The Whys of Buy: Visualizing the Buy

Human brainVisualization risked becoming another one of those clichéd words through the 90’s, because it was used by every self improvement guru as a path to success. Visual success and it will be yours. But the fundamental principles of visualization bear up, in some very practical and surprising examples. And the neurological science behind visualization is sound.

Visualization allows us to sense a scene in our minds when we read a passage. Actually, the word visualization is a little misleading, because it only refers to the sense of sight. Visualizations can engage all the senses. For example, we took our two daughters to Manhattan last summer, landed at 11 pm, and because we weren’t tired, walked through Times Square at midnight. New York was in the middle of a heat wave and the temperature was still 98. The combination of heat and humidity added a particular edge to the smell of garbage in the streets, that sickly sweet/sour odor that punctuates the more appetizing smells wafting from restaurants and street vendors. Times Square was still going at full tilt (this was a Saturday) so the din of taxi horns was deafening. At every corner, we still had to elbow past street vendors and crowds jaywalking through the intersections. For my daughters, it was a rude sensory awakening to the Big Apple.

As I was writing that, feelings, sights, sounds and smells were being activated in my mind. I was recalling the images, and could, in my mind, feel the humid heat, smell the odors, hear the horns and see the crowds. If any of you reading this had been to Times Square on a hot summer night, you probably have your own scenes, from your own experiences, replaying in your mind. But the amazing thing is, if I say falafel stand, you can see, smell and perhaps even hear it. That’s because the same parts of your brain are firing that would actually be activated if you were physically there. Imagination is the next best thing to being there.

Athletes have long known this. Visualization starts building the same neural pathways that actual physical action does. A golfer struggling with his swing can visualize it and improve it, without a club in his hands, because he’s giving his brain a trial run. The same is true with a gymnast learning a new move. Studies have shown that imagining a 5 finger piano exercise results in a significant improvement in performance.

But perhaps the most startling evidence comes from a study done by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio. Here, from, is the summary of the study:

They split 30 healthy young adults into 3 groups.

For 15 minutes a day, five days a week for 12 week, Group #1 imagined exercising their little finger muscle. Group #2 imagined exercising their biceps muscle and Group #3 acted as a control group and did no imaginary exercise. Those in the first two groups were asked to think as strongly as they could about moving the muscle being tested, to make the imaginary movement as real as possible. The researchers measured muscle strength before, during and after the training sessions.

Group #1 (the finger exercisers) increased their strength 53 percent, and Group #2 (the biceps group) increased strength by 13.4 percent.

These results are somewhat unbelievable. Simply imagining exercise can make you stronger! Literally without lifting a finger. That’s the power of visualization.

So what does this mean for marketing? Visualization plays a part here as well. We often visualize our way through a purchase. If we’re looking at buying a car, we visualize ourselves driving it. If my wife is determined to buy a dress, she visualizes herself wearing it. Even if you are suddenly craving something from Starbucks, you can see, smell and taste the coffee before you ever get it in your hands. Visualization is a powerful part of purchasing, and once we build these neural pathways, it takes us much closer to the actual purchase. Smart marketers start building the pathways before you ever set foot in the store. That’s why personalized products can be so powerful. Personalization forces visualization.

Of course, visualization of product usage is nothing cutting edge. Most marketers do this instinctively. But what about visualization of the actual purchase itself? How can you start building the neural pathway required to ensure the transaction is completed? This is particularly important in more involved purchases, such as trips, cars, houses or more involved B2B purchases. In each of these cases, the very act of buying can act as an obstacle to a sale. It requires time, commitment and knowledge. For all these reasons, a little mental practice could improve the odds for success. Let me share another example.

In the 1960’s, social psychologist Howard Leventhal wanted to persuade a group of college seniors at Yale to get a tetanus shot. What he wanted to test was whether fear would be a more powerful influencer. So several information booklets were produced. Some were “high fear” with graphic pictures and descriptions. Some were “low fear”, with a more toned down, informational approach. The booklets were distributed and, somewhat predictably, the high fear booklets seemed to be more persuasive. The groups that received these booklets were more convinced about the importance of shots and more of them indicated that they intended to get inoculated. But one month later, almost none of the participants from any of the groups, high fear or low fear, had actually gone for an inoculation. A mere 3 percent had actually been inoculated. This was an unforeseen glitch in the experiment.

So Leventhal redid the experiment, but this time with one small change. This time, in all the booklets, he included a map showing where the clinic was and the hours it was open. This time, the inoculation rate went up to 28%.

If we look at the power of visualization, the thing that surprised Leventhal really isn’t that surprising at all. The first round of the experiment did a good job of inducing the visualization of consequences, in this case, negative consequences. The high fear booklet let the students visualize what might happen if they didn’t get a tetanus shot, and so it was persuasive. But it didn’t close the loop. It wasn’t that the message wasn’t persuasive. It was just that it left the door open for life to get in the way.

But the second version allowed the student to visualize the path required to actually get the inoculation. I’m sure most of them probably knew where the clinic was, but the inclusion of the map prompted them to visualize actually going there, and the hours allowed them to visualize where in their schedule they could fit in the visit. Once the students went through the mental process of visualizing action, there was a much higher probability that the action would take place.

What are the takeaways? If your purchase process requires a commitment on the part of the buyer, let them visualize the path required to get to the end. Use your website to build the path required to navigate through things like financing, negotiation, customer service, delivery and selection of products and options. Don’t just stop at visualization of ownership. Think about the visualization of the act of buying as well.

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