Priming is a subconscious phenomenon where the activation of an association memory shortly before an action or task affects a subject’s response. In the example below a subject is asked to complete the word by filling in the missing letter. If presented with the first example the subject will be primed for words associated with the subject of the picture, money. On average most subjects will complete the word as ‘GREED’. In the lower example the subjects are primed with a picture of grass, and will tend to complete the word as ‘GREEN’. It is important to realise that there is a cultural influence at play here as well. If the first example was presented to an American audience with a picture of dollar bills, they may well complete the word as ‘GREEN’ as the dollar is sometimes referred to as the greenback (Wikipedia).
Priming has implications for website design and marketing, could you affect a viewer’s behaviour through the choice of images you place on the page. In a study by Mandel & Johnson (2002) this was put to the test. The researchers showed how a simple change in a pages background can affect the customers behaviour. The customers were given a choice between two products, in the first experiment it was a choice between two cars and in the second experiment a choice between two sofas. In the first experiment the subjects were primed with either a green page background covered in dollar symbols, a red background with flames, or a plain white background. The first instance was to prime for price, the second for safety, and the third was a control with no priming. The results were clear, consumers primed for price spent more time looking at price information while consumers primed for safety spent more time looking at safety information. In the second experiment consumers were asked to look at sofas, and primed with either a comfort background or a money background. Those primed for comfort spent more time looking at comfort information while those primed for cash spent more time looking at price information.
The experiment shows how even a subtle nudge can have a significant effect on a consumer’s behaviour, and how important it is to consider the match between visual imagery and desired behaviour on your website. If you want to sell a luxury item it surround it with images that provoke a luxury lifestyle, if you want to sell on value then use imagery that prompts the consumer to think about money.
Priming isn’t just about the visual imagery, it can be achieved through any of the senses and via the words you chose to use on your website. The priming stimulus doesn’t even have to be on the same page. When designing a sales funnel think carefully about what your consumer is exposed to through every step, and where possible use words and images that would reinforce the desired behaviour.