience and never giving them the full information. This may lead to frustration and eventual boredom. In the words of Oscar Wilde: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Secondly, be careful how you end it. We all recall the disaster that was the final season of Game of Thrones. A show that had become a phenomenon destroyed its reputation because it failed to fulfil the promises it made to its audience. So, when designing your campaign, make sure you have a satisfying conclusion to the cliffhanger you create, otherwise the audience will be left disappointed.

Speaking of which, watch this space to learn how the science of psychology can help build your next big campaign.

Tamoor Mir is ECD,
The D’Hamidi Partnership.