The ultimate heads-up on getting messages right

Hot on the heels of research into how elements like typeface can affect how engaged your customer is in your offer, comes some further insight into where you should place marketing messages on a page for maximum effect.

Thanks to what’s known as “processing fluency”, which is the ease with which information is processed, we now understand that when something is difficult to read two things can happen:

  • It can turn people off because they simply don’t want to expend energy trying to nut out what you are trying to communicate; or
  • If it’s sufficiently important to them, it can help them focus.

In both cases your customer is being shunted out of their automatic, intuitive, fast System 1 thinking and into their rational, critical, slow System 2 thinking. Whether this is a good thing depends on what your goal is – do you want them to go with the flow or stop and think?

But processing fluency goes further.

Aside from typeface, where you position images on your website or marketing campaign can affect behaviour. For instance, a couple of findings that I’ve discussed previously have taught us that:

  • If you include before and after pictures, it is better to have the before on the left because this is consistent with representations of past-left and future-right; and
  • Including a spoon on the right of an image is more influential than the left because it accords with the right-handedness of the majority of the population (known as the Visual Depiction Effect).

And now we have another chestnut to add to our approach to customer influence. More specifically, which messages should go where as you work from top to bottom?

Should facts and figures go first, or should you lead with emotion? In other words, should the head rule the heart or vice versa?

It was this head-heart metaphor that researchers were interested in, hypothesising that because the head sits above the heart, messages of a factual, ‘head’ based nature would be more easily processed at the top of a communication, and messages more emotionally ‘heart’ based, lower down.

And indeed that’s what they found.

“For example, in a granola bar advertisement, the words ‘a tasty choice’ are best placed below a picture of the treat, because ‘tasty’ makes an emotional appeal, whereas the words ‘the healthy choice’ (a more rational culinary claim) are best placed above the picture. Another example: A sports car (generally a more emotional purchase) may promise to ‘fulfill your dreams’ — words that should be placed lower in the commercial. By contrast, a more practical vehicle may advertise, ‘Save money by increasing gas mileage’, a more rational claim that would be placed higher up to achieve the greatest effect in potential consumers.”

The researchers were at pains to point to some caveats about this up/down, rational/emotion finding (which you can read here), such as brand familiarity, which reduces the effect. But this research again shines a light on how the ease with which our customers process communications has a large bearing on its effectiveness.

The lesson to emerge is that effective communications seem to embody representations of our physical world and any deviation to this interferes with our ability to process the information in a fluid and constructive way.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.

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