The Fresh Start Effect: How to Use New Beginnings to Persuade People

Between Dec 28th and Jan 5th I’ve been getting daily emails from Headspace (the meditation app) to get on with their premium plan at a 40% discount.

I’ve also been getting calls from that one Pilates class I had taken almost a year back. They are generous enough to offer me a 25% lifetime discount, provided I take up a 6 month membership right away.

Lately, I’ve also been seeing ads about all kinds of health, fitness, diet, and workout apps and services. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you most probably have seen them too.

I’m sure you’ve made new year resolutions at least once in your life. If not, you most probably know people who make resolutions every year. New year arrives with new resolutions — to get healthier, fitter, to run a marathon, to eat right — and that’s where all these offers try to fit into.

All the above are examples of the Fresh Start Effect.

According to the fresh-start effect, people are more likely to take action towards a goal after temporal landmarks that represent new beginnings.

It has been observed that special occasions or temporal landmarks, such as a new year, cause you to reflect on your life in a big-picture way, which in turn inspires you to set goals for better behaviour.

Psychologists studying the fresh-start effect believe it works because highlighting meaningful occasions creates a clean slate in your mind and encourages you to make better decisions. You tend to see your current and past selves as being separable, and hence are ready to leave all vices behind and go ahead without any red mark in your ledger. This feeling opens the path for you to initiate goal-oriented aspirational behaviours.

Specifically, you tend to view your past self in a way that flatters your current one. A common example of this is when you justify mistakes by pinning them to the person you used to be.

“All of my past failures are from last year and I can think, ‘Those are not me. That’s old me. That’s not new me. New me isn’t going to make these mistakes.’”

— Chip Heath and Dan Heath, The Power of Moments

What you’re really doing is relegating your old self to the past. You disconnect yourself from past mistakes and imperfections, which leaves you confident about your new, superior self. That confidence gives you the motivation to begin something new and challenging —something you would have never done otherwise.

Not just health and fitness, you are also most likely to invest in non-health goals such as career, education, and investment after these new time periods. Basically, the Fresh Start Effect influences pretty much all of your future aspirations.

Fresh starts are a good opportunity to nudge your users in a direction that is beneficial for them as well as you —you can aim for a perfect win-win.

It’s an opportunity to influence them to learn that new language, or sign up for that continuing education course, or hire a financial advisor, or prepare for that marathon this year.

A good way to get started is by thinking what motivates your users. Consider understanding your users’ aspirational behaviours. How do they want to improve themselves? Do their aspirations change depending on the time of year?

It can help you think of the larger goal first, followed by behaviours associated with achieving that goal. For example, a goal might be to get finances in order. An aspirational behaviour for that goal could be to commit to saving Rs. X per month for retirement.

Once you’ve got that figured, you can try to connect your users’ motivations to what you have to offer. Think: how can I help your my users pursue their goals? Then pair your message with a temporal landmark— highlight new beginning so that it reminds them that time has passed and that they can start fresh and work towards their goals.

Let’s take an example:

User Goal: Get in shape.

Aspirational Behaviour: Commit to avoiding junk food and eating healthy.

Your Offer: Free 30-minute diet consultation every month with access to a personal dietician when they opt for your premium plan.

Temporal landmark: New year, birthday, women’s day, wedding anniversary, start of a decade —20th, 30th or 40th birthday.

Note that getting in shape might also involve a different aspirational behaviour such as going to the gym twice every week. You have to design a different offer for users having that aspiration and choose a temporal landmark accordingly.

Start by sending out communication couple of days before the landmark. Goals that require consistent effort need multiple nudges. Also, highlight the new you in your messaging. “Be the best version of yourself you always aspired to be.”

In the case of behaviour that requires just one single action such as donating to charity, getting a vaccine, etc., one fresh start advert/email/notification may be sufficient to motivate behaviour change.

Try reminding users of their contribution the previous year, thereby using that value as an anchor. This would work upon their desire remain consistent with their previous decision, and need to feel superior to their past self. “You donated Rs. 1000 a year ago. Your contribution resulted in X. Have an even bigger impact today by donating Rs. 15000 for Y”.

The important thing here is to really know which occasions are most meaningful to your audience. Understanding your personas is key here.

Adjust content and messaging to make temporal landmarks salient. Remember, the goal is to highlight the separation of the past from the upcoming new beginning. Small labelling and copy changes are often enough to distinguish an occasion from other ordinary events.

Framing March 20th as “The first day of spring” creates a stronger temporal landmark than “The third Thursday in March.” Nudging people to reflect on why a landmark is meaningful primes them to consider that landmark to be more significant.

Not just in digital communication, you can use this effect to persuade your friend to quit his smoking habit, inspire your teammates to grind harder, and also persuade yourself to pick up your old guitar and start practising.

It might be important to note that the motivation to work on new behaviours craters as time passes. By the end of January, about half of the people would have failed in their New Year’s resolutions already. Aim for your campaigns to convert as soon as possible before the fire fizzles out.

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