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!

Copywriting, marketing

DIY Copy: Do you really need a copywriter?

Written word is one of the most important things for your business, whether that’s online or in print. Around 69% of B2B marketers deliberately strategize their content to boost business. Out of these marketers, 42% agree that great content increases the effectiveness of their business. So, what exactly is content? Is it different than copywriting?

Content vs. copywriting

Some people confuse some copy with content. While both copy and content are important for your business, copy is what sells.

Content is usually more educational or entertaining in nature, and copy is more promotional. Copy drives action. Copy typically includes what’s called a “call to action” to get the reader to do something (e.g. click link, buy something, visit a store).

Let’s use LinkedIn as an example. If you’re an entrepreneur, you can consider yourself your business. Your content is your LinkedIn profile. Say you have a project in mind, and you’re looking for a collaborator. Your copy is the message you send to your potential collaborator. You want the person to act (e.g. schedule a call with you), so you use promotional language in your message. (Read more about influencing people here).

It’s important to have both content AND copy to engage with your audience. It would be weird to have all copy and no content. Likewise, you wouldn’t make many sales with all content and no copy. Content can be a great way to build your brand and draw attention to your business. But copy is arguably much more important when it comes to making the sale.

Good copy gets people’s attention. Great copy sells. Excellent copy coverts window shoppers to long-term customers.

If copywriting is so important, why doesn’t every business hire a copywriter for all their advertising?

Probably the #1 reason people don’t hire professionals to write their copy is the cost. Businesses spend a LOT of money on advertising. Great copy costs a lot because it truly is that valuable. A good copywriter can easily double or triple the initial investment through a successful marketing campaign.

But if you’re a new business owner and you don’t quite have the funds for a fancy ad campaign, you can always write the copy yourself, right? Absolutely! Read below to decide whether DIY copy is right for you.

Hiring a copywriter vs. DIY copy

I want to preface this by saying I am a huge DIY-girl. I make my own cleaning products at home, and I always try to teach myself how to do something before hiring someone to do it for me. That being said…

Pros of DIY copy:

  • Saves money (initially)

You can save a big chunk of money in your advertising budget if you choose to use DIY copy.

Cons of DIY copy:

Learning curve

A lot of business owners don’t know this, but copywriting is not like the writing you learned in school. Copywriting is more like writing how you would talk or text. Grammar isn’t quite as important in copywriting. The writing style that would earn you an A in English class might make zero sales and could even turn some people off your brand. A piece of copy could be riddled with incomplete and run on sentences and made-up words— which would seriously disappoint your 7th grade English teacher—but it could make thousands of sales.

It takes a LONG time to get good at copywriting. People dedicate their careers to studying it. Professionals must continue practicing and learning to stay sharp. Not only is it a highly specialized skill, but the field changes with new technology and trends. Some copywriting strategies have stood the test of time, and they’ll likely continue to work for businesses like yours. But one tactic that made a business owner wildly successful 5 years ago won’t necessarily work today. It depends on the niche, your business, the time period, and other factors— many of which are impossible to know if you don’t have experience as a copywriter.

If you have the many hours to spend studying the craft, then, go for it!

But most business owners have a million other things to do besides writing their own copy. If they truly put in the time it takes to learn a craft, it will take much longer to launch their campaign to sell their product. And if you take too long to launch your DIY copy, you could miss out on sales.

Losing money in the long run

Although initial costs will be very low or even zero, DIY copy will be likely be more expensive in the long run. Ineffective advertising could not only fail to bring in sales, but it could reflect negatively on your business and actively repel customers. Yikes.

If you choose to use DIY copy anyways, ask someone to review your copy for errors and for impact (bonus points if that person has marketing experience). Some beginner copywriters might be happy to look over your piece for you.

Cons of hiring a copywriter:                                                                                

  • Not an expert in every niche:

You can’t expect every copywriter to know everything about every niche. There may be trends they don’t know about or terms they’ve never heard, which make it difficult for them to write for an unknown audience.

A very easy solution to this is to hire a copywriter who has demonstrated experience in researching different industries. If you set up a call with them, they can ask you questions about your niche. If they’re a good copywriter, you can watch them seamlessly apply their businesses marketing expertise to your project— and make you money.

If you’re really worried about it, just find a copywriter who specializes in your niche. There are copywriters who specialize in all kinds of industries, including wellness, e-commerce, beauty, pet products, SaaS products, airplanes, cars, and so much more.

  • Cost

I mentioned this before, but the big reason people don’t hire professionals is because copywriters aren’t cheap. To make the most of your investment:

  1. Make sure the service or product you’re offering is truly excellent.
  2. Find a high-quality, experienced copywriter to really make your offer shine.
  3. Ask for discounts. Sometimes, copywriters will give you a discount if you bundle projects with them.
  4. Don’t just jump into a huge project with a copywriter you’ve never worked with. Unfortunately, not all copywriters can do what you’re looking for. If you’re working with a brand new copywriter, ask them to do a smaller test project for a lower price, just to make sure you have a good fit before you spend the big bucks.

Pros of hiring a copywriter:

  • Time saver

Writing a piece of great copy can take a long time, and if you DIY, that’s time you could have spent doing other things. Hiring a copywriter allows you to focus on other important aspects of the business. This is especially important if you are in the online space. People want to see frequent content online. Writing, editing, and publishing copy can take a big chunk of your time away from other business needs.

  • 100% original and free of grammar errors

If you’re putting out DIY copy, it can be easy to accidently take someone else’s work (i.e. plagiarize) or make spelling errors. Copywriters (and editors) are trained to notice the little things, and good copywriters never steal others’ work. That’s just bad form.

  • More effective advertising

Unless you’re in the marketing field, you probably just don’t know how to advertise yourself. If you own a clothing line, for example, your expertise is in the fashion industry, not the advertising industry. Although certain aspects of fashion may also apply to advertising, you probably don’t know the ins and outs of headlines, subheadings, where readers’ eyes are drawn, and what to say in your “call to action.”

If you’re in the online space, it’s also super important that you use SEO (search engine optimization) keywords strategically in your copy. Whether you like it or not, Google analyzes your site for relevant keywords to rank in the results section after someone searches for certain keywords. For example, as an online clothing retailer, you need to make it clear to Google that you have clothes for sale at your site to ensure your site appears close to the top of the results page for “online clothing retailer.” Good copywriters know how to use SEO keywords tactfully to rank your site higher on Google.


DIY copy comes with its own unique benefits. But professionals generally yield MUCH better results in terms of sales and conversions. To survive in a competitive industry, ineffective advertising ends up being more expensive in the long run compared to hiring a professional copywriter.

Thanks for reading! Comments and suggests welcome below.  


Is marketing evil?

Don Draper sits with his arms crossed across his chest, thinking of ways to sell tobacco. He’s just been notified of new research that shows that tobacco is unhealthy, but he doesn’t want to lose this account. He has bills to pay, and he needs to find a way to sell tobacco regardless of its dangers.

Don Draper is exactly who we DON’T want selling our products to us. He is cunning, smart, and ruthless. His goal is to sell, not to necessarily to help.

Yet Don Draper is exactly the type of copywriter all businesses want in their marketing department. Businesses want long-term clients and customers. They want their customers’ hard-earned money. And Don Draper knows how to get money into their clients’ hands.

Is marketing manipulative? Is it evil?

Honestly, maybe. The answer depends entirely on the business and product being marketed. Let’s look at two real-life examples of “evil” marketing being used to sell a dangerous product: tobacco and alcohol.

It’s no secret that tobacco is bad for you. And you can debate whether red wine is good for the heart (or whatever that claim is), but alcohol can certainly be dangerous. In fact, our government mandates that the Surgeon General’s Warning is clearly displayed on the package or bottle to discourage its sale and use.

In 1971, cigarette advertisements were banned from TV and radio. In 1998 a lawsuit resulted in new bans on tobacco advertising on billboards, cartoons, and advertising designed to appeal to kids younger than 18 years old.

In 2006, it was determined that Big Tobacco had violated racketeering laws by marketing “low tar” and “light” cigarettes. They claimed that these low tar and light cigarettes were actually less harmful than normal cigarettes. They knowingly misrepresented these products, and Big Tobacco paid the price.

In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act granted the FDA power to regulate marketing of tobacco. This allowed the FDA to restrict sale of tobacco in retail where customers could buy it face-to-face. It also banned the sale of tobacco through vending machines. 

A few ways Big Tobacco use sneaky and mega effective marketing tactics to sell harmful products:

A. They target vulnerable populations to sell more tobacco. It is well known in marketing that you need to target your audience to sell your product. For example, selling clothes to the geriatric population is very different from selling clothes to teenagers. Teenagers are more likely to care about style, what their friends are wearing, and the latest trends. In contrast, older populations are more likely to care about being comfortable, having easy clothes to put on, and feeling their best. Different populations warrant different marketing, and Big Tobacco knows that. Tobacco was marketed to specific audiences to sell better. 

B. They use experiential marketing. Experiential marketing is a tactic used by marketers to get their audience to associate the promoted product with a certain activity. Ideally, that activity is something the audience LOVES. 

For example, Big Tobacco used the below packaging to get people to associate hip hop with tobacco.

C. They use familiar-looking products in e-cigarettes’ package designs. The names and images below elicits nostalgia for products like Vanilla Wafers, Sour Patch Kids, and Whipped Cream.

Wait, aren’t there rules against using marketing like that? How are they able to do this? 

Well, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act actually does not apply to the e-cigarettes. Big Tobacco is well within their legal rights to market these products—even though we have scientific literature on the dangers of e-cigarettes AND they blatantly exploit people’s fondness of childhood treats (to sell e-cigs). 

Another potentially harmful and addictive substance is alcohol. 

College students, open minded and ready to make friends, are major targets for Big Alcohol. Marketers use prototypes (or avatars) of their ideal customer to sell their products. They say, “who would want to buy this product?” and “what can I promise them that will sell the product?”

College students have a wide range of interests, many of which can be exploited by companies who want to sell them stuff— like alcohol. According to research published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, alcohol companies know this and use it to sell alcohol to college kids. They know that not all college students are the same. Some prefer to be seen as more free-spirited. Others want to be known as great athletes. For example, Coors is targeted at the chill, easy-going ones. Budweiser is targeted at the athletic ones. 

Think about the famous slew of Budweiser SuperBowl ads. Maybe without you even knowing, an association was formed: Budweiser + Football = Good time. BOOM. 

Consider the Coors “Made to Chill” campaign. It targets millennials who are staying at home, chilling— with a beer (in the shower, apparently). Coors wants to attract those go-with-the-flow types to buy Coors.

These target advertisement campaigns work. Coors and Budweiser are popular with college kids, and I think that’s due to a concerted effort of the companies.

Sounds slimy, right? Marketing can definitely be manipulative, but it can also be immensely helpful. Now that you know the dark side of marketing, see my article here on nudging to see why and how it can be helpful.

So, is marketing evil? It absolutely can be. Business psychology in advertising is incredibly powerful. That’s why, as writers, we need to be careful who we work for. If you’re a freelancer, you need to be extra vigilant. Don’t work for businesses whose products don’t TRULY benefit the consumer. ONLY work for those businesses that you can proudly support with your well-crafted words. 

Thanks for reading! Do you love it? Hate it? Let me know below!