Haley Joel Osment in Pay It ForwardIn the 2000 movie Pay It Forward I first heard about this interesting concept.  In a nutshell:  Paying back means offering something in return for what you’ve received.  Paying forward means giving something to others because of what they’ll give to others further out there in the world.

I heard a story on a podcast yesterday:  At a Starbucks in Omaha, a person in the drive-through paid for the person behind them as well.  Over the course of the day, each customer then paid for the person next in line, and it continued for the entire day.  This story appears to have now passed into urban legend, so it’s hard to tell to what extent it’s true, but let’s go with the concept.

It’s altruistic and all that, maybe makes you feel warm and fuzzy, but what’s the point?

The point is that people make decisions based not just on logical thought, but also on emotions.  When people feel good about what they’re doing, they start investing more energy, passion, and yes, money.  Altruism is something that gets people excited and engaged.

When customers are looking to spend money, they go through a complex internal process.  Some are more logical, some more emotional, but both play a role.  If you are able to help them with the emotional relationship with your company, it helps tilt the scales.

Watch out, though:  This can work for or against you.  Movies are great at playing with emotions, but they can turn off as many people as they turn on.

The key is to turn on the emotions of the target customers you want to attract, and not worry so much about others.  So if you’re looking for more teenage girls, you’re going to send different signals than for retirees.

Some companies try to do this through branding and advertising, but those are fairly blunt instruments.  People get emotionally involved where there’s an actual conversation taking place, whether it’s groups, face to face, or social media.  I’m constantly impressed at how much the online tools are engaging people, especially the younger generations.

Give your customers a reason to become emotionally attached to your company.  Then they’ll go out and engage others.