marketing, psychology

It’s Prime Time: Psychology of Priming

As a business owner, you’re already priming your customers — whether you’re aware of it or not. And what you’re currently using to prime your customers has a MAJOR impact on your brand. That’s why it is crucial that you are aware of it. You need to actively work to make sure the priming effect makes you look good instead of, well, not good.

So what exactly is priming? More importantly, how are you using it as a business owner?

Priming is one of the most basic advertising tactics used in marketing, and a lot of marketers don’t even know they’re using it. Priming is generally accepted as a truth in social psychology, and it’s backed by behavioral research studies.

Priming is the idea that one thing affects your reaction to another thing that seems unrelated. Here’s an example:

Imagine you’re at a nice restaurant. You hear some Italian song playing — you know, When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie, that’s amore

You look at the wine list, and you notice an Italian wine is being featured. You look at the price and think, “Seems reasonable.”

And you say to the waiter, “I’ll take a bottle of the featured Italian wine.”

According to this idea of priming, you were primed by the Italian song to buy the pricier wine just because it was Italian.

Notice that you didn’t really think about the connection to the song and the wine — on some level, yes, you knew they were related, but you didn’t sit down and make a list of all the things associated with that Italian song (like pasta, cheese wheels, gondolas, and wine).

A key part of this idea of priming is that it actually occurs outside of conscious awareness. Sneaky, sneaky

You might be thinking that priming is all BS and that you wanted to buy the wine because you love wine and Italy produces great wine — the song had nothing to do with it. Okay, sure…

Well, what does the research say about priming?

A group of researchers actually took images of the brain and examined movement patterns during a brain task. Scientists assigned participants a thinking task and hooked them up to brain imaging equipment. They gave them instructions, saying something like, “Do X on number A.” But what they didn’t tell participants was that they also flashed a number in front of them for just a fraction of a second — so quickly that participants didn’t even know they saw it. This type of prime is called a masked prime. Scientists found that the people who saw the masked prime actually moved differently — as in, they did X (their task) on not only number A, but they moved to do that task on the masked prime too. And they had no awareness that they’d even seen this masked prime number.

Honestly, that’s pretty freaky… Does that mean that film editors can add a microsecond of a screen that says “buy stock in Ford Motors!!” and then BOOM, you’re primed to go buy stock in Ford Motors??

According to market researcher James Vicary, flashing ads for coca-cola and popcorn increased those sales in movie theaters, even though the ads were so quick the audience never registered them. Vicary is considered one of the leaders in the study of subliminal priming. Vicary’s findings have never been repeated, and it’s generally accepted that they were a hoax.

Now, an ethics question for you… Is priming manipulative?

On the surface, it’s quite obviously manipulative, right? Upon a closer look at the research, we can see that it may not be. In my opinion, priming is not evil or slimy for two reasons:

  1. The first reason I think it’s generally fine is because there would not be an effect of priming if there was not already an association formed in whosoever brain was being primed. In fact, research that shows that subliminal priming only has an effect on participants who already have a need/want for the product. Researchers showed that people only wanted the drink (for which they were shown subliminal messaging) when they were already thirsty.
  2. The second reason I think priming is not necessarily awful is because businesses with truly stellar products really should do everything they can to sell their products to improve their customers’ lives. You could even argue that great businesses are doing the world a disservice by not priming their customers to buy their great offer. If you’re selling anything less than top-notch products, then yes — priming your audience to buy your just-okay products is not good. And if that’s the case, you’re going to have to improve your product.

But regardless of whether priming is evil,  ALL businesses are already doing it— all the time.

Literally anything can prime customers for or against your brand, and many of those things are outside of your control. For example, if you’re trying to sell your online course, and your audience sees an ad about why online courses are better than books, you might have gotten lucky! That ad may have primed your customer to buy your course.

While SO many factors account for how your audience sees your business, here are few primes you can control that can seriously help shape your customers’ experience:

  • Word choice. As a copywriter, I am constantly thinking about the the effect words have. Put another way, I’m always considering how customers can be primed (in a positive or negative way) depending on my word choice. All copywriters should do this, but having a deep understanding of priming allows me to be extra careful with every word I write. I may be biased, but words are possibly the best way to prime your audience for higher sales.
  • Colors. What colors are in your logo, your website, or your store? Do they inspire the desired mood you want customers to have? There’s a whole sector of research devoted to color psychology that demonstrates how colors affect our emotions and behavior. Choose your colors wisely.
  • Logo. What does your logo look like? I deliberately chose a simply drawn ram as my logo for two reasons. First of all, I wanted site visitors to remember my name (RAMsey, get it?). Secondly, I chose the ram because I consider the ram to represent power. I want to show that my work is powerful in that it can ramp up your sales, increase conversions, and ultimately change the face of your business if employed properly. I’m confident that all these things can happen for your business with the marketing psychology techniques I know. I choose to showcase that to help clients get to know me better.

I know that you know colors, word choice, and logo are important for selling your brand. I didn’t need to tell you that. But it’s important to know just how crucial all of these things are for your business. So, choose your brand image wisely, and if you’re using your own DIY copy, try to get a second set of eyes on your work. While you can’t control people’s perception of your brand entirely, you can certainly put your best foot forward.

How can you showcase the best of your brand using the psychology of priming?

Let me know in the comments below how you use (or want to use) priming in your business!

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