How Expectations Can Change Actual Experiences

I’ve long been a fan of Dan Ariely. I hadn’t heard about this experiment  from 10 years ago where users expectations were tested to see how they would influence and impact the results.

Dear Dan,

The other day, I ordered a new drink, a “London Fog tea latte,” at a local café. It arrived on the counter in a porcelain teacup with a saucer, and four lavender seeds were arranged in a fleur-de-lis at the center of the froth. The barista gave me a bestowing nod. It was the best tea latte I’d ever tasted; I found myself saying “Mmm” before the cup even reached my lips. Do our expectations actually affect how things taste to us? 


For sure. In an experiment we conducted about ten years ago at MIT, we gave the students two small beer samples and asked them to pick the one they wanted a full glass of. One sample was just plain beer, but the other sample was a regular beer plus some balsamic vinegar. We didn’t tell some students about the special ingredient, and they liked the beer with the dark additive. But when we told our tasters about the vinegar, their expectations kicked in; they expected to hate it and sure enough, they did. Such results show that expectations do indeed change what we like. More important, they show us that expectations are a fascinating interplay between our brain and our mind. We are always trying to predict the future and prepare for it. As our body changes to accommodate to the anticipated experience, it also makes those anticipations more likely to materialize. This is why expectations can change our actual experience—and why we should embrace them as much as we can. (My next answer, by the way, is going to be particularly insightful. Wait 30 seconds, and read on.)

Online, when visitors land a website, most make a decision within 8 seconds on whether they’ll explore further or head back to the search engine to look elsewhere for their desired information. Setting the right expectations, through fast load times, clear value propositions, and intuitive navigation is as essential for online businesses and the importance of this has long been known.

Offline, it seems just as important. It reminds me of the old adage, “if you want to have a good time, you’ve got to take a good time.”

I’d love to read more about how expectations influence education. I think there could be some big gains to be made by Optimizing education through setting expectations at the beginning of a lesson and testing elements such as, what you will learn, how long you should expect to take on the lessons, etc.

 … Read the rest

Posted in fascinating experiments

Book Review – Lead With A Story


With companies like 3M are banning bullet points in favor of strategic narratives and Nike designating all senior executives “corporate storytellers” both online and offline marketing is undergoing tectonic shifts.

Paul Smith does a great job of detailing real life examples where creating a story has led to successes ranging in scale from low level business meetings to a 28 billion dollar acquisition for one company by Verizon.

The book goes into great detail of how boring presentations were turned around using narrative techniques. At the end of each chapter are is a summary and simple exercise to further drive the point home.

“People are naturally committed to their ideas than to your ideas. A story technique turns your ideas into their ideas,”

“If your sales presentation ends up in the trash can, you’d better have a good story. And sales presentations have a way of ending up in a trash can. A story will stick with the buyer far longer.”

“The purpose of putting surprise at the beginning of a story is to get your audience to pay attention.”

Overall, I found the book a great read. I’m looking forward to putting some of the lessons contained in this book to good use.… Read the rest

Posted in Optimization Book Reviews

Teacher Builds Engagement In His Lessons With This Clever Trick

For the last few years Google has been reaching out to school districts in an effort to help optimize education using free Google tools such as Google draw, Google Docs, Google Surveys etc.

It’s neat to see how some of these educators are adapting the tools to get their students excited about learning.

Mike Petty is a teacher who found an easy way to increase the engagement of his lesson plans. He took photos of his students and created mini comics in just a few minutes using Google Draw and sprinkled them throughout his lesson plan to help keep the class from drifting off.

Comic strip improves engagement of lesson plan

I’m pretty sure that if you were to split test the lesson plan with the comics and a lesson plan without the comics, there would be a measurable increase in learning retention amongst the students who had the comics in their lecture.… Read the rest

Posted in Optimized Education

Silk Road Creator Located By Police Via His Early Marketing Efforts

Given the huge number of illegal transactions taking place on Silk Road, it still took authorities quite a bit of time and effort to track down the man behind the site. The key piece of investigative work that led to his identity being uncovered surprised me.

I found this to be very clever thinking on the part of the police –

Some months earlier, Alford had figured that whoever had started Silk Road had tried to drum up interest on regular websites with like-minded audiences. He searched for Tor URLs around the time of the site’s first appearance and found a mention in a forum on January 27, 2011, days after the Silk Road launch. A user named Altoid talked up this exciting new “service that claims to allow you to buy and sell anything online anonymously.”

Googling elsewhere for the username Altoid revealed a question about database programming posted on Stack Overflow, dated March 16, 2013, asking, “How do I connect to a Tor hidden service using curl in php?” The email listed was A minute later, that user changed the alias to Frosty.

The IRS didn’t know what any of this meant, so that’s where it ended. The info sat in a case file until dumb luck put Alford in Tarbell’s lab, whose wall was a map where all roads led to Frosty. Der-Yeghiayan ran the name Ross Ulbricht through the federal database and found the Homeland Security report on Ross’ fake IDs. A quick search for his last known address showed that he had lived half a block away from Café Luna, the San Francisco node on his chart (the site where an administrator had logged in to the Silk Road VPN).

Tarbell was ecstatic. Finally, here was the missing piece, the end of the digital trail. Tarbell thought it was funny that these clues were sitting out in the open. In the end, one of the best law enforcement tools was Google. It seemed clear that Ross had no idea Silk Road would become such a success and was careless early on. And in the era of informational perpetuity, you only have to be careless once.

This riveting article on is worth reading in its entirety. It came to my attention via Jason KottkeRead the rest

Posted in Marketing gone wrong

Conversion Rate Optimization in Hollywood

Although I knew that Hollywood was using conversion rate optimization to create better movies via the results from test screenings, I wasn’t aware of the scale of some of their efforts, particularly by one editor, Brent White.

The Woodland Hills screening promised something more practical than a sense of how “Spy” would fare in the wild: A microphone placed at the front of the theater would provide White with a recording of the audience’s laughter, against which to edit future versions of the film. If a joke didn’t send the crest of the waveform sufficiently high, it would either be tweaked or replaced with an alternate joke and demoted to the film’s “B-cut” — a version composed of jokes that hadn’t killed but that Feig wasn’t ready to trash. Some test audiences would unwittingly watch the B-cut, and if certain jokes went over great, “then I’ll steal them and drop them into the A-cut,” White said. Last year, Paramount Pictures went as far as to give the “Anchorman 2” B-cut its own limited theatrical release: Overseen by Bretherton, White’s deputy, it told the exact story as the official release, but with 763 different jokes slotted in. This way of working depends on new technologies but reflects time-honored practices. The Marx Brothers vetted “A Night at the Opera,” long before they ever got to the set, by precision-engineering its material on the vaudeville circuit.

The part about using a microphone to record the audience laughter and compare the waveforms of different jokes reminds me a lot of how we use Optimizely to compare the results of different versions of a website.

It does seem like a cumbersome way to collect data. In the future I can see the movie studios making these test screenings available online to a select audience and gathering the laugh data through a user’s computer mic – if the studios can overcome the pirating/leak issues that currently seem to inform many of their marketing decisions.

 … Read the rest

Posted in offline conversion rate optimization

A Different Way to Think About Countering ISIS’s Social Media Campaigns

This piece in the Wall Street Journal goes into length covering the efforts of the State Department to combat ISIS’s successful social media campaigns which the group uses to recruit foreign fighters.

The long story short of it is that the State Department’s efforts have been dismal due to miniscule budget funding and lack of applicable experience by the diplomats in charge of the mission.

Just because a person has been a diplomat, with deep subject matter experience, does not make them adept at leading what is essentially a marketing campaign.

When BP had the huge oil spill in the Gulf Of Mexico and oil was washing up on beaches in Texas and Louisiana, I’m quite certain that the people hired to counter criticism of the company were not the same ones charged with finding untapped oil reserves.

One video, produced by the State Department veteran Alberto Fernandez, was so off the mark with its sarcasm it was lambasted on HBO by comedian John Oliver.

“Welcome to ISIS Land” went on to be viewed in numbers never approached by any of the center’s other films. But even now it is not clear that any of those viewers were ever at risk of joining the Islamic State, let alone diverted from that path.

To Fernandez, the center has been subjected to an impossible standard.

“How do you prove a negative?” he asked. “Unless some guy comes out with his hands up and says, ‘I was going to become a terrorist. I saw your video. I loved it. I changed my mind.’ You’re never going to get that.”

There are a few things wrong with Fernandez’s thinking and it demonstrates his lack of marketing experience.

One is that he’s measuring success on too large of a scale.

Often times it takes several small steps to reach your objective. He should have been thinking about micro conversions to have a more realistic chance of success. Defining those steps forward as goals helps bring the process into better focus.

This, in the conversion rate optimization world, is about as 101 as it gets.

Another thing wrong with his approach is that as terrible as the video may have been, it did get more views than anything else the team had produced. That in itself is a small victory and the video should’ve been analyzed to see what can be taken from it to be used for future efforts.

You need to learn from each campaign, test, and effort. Even if you lose, you need to learn something from the failure to inform the next efforts.

Again, 101 for anyone working in the optimization field for marketing or education.

What would be a better way for the State Department to conduct these sort of campaigns?

Coming up with reasonable metrics of success would be a great place to start. These might look something like decreasing the rate of growth of the ISIS social media campaigns. For example, if new ISIS video when launched averages 1,000 … Read the rest

Posted in Optimized Education

Netflix Hasn’t Lost Its Edge

The internet has traditionally not been kind to middlemen. It was no surprise when Netflix entered into content creation with several of their own original offerings like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, etc. to reduce the dependency on TV networks and movie studios.

What is surprising and refreshing, is to hear a CEO of a significant company speak with such clarity and candor about a major challenge from a competitor. On the release of HBO Now, this is what Reed Hastings had to say –

“It will be like the Yankees and the Red Sox,” Mr. Hastings said. “I predict HBO will do the best creative work of their lives in the next 10 years because they are on war footing. They haven’t really had a challenge for a long time, and now they do. It’s going to spur us both on to incredible work.”

This came to my attention Via, the personal blog of M.G. Siegler who wrote great pieces for TechCrunch for several years and is now a partner at Google Ventures. It’s one of my favorite stops on the internet.… Read the rest

Posted in Optimized Education

Psychology lessons From The Slots & Video Poker World

In this long form article on the Verge, author Antonio Regalado digs in on the slot machine/video game poker industry and how they approach game play.

IGT makes 93% of the worlds video poker games and goes to great lengths to create a state of flow with customers playing their machines. Too much of a payout can cause players to stop playing because it can break the “experience.” Too little, and players will abandon game play early.

“To keep players gambling, all slots rely on the same basic psychological principles discovered by B.F. Skinner in the 1960s. Skinner is famous for an experiment in which he put pigeons in a box that gave them a pellet of food when they pressed a lever. But when Skinner altered the box so that pellets came out on random presses — a system dubbed variable ratio enforcement — the pigeons pressed the lever more often. Thus was born the Skinner box, which Skinner himself likened to a slot machine.

The Skinner box works by blending tension and release — the absence of a pellet after the lever is pressed creates expectation that finds release via reward. Too little reward and the animal becomes frustrated and stops trying; too much and it won’t push the lever as often.

Like video poker, most multi-line slots rarely pay large jackpots, instead doling out smaller wins frequently. “They’re imitating the formula of video poker, but they’re doing it in a slot formula,” Natasha Schüll, an associate professor at MIT who has researched slots for 15 years, says. In 2012, Princeton University Press published Addiction by Design: Machine Gaming in Las Vegas, the culmination of her research and a deconstruction of the slot machine.

Too little reward and the animal becomes frustrated and stops trying; too much and it won’t push the lever as often.

Schüll says modern slot machines essentially continued the trend started by Redd so as not to jolt players too intensely in the form of losses — or wins. “Too-big wins have been shown to stop play because it’s such an intense shift in the situation that you’ll kind of pause, you’ll stop, you’ll take your money and leave,” says Schüll. Stretching out gameplay with minor rewards, Schüll says, “allows you to get in the flow of, another little win, another little win.”

Education and learning websites like Khan Academy & Code Academy do something similar to keep the flow by breaking their lessons into much smaller chunks than what would be found in traditional learning classes and proving the user with badges after completing lessons and encouraging them not so much to complete the entire block of lessons but to “do 1 more section”.

Other nuggets I found interesting from the article –

“Perhaps no one has uncovered the Platonic ideal of the slot machine, but certain principles undergird most games. First, there’s a vague aesthetic uniformity: colors tend toward the primary or pastel, franchise tie-ins are a must, and the

Read the rest
Posted in Optimized Education

Change the Way You Hire & See Positive Results

This is an insightful post about how a software security firm, an industry for which is very difficult to find really good candidates, revamped their hiring process and achieved great results.

“Because here is the thing about interviews: they are incredibly hostile experiences for candidates.

For many people, I wonder if they might be among the most hostile experiences in all of life. In what other normal life experience is a group of people impaneled to assess —– adversarially! —– one’s worthiness with respect to their life’s work? By a jury by design must say “no” far more often than “yes”.

I’m sorry, Alex, but I’m briefly dragging you back into my narrative.

By the time we interviewed Alex in person, we had already implemented a number of countermeasures to unreliable interviews. Alex had been told up front that an in-person interview meant we liked him a lot and there was a very good chance we’d hire him. I walked into the conference room to meet him. He appeared to be physically shaking. You didn’t need to be a psychologist to detect the nervous energy; it radiated from him, visibly, like in an R. Crumb cartoon.

Engineering teams are not infantry squads. They aren’t selected for their ability to perform under unnatural stress. But that’s what most interview processes demand, often —– as is the case with every interview that assesses “confidence” —– explicitly so.”

The author tells readers at the beginning of his post that it is long and even offers a table of contents in case people want to skip a section.

Pay no heed to this warning. The post takes less than 5 minutes to read and is chock full of insight.

Via the always excellent, RC3.orgRead the rest

Posted in Optimized Education

Tesla Is More Than A Car Company

This blog post by Jeremy Welch, is a fascinating 3 minute read about how Tesla is much more than a car company – they’re a battery company which is so much more expansive a category than automobiles.

It reminds me a bit of how Apple went from making only computers to phones.

The article takes only a few minutes to read and in that short time you’ll gain remarkable insight into a company that has the potential to become so much bigger than what they initially set out to do.

Although I knew that Elon Musk dropped out of Stanford to start Zip2, I didn’t know that his field of interest was high energy density capacitors.

 … Read the rest

Posted in Optimized Education


I’m Keith Lovgren and I’ve worked in the field of conversion rate optimization for almost a decade.

Have an interesting project and budget to go with it? Let’s talk.

Of Note

I co founded Waves Of Impact, a non profit that provides free surf camps for kids with special challenges and wounded veterans.
Check out the fun we have at

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