Dr. Ivan Pavlov introduced the groundbreaking discovery of positive reinforcement conditioning in the late 1800s. As one of the earliest investigators on the inner workings of the gastrointestinal process, he discovered that the parietal glands in the mouth could be stimulated to secrete saliva by pairing a bell with a positive stimulus like eating. The breakthrough led to the realization that the brain controls physiological responses to external stimuli.
The reward center of the brain
- Prefrontal cortex — Focuses attention and planning
- Nucleus accumbens — Controls motor functions
- Amygdala — Responsible for emotions
- Hippocampus — Responsible for formation of memories
How much dopamine does an activity release?
Various activities cause the brain to release more dopamine than usual. Enjoying food brings a 50 percent boost to dopamine levels in the brain, for instance. Video games and sex also increase dopamine, and drug use does so significantly. It’s not reasonable to equate the brain response to drug use with that of video games.
Chart: The conversation, CC-BY-ND • Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse • Get the data
Triggering a dopamine release with your loyalty program
- The cue — The trigger needs to be a clear and obvious stimulus. For Pavlov, it was a bell. For a veterinary loyalty program, it’s receiving an invoice after your visit.
- The routine — The routine is the actual paying of the invoice by handing over your credit card or cash. This is more powerful than you may realize. For example, it has been proven that cash is the biggest stimulus, because when you pay with cash, you get less back in your hand after the transaction. When paying with a credit card, you hand over an intact piece of plastic and you are returned an intact piece of plastic, hence your perception of the cost is minimized. This is why using cash is the most effective way to curb overspending.
- The reward — The reward is a proxy for the dopamine hit. In a loyalty program, the reward by proxy is the stamp or points in your loyalty app. In order to pull this off, the reward needs to be something desired by the subject (person or animal), otherwise there will be no emotion of desire or want, which is what drives the pathway.
- Timing — The payoff (i.e., the reward for the desired action) needs to be as instantaneous as possible to the cue. The closer in time the reward is to the cue, the more reinforcement of the routine by maximizing the dopamine hit.
Common loyalty program mistakes
- Too much time between the cue and the reward — This needs to be as instantaneous as possible. I would argue that anything over five minutes will cause an exponential loss of reinforcement. By waiting until the next day, it is possible to create a negative reinforcement, especially if the cue is painful, like paying an invoice.
- Giving a reward that isn’t desired by the subject — If the subject (human or animal) doesn’t want the reward, there is no desire to fuel the pathway, and the program will run out of gas.
- Not being mindful of the behavior trying to be modified — When implementing a loyalty program, it is imperative to have an end result in mind. For veterinary practices, that is most likely going to center around increasing the compliance for our patients so they can live longer and be pain-free (or as close to that as possible). This is accomplished by driving visits and uptake in recommended therapies.
Coming soon: Loyalty program study results
How are the veterinary loyalty programs of Vet2Pet’s customers working? We’re doing the final polishing on the 2020 Loyalty Program Data Analytics Report, and we can’t wait to share insights and ROI information on visits, ATC, and practice revenue. Watch for further communications when this report is finalized!
Is your practice winning with a loyalty program? Click here to learn more about this simple, yet customizable, feature. And, schedule a demo to see the entire Vet2Pet platform in action.
Dr. Stacee Santi, CEO/Founder Vet2Pet
Dr. Stacee Santi is a 1996 DVM graduate from Colorado State University and the founder of Vet2Pet, a technology startup that builds personalized custom apps for veterinary practices. With over 20 years of clinical experience in small animal and emergency practice, Stacee brings an “in the trenches” approach to innovation and solutions for veterinary teams. She has also served as a medical advisory consultant for NVA for 5 years, medical director for a general/ER practice in Colorado as well as current President of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.