The Power of Priming: Prime Customers To Increase Conversions

The Power of Priming: Prime Customers To Increase Conversions

Anyone who has stumbled across Elizabeth Gilbert’s, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ no doubt remembers Gilbert’s description of what it was like to enjoy an authentic pizza in Italy for the first time:

‘The dough, it takes me half my meal to figure out, tastes more like Indian naan than like any pizza dough I ever tried. It’s soft and chewy and yielding, but incredibly thin. I always thought we had two choices in our lives when it came to pizza crust—thin and crispy, or thick and doughy. How was I to have known there could be a crust in this world that was thin and doughy? Holy of holies! Thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yummy, chewy, salty pizza paradise.

On top, there is a sweet tomato sauce that foams up all bubbly and creamy when it melts the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and the one sprig of basil in the middle of the whole deal somehow infuses the entire pizza with herbal radiance, much the same one shimmering movie star in the middle of a party brings contact high of glamour to everyone around her. It’s technically impossible to eat this thing of course. You try to take a bite of your slice and the gummy crust folds, and the hot cheese runs away like topsoil in a landslides, makes a mess of you and your surroundings, but you just deal with it.’

Unless you’re totally immune to the thought of pizza, it’s hard to believe that anyone could savour that description without fantasising over the prospect of a warm slice. Yet, if you’re like most people, pizza probably wasn’t at the front of your mind when you first clicked on this article. Chances are, it was Gilbert’s vivid evocation of the experience that led you to imagine eating it. You have been ‘primed’ to think about, and desire, pizza.

The priming effect occurs when an individual is exposed to something that subconsciously influences them to behave in a certain way. In this example, we were exposed to a vivid description of what it is like to eat an authentic Italian pizza. As a direct result of this description, we were subconsciously nudged to crave, or at least to imagine, a slice of that pizza. If you could also now smell freshly baking dough, or see the pizza that Gilbert was describing, the effect would be amplified. As Thaler and Sunstein put it: ‘Sometimes the merest hint of an idea or concept will trigger an association that can stimulate action’.

In Thinking, Fast and SlowDaniel Kahneman recounts how in the 1980s, psychologists discovered that exposure to a certain word changes how easily other words can be brought to mind. For instance, if you had recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are fleetingly more likely to fill in the missing letter of SO_P to spell SOUP rather than, say, SOAP. If you had had a recent conversation about washing your hands, or about a new shampoo, the opposite would be true. If you had recently watched a romantic comedy, you would be more likely to complete KI__ as KISS than if you had watched a documentary on serial killers, where KILL would have been the more likely outcome.

The effects of priming can take many forms, and can range from the mundane to the totally bizarre. An example that has become a personal favourite is an experiment conducted by John Bargh back in 1996, in which several groups of students were asked to make four-word sentences from sets of five words. For instance, ‘finds he it yellow instantly’ became ‘he finds it instantly’, and so on. For one group of students, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as grey, forgetful, wrinkled or Florida. Each group was then told the experiment over, and that they would be allowed to leave. Unbeknownst to the participants, the real experiment was just beginning. As each group filed out into the corridor and headed towards the exit, the researchers were secretly timing them. Incredibly, the participants who had been primed by the ‘elderly’ words walked considerably slower than those exposed to the neutral words. What’s more, they didn’t even notice that they had been exposed to words related to old age.

These ‘elderly’ words evoked a stereotype that the students subconsciously imitated. Contrary to popular belief, stereotypes are not always a bad thing. Indeed, they can provide valuable shortcuts in our constant battle to make sense of our surroundings; older people do tend to walk slower, after all. The problem arises when a stereotype leads us to have negative preconceptions about a certain group, which in turn can influence our behaviour towards them. In fact, stereotypes can not only shape our behaviour, but also shape the behaviour of the stereotyped group themselves. We know, for example, that academically ordinary schoolchildren perform dramatically better when their teachers believe they are gifted. In what is something of a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, these children live up to their teacher’s expectations, even if these expectations are totally baseless. In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely points out that one stereotype of Asian-Americans is that they are especially talented in the realms of science and mathematics. Since a common stereotype for women is that they tend to be weaker at these subjects, could this mean that Asian-American women be influenced by both stereotypes? As will come as no surprise to you by now, the answer is yes.

‘…one stereotype of Asian-Americans is that they are especially talented in the realms of science and mathematics. Since a common stereotype for women is that they tend to be weaker at these subjects, could this mean that Asian-American women be influenced by both stereotypes? As will come as no surprise to you by now, the answer is yes.’ 

In an astounding experiment, Todd Pittinsky, Margaret Shin and Nalini Ambady divided a group of Asian-American women in two, and asked each group to take an identical math exam. The catch was that before sitting the test, the two groups were asked questions designed to prime them either about their gender, or about their race. For example, one group was asked whether they lived in a co-ed dorm, whether they preferred a co-ed or single-sex environment, and so on. The other group was asked about their family’s country of origin, how many generations of their family lived in America, and a rating of the degree to which food from their ethnic heritage was part of their upbringing. Incredibly, the women who had been primed to think about their gender performed worse in the tests than those who had been asked to consider race-related issues.

The more you begin to look into this phenomenon, the more bizarre it gets. People donate more money to anonymous strangers when they have been primed to think about God. Sales of either French or German wine are considerably affected by whether French or German music is playing at that particular wine shop. Even just the smell of an all-purpose cleaner makes people keep their table tidier when eating at a canteen!

Clearly, a company’s marketing material can play a powerful role in priming customers, and the way that brands present information is a crucial part of this process. The old adage that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ may be true, but if a particular picture tells the wrong story, then you’d have been better off rewriting the thousand words. The images used in a company’s advertising, on their website, or in fact, anywhere, should trigger memories and emotions in their customers that the business want them to associate with their product. As painfully obvious as this might sound, we encounter businesses on a daily basis with advertising that baffles. Worse still, clumsy advertising can prime an audience to associate a brand with a negative stereotype. Every marketer in the UK is familiar with the semi-legendary ‘Strand cigarettes’ advert, arguably the biggest advertising flop of the 20th century.

This 1959 commercial featured the actor Terence Brook walking alone through the rain-soaked streets of London, puffing on a cigarette. ‘You’re never alone with a Strand’, a voiceover declared. Tobacco bosses were thrilled, and the ad was declared to be a piece of cinematic mastery.

The only problem was that it had completely the opposite effect to what was intended.

Seeing a solitary figure puffing on a cigarette, viewers were primed to associate Strand cigarettes with loneliness, and the company hardly shifted a pack. What makes this example so interesting is that the commercial itself was actually very popular with the public. Indeed, it led to Brook becoming a star, and the background theme going on to reach Number 39 in the UK Singles Chart. The point is it was not the ad itself that was the problem; but rather what it made the audience associate with Strand as a company.

There are a vast array of ways to prime an audience or customer-base, encompassing everything from the colours associated with a brand to the language a business uses on its website. Whilst these topics are undeniably interesting, they are unfortunately well beyond the scope of this article, the purpose of which was to offer only an introduction to the topic.

I suppose you could call it a primer.




IMAGE: David Dean

[1] Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything. (London: Bloomsbury, 2009). 84.

[2] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). 52-54.

[3] John A. Bargh, Mark Chen and Lara Burrows, ‘Automaticity of Social Behaviour: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1996. Vol. 71, No. 2. 230-244. In recent years, questions have arisen over the legitimacy of Bargh’s findings. A replication of the experiment found no difference between each group’s walking speed, unless, ironically, those timing them had been primed to think there would be. Either way, it is evidence of the effects of priming, so I have chosen to keep it in this book.

4] Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, ‘Pygmalion in the classroom’, The Urban Review, Vol. 3(1). September 1968. 16-20.

[5] Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. (London: HarperCollins, 2008). 8-15.

[6] Margaret Shih, Todd L. Pittinsky and Amy Trahan, ‘Domain Specific Stereotypes on Performance’, Self and Identity, Vol. 5(1). 2006.

[7] Azim F. Shariff and Ara Norenzayan, ‘God is watching you: Priming God concepts increases prosocial behaviour in an anonymous economic game’, Psychological Science, Vol. 18(9). September 2007. 803-809.

[8] Adrian C. North, David J. Hargreaves and Jennifer McKendrick, ‘In-store music affects product choice’, Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science. 13 November 1997. 390, 132.

[9] Rob W. Holland, Merel Hendriks and Henk Aarts, ‘Smells Like Clean Spirit: Nonconscious Effects of Scent On Cognition and Behaviour’, Psychological Science, Vol. 16(9). 689-693.

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