The Conversion Rates on Shock
The crowd is not working against you. Save stumbling into a social media fury amplifier, chances are that you don’t mean enough to an actual mob to make them care. It only seems that way, and with good reason. Studies repeatedly show that an angry face in the crowd stands out, but conversely, a smiling face is lost in a sea of angry ones. When we address a group — of friends or customers — we realize success in retrospect, but we know almost instantly when we’ve screwed it up. In short, humans are trained to pick out the threat, not the opportunity.
Evolutionarily, this makes sense despite the fact that humans are, by and large, wildly optimistic creatures. If you miss an opportunity, you generally aren’t any worse off than before. No better, perhaps, but no worse. Miss a threat and you are libel to get eaten or otherwise mangled. Humans are idiotically hopeful; we just want to live to be unaccountably sunny tomorrow.
The part of the brain that regulates all this black magic is the amygdala — which acts primarily as a threat center that triggers, among other things, the “fight or flight” switch. Threatening images are simply processed faster by the brain than happy ones. Advertisers have long known this and have exploited it to grab our attention to sell us things. The grabbing our attention part works and it works well.
The question is: Is this an affective way to deliver your message? I once worked with some doctors in an NGO who kept insisting that the way to increase donations was “First, make them cry.” Which is easy to do in the children’s wing of some third world hospital and damn near impossible to avoid in a war zone. Take for example, that heart-wrenching shot of the stunned little boy in an Aleppo hospital, inevitably followed by a snark about how the image changed nothing in the end because no one really cares. The photo isn’t going to end a war, true, but that notion that it was because no one cared misses something very human. People were very moved. In fact they likely moved away from the television set to grab their own children. That’s what humans are programmed to do, run toward our children and away from a threat.
I cases where a big Donate/Buy Now button can be installed next to the horrifying image — the “make them cry” does work assuming no cognitive thought is required to get your message across. Baring those relatively rare instances when you can engage a customer and get their buy-in in one violent spasm, the conversion rates on shock are mixed.
The problem is that the amygdala becomes something of a double-edged sword. Once the threat center is tripped, as it were, our conscious brain quits processing information much beyond the simple motor function required to move away from the thing we find uncomfortable. Difficult images are easy to recall, but they are also very uncomfortable to hold because they sit badly next to our inexplicable optimism. In practice, an emotionally arresting image is more likely to make customers desperate to distance themselves from image without ever knowing exactly why.
The high alter of advertising has long been to “grab” the customer’s attention. Something that has gotten harder as our attentions have fractured into ever smaller segments. Better to spend you time considering how to “hold” the customer’s attention by delivering your message so that it places your customer nearer the solution than the problem so she’ll want to occupy your space.
But hang on a mo’, a careful reader might point out, how do you “hold” attention without first “grabbing” it? And how to grab the customer’s attention in a sea of angry faces, when a pleasant face is inevitably lost? Simple, make sure customer recognizes the smiling face as her own. People will stare into a mirror for hours.