Candy for the Candy Store: The Instant Gratification of Instant Apps

The human brain recognizes two kinds of pleasure. One is long term, the other short.

The short-lived pleasure is instant, powerful, and easy to recognize. It’s the instant-gratification reward associated with all manner of common vices, from eating ice cream, doing copious amounts of exercise, taking drugs, or having sex. The long term kind of pleasure is much harder to pinpoint, precisely because it is built as a foundation and doesn’t take place in a single, fleeting instant. To the short term pleasure of exercise, this is the long-term pleasure of good health. To the short-term pleasure of sex, this is the long-term pleasure of a loving relationship.

Neurology shows us that these two forms of pleasure are literally distinct , corresponding to different neurotransmitters in our brain (dopamine vs. serotonin, respectively). But all the best science in the world only serves to confirm the obvious: that there is a structural distinction between instant and the enduring experiences. We all understand the difference intuitively.

There was a time, not too long ago, where the main objective of new technology was to solve the enduring sort of problems. From word processors and email to operating systems and search engines, the chief technology products of the desktop age were designed to provide permanent solutions to clearly-defined, long-term issues, replacing technologies that had been around for ages (writing, libraries, and snail-mail, for instance).

Those days are over.

The advent of the mobile phone has ushered in an era where technology provides instant, dopaminergic types of experiences. Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tinder, etc deliver instant gratification in the form of likes, friends, follows, retweets. Each of them has mastered the art of hooking its users with addictive, short-term rewards and incentives. Whereas the first wave of technology provided nutritious food — satisfying our real needs — the new class of technology is like candy for our brains.

Their effects are as addictive as their real-life corollaries, and make no mistake — that is by design. These apps win the long-term commitment of their consumers by repeatedly delivering quick bursts of instant gratification.

This is the landscape in which marketers are competing for attention. That’s why the native app — a long, term commitment for the consumer — is such an awkward mechanism for a marketer’s message. Pushing a native app in a social feed is like selling broccoli in a candy store. It’s not going to work.

This isn’t news to most marketers. The dissatisfaction with native apps runs broad and deep. The trouble is that they haven’t had much else to work with.

Enter the Instant App. It delivers an elegant, engaging experience at the accelerated, ephemeral, now-or-never pace that has become the hallmark of the mobile era. Finally, marketers can actually sell candy in the candy store.