Psychological Priming and the Path to Purchase

First published March 27, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In marketing, I suspect we pay too much attention to the destination, and not enough to the journey. We don’t take into account the cumulative effect of the dozens of subconscious cues we encounter on the path to our ultimate purchase. We certainly don’t understand the subtle changes of direction that can result from these cues.

Search is a perfect example of this.

As search marketers, we believe that our goal is to drive a prospect to a landing page. Some of us worry about the conversion rates once a prospect gets to the landing page. But almost none of us think about the frame of mind of prospects once they reach the landing page.

“Frame” is the appropriate metaphor here, because the entire interaction will play out inside this frame. It will impact all the subsequent “downstream” behaviors. The power of priming should not be taken likely.

Here’s just one example of how priming can wield significant unconscious power over our thoughts and actions. Participants primed by exposure to a stereotypical representation of a “professor” did better on a knowledge test than those primed with a representation of a “supermodel.”

A simple exposure to a word can do the trick. It can frame an entire consumer decision path. So, if many of those paths start with a search engine, consider the influence that a simple search listing may have.

We could be primed by the position of a listing (higher listings = higher quality alternatives).  We could be primed (either negatively or positively) by an organization that dominates the listing real estate. We could be primed by words in the listing. We could be primed by an image. A lot can happen on that seemingly innocuous results page.

Of course, the results page is just one potential “priming” platform. Priming could happen on the landing page, a third-party site or the website itself. Every single touch point, whether we’re consciously interacting with it or not, has the potential to frame, or even sidetrack, our decision process.

If the path to purchase is littered with all these potential landmines (or, to take a more positive approach, “opportunities to persuade”), how do we use this knowledge to become better marketers? This does not fall into the typical purview of the average search marketer.

Personally, I’m a big fan of the qualitative approach (I know — big surprise) in helping to lay down the most persuasive path possible. Actually talking to customers, observing them as they navigate typical online paths in a usability testing session, and creating some robust scenarios to use in your own walk-throughs will yield far better results than quantitative number-crunching. Excel is not a particularly good at being empathetic.

Jakob Nielsen has said that online, branding is all about experience, not exposure. As search marketers, it’s our responsibility to ensure that we’re creating the most positive experience possible, as our prospects make their way to the final purchase.

The devil, as always, is in the details — whether we’re paying conscious attention to them or not.

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