The Secret of Successful Marketing Lies in Split Seconds

affordanceThe other day, I was having lunch in a deli. I was also watching the front door, which you had to push to get in. Almost everyone who came to the door pulled, even though there was a fairly big sign over the handle which said “Push.” The problem? The door had the wrong kind of handle. It was a pull handle, not a push. The door had been mounted backwards. In usability terms, the door handle presented a misleading affordance.

I suspect the door had been there for many years. I was at the deli for about 30 minutes. In that time, about 70% of the people (probably close to 50) pulled rather than pushed. Extrapolating this to the whole, that means over the years, thousands and thousands of people have had to try twice to enter this particular place of business. Yet, the only acknowledgement of this instance of customer pain was the sign that had been taped to the door – “Push” – and I suspect there was an implied “(You Idiot)” following that.

I suspect most marketing falls in the same category as that sign. It’s an attempt to fight the intuitive actions that customers take – those split-second actions that happen before our brain has a chance to kick in. And we have to counteract those split-second decisions because the path we have created for our customers was built without an understanding of those intuitive actions. After we realize that our path runs counter to our customer’s natural behaviors do we rebuild the path? Does the deli owner pay a contractor to remount the door? No, we post a sign asking customers to push rather than pull. After all, all they have to do is think for a moment. It seems like a reasonable request.

But here’s the problem with that. You don’t want your customers to think. You want them to act. And you want them to act as quickly and naturally as possible. The battles of marketing are won in those split seconds before the brain kicks in.

Let me give you one example. A few years ago I did a study with Simon Fraser University in Canada. We wanted to know how the brain responded in those same split seconds to brands we like versus brands we have no particular affinity to. What we found was fascinating. In about 150 milliseconds (roughly a sixth of a second) our brain responds to a well-loved brand the same way we respond to a smiling face. This all happens before any rational part of the brain can kick in. This positive reaction sets the stage for a much different subsequent mental processing of the brand (which starts at about 450 milliseconds, or half a second). And the power of this alignment can be startling. As Dr. Read Montague discovered, it can literally alter your perception of the world.

If you can rebuild your path to purchase to align with your customer’s intuitive behaviors, you don’t need to put up “push” signs when they stray off course. You don’t have to make your customers think. Here’s why that is important. As long as we operate at the intuitive level, humans are a fairly predictable lot. Evolution has wired in a number of behaviors that are universal across the population. You would not be risking your vacation fund if you placed a bet that the majority of people would try to pull a door with a door handle that suggested your should pull it, even if there was a sign that said “push.” As long as we operate on auto-pilot, we can plot a predicted behavioral course with a fair degree of confidence (assuming, of course, we’ve taken the time to understand those behaviors).

But the minute we start to think, all bets are off. The miracle of the human brain is that it has two loops of activity – one fast and one slow. The fast loop relies on instinct and evolved behavioral habits. It’s incredibly efficient but stubbornly rigid. The slow loop brings the full power of human rationality to bear on the problem. It’s what happens when we think. And once the prefrontal cortex kicks it, we are amazingly flexible but we pay the price in efficiency. It takes time to think. It also brings a massive amount of variability into the equation. If we start thinking, behaviors become much more difficult to predict.

The longer you can keep your customers on the fast path, the closer you’ll be to a successful outcome. Plan that path carefully and remove any signs telling them to “push.”

One thought on “The Secret of Successful Marketing Lies in Split Seconds

  1. Interesting opinion piece. One if the main reasons Gary and I remain Apple enthusiasts is because using them (G5, iPad, iPhone, etc.) is such an intuitive experience. One almost always figures out how to accomplish a computer task by trying what seems to be reasonable, logical and just “feels right” on a Mac product. I think the success of Mac computers and other Apple technology can be attributed to this intuitiveness in use.

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