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  • Writer's pictureMichael Wright


With such easy access to digital information, why would anyone buy a book these days?

Here's a story of how one smart bookshop raised awareness of local authors, earned a bunch of free media attention, and increased revenue, by implementing two simple mechanics.

What were they? Mystery and Social Proof.

Instant Books

@booksactually An independent bookstore, on (Jun 3) unveiled two book vending machines at the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) and at the Singapore Visitor Centre along Orchard Road. A third one was installed at the Goodman Arts Centre.

Just like your typical vending machine, books will be dispensed with some handy cash and the press of a button.

This is not a new idea, and origins would appear to be the publisher Penguin Random House back in 1937. But it was a first for Singapore.

Each book vending machine, decorated by local artists, carries about 120 to 150 books.

According to @ChannelNewsAsia these machines contained books priced at $10–28. Other sources indicate the machines cost $9900 each.

The vending machine I discovered was right outside of their shop, in a quiet, likeable neighbourhood calling Tiong Bahru. The big difference with that one is that the books are all wrapped up. You can’t see the title or the author, just some basic wrapping and marker pen scrawl. These books were all priced at $19.

Intrigued, I stepped inside the shop and asked how the blind selection book machine was performing versus their older machines where you could see the book covers.

I found out that the mystery books were selling 50% better than the books in other vending machines.

Better ROI is a big deal because the vending machines are $9900 and apparently the non-mystery book vending machines are already pulling in $800, at launch weekend. So that’s $1200 vs $800 weekly.

So far, we’ve learned that people are more willing than you might expect to buy books from vending machines. We found out that machines have been selling books since the 1930’s. We’ve also discovered people are much more likely to purchase mystery books, than books they can actually identify. Let’s take a look at how this works.

Mystery provokes curiosity

Curiosity occurs when there is a gap between what we know and what we want to know. Curiosity is a kind of cognitive thirst that seeks to be quenched. Various psychology and biology boffins have attempted explanations and undertaken experiments to explain it, but none of them offer complete clarity.

Curiosity is a drug. Some have connected dopamine release (the pleasure circuit of the brain), our genetic or evolutionary make-up.

Curious Machines
People have written that we humans are less in need of encouragement to explore than AI-driven algorithms, which tend to “get stuck in a rut” at least, according to hairy cognitive scientist Tom Stafford.

Gamification guru Yu-kai Chou explains it perfectly: “… the participant receives an unknown reward by completing a required action. Using this technique recreates the excitement that children have on Christmas Eve. They see the gifts under the tree and know that they won’t find out what they are until Christmas morning”

Social proof can even make you trust robots

The NAC study referenced that students were more likely to buy books if books had good reviews, and no wonder. Some of us lead busy lives and will defer from buying a book because we know we don’t have time. That purchase decision becomes way easier when we see a stranger buy books in a public place. By witnessing this we let go of the idea we won’t make time to read.

The urge to consume becomes even more powerful once we approach the machine and realise that the buyer didn’t even know the authors name or the book title but still parted with $19. This leads to a high degree of trust for the machine and increased sales.

It’s that powerful combination of social proof, and the sweet sweet satisfaction of solving a mystery that drive engagement and sales in this scenario.

So how does this work in recruiting? I can think of two examples.

Social Proof

One of the more common and effective uses of social proof in recruitment marketing are employee stories/testimonials. Founders Brewing do a good job of this in this “no glamour, all glory” example and so do Light Reaction because they sound and are, authentic.

Because employee stories are somewhat overused their influence can be easily undermined by an inauthentic sounding testimonial or spoiled by that accursed jingle jangly generic guitar track.

Mystery in Recruiting

An aspiring programmer called Max, one day keys in a particular, very specific search term [“python lambda function list comprehension”] and it mysteriously broke the internet, taking him to a mysterious site [] where awaits a set of mysterious coding challenges. The whole thing was so mysterious that the contestant, Max, felt like was part of “some elaborate prank”, even when interviewing at Mountain View. I personally think solving a mystery, or puzzle, is gold when it comes to getting talent engaged with your hiring process, and Max is living (social) proof it works.

Can you think of any other examples of how mystery or social proof is used as a mechanic to drive engagement, sales or even hire people? Have you ever been involved in a mysterious path to purchase or being recruited?

If you enjoyed reading this, please share it. You'll provide social proof it's worth the time.

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