By Colin Shaw: Why Customer Buy
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Human beings form first impressions very quickly. These first impressions become the basis for what happens later. Digital-first impressions happen just as fast. Knowing this, are you proud or concerned about the first impression your digital experience makes right now?
We talked about first impressions and digital-first impressions on a recent podcast. I read an article that inspired the idea about this topic, “Predicting Users First Impressions of Web Site Aesthetics with a Quantification of Perceived Visual Complexity and Colorfulness.” This peer-reviewed scientific paper was written by computer science professors from Harvard and other universities. After showing participants many websites and analyzing their reactions, the researchers determined that people make a first impression of a website in 500 milliseconds.
When you consider the complexity of websites, these results are shocking. There is a splash page on the front page, but then there’s supposed to be layers and layers of information that people can access. We intuitively hope that people are giving us a chance, and they do. Unfortunately, that chance lasts a very short time.
First impressions become the anchor point for an expectation. Then, our perception improves or degrades depending upon what happens in the experience. Suppose you start at a high point with your first impression, then the ending perception of the experience will be higher than if you start at a low point. That’s why these initial impressions matter.
First impressions are lasting impressions, which isn’t great news if you make a bad one. However, bad first impressions are not insurmountable. For example, I got off to a shaky start with my father-in-law.
Back when I was 17, I met my wife Lorraine at a holiday camp. I had won a football competition, and she presented the award to us. I saw my chance and made my move. After taking her dancing, I walked her back to drop her off where she was staying. When we arrived, she realized she had forgotten her key. I offered to climb in through the window of her chalet and let her in the door. Unfortunately, when I was halfway through the window, her father came into the chalet. Without knowing what else to do, I said, “Oh, Hello, Mr. Champion. Nice to meet you.” Then, as if this moment couldn’t get any worse, I fell and smashed the bedside cabinet in the room.
Now, he might have decided that I could never see his daughter again after that first impression, but my decades-long marriage says otherwise. His impression of me must have improved, but that took work on my part.
A Great First Impression is Crucial
The website article mentioned the researchers looked at the website’s aesthetics as measured by what they called perceived visual complexity and colorfulness. They found that varying levels of complexity and colorfulness will lead to better initial impressions.
However, it is vital to mention that many boundary conditions exist around those findings. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that you should have a super colorful and complex website. What I do want you to remember is the general idea of the conclusions of this paper: you should get those great first impressions, and they happen fast.
Some of you might recall our discussions about Customer Segmentation and how different customers like different parts of your experience or value your brand for different reasons. Some customer segments might find different visual elements more appealing than other components. Some might like a minimalist website instead. Knowing what your customer finds attractive can help you make a better first impression.
These findings of websites fit within the “thin slice” research domain. In this research, people see very quick or very little bursts of information, and researchers ask them to form impressions of it. One of the more famous studies in this area involved student evaluations of college professors. Students rate their professors on several different characteristics at the end of the semester. Then, researchers showed students who did not have the class short clips of the professor teaching and had them rate the professor also. It turns out that the correlation between the ratings of the students that had the professors and the ratings of those who only saw short clips of the professor teaching was strong. In other words, people formed impressions of the professor after just a few seconds that were very similar to the impressions that people had of this professor after an entire semester. Moreover, when the researchers stripped out the sound on the videos, the ratings were still highly correlated, based solely on body language and appearance.
Unfortunately, the website article didn’t have recommendations about what you should do. It is a scientific paper and the way these work is to look at a concept through very limited stimuli by setting boundaries. Boundaries are an essential concept in science because they keep us from making assumptions that can cause catastrophic consequences in our efforts to improve the world. Even gravity, the most fundamental physical law of our world, has boundaries, as we discussed on a recent podcast. If you were to over apply the law of gravity outside the “boundaries” of its stimuli, you could crash your rocket ship, as it were.
Seeing How Experience and Expectations Affect Evaluations
I’ve mentioned before a recent experience with a company in the UK that sold glasses online called Glasses Direct. Some of you who have heard the story might recall I needed to track my order at one point in the process. My tracking experience expectation was something like Amazon that would tell me where the glasses were, where they had been, when they might arrive, and everything else. What I got was nothing like Amazon, or tracking, really. So, it brought down my overall impression of the site.
Like my experience with Glasses Direct, the way people form these evaluations, even those instantaneous evaluations, is based on their experience and expectations. Moreover, those expectations change. When you consider the website research from before, we have a much different expectation for a website in 2021 than we did in 1997. What might have resulted in a positive instantaneous evaluation ten years ago might result in a negative evaluation today. We now have more experience with websites, preferences for how they work, and standards for usability and aesthetics that a website should meet than we did before the turn of the century.
From a business perspective, it is understandable how a website can fall short of customers’ expectations. An organization can sometimes be too close to it and might not see that the website is behind the times. Many firms might not know they are making a terrible first impression in the digital space. In that case, getting an outside viewpoint can help. For example, we have a service we have been doing over the past few months called an Experience Health Check. We act as if we are a customer (or if we can’t do that, talk to your customers directly) and assess your experience against best practice. Then, we provide you recommendations for changes, like improving your tracking information (I’m looking at you, Glasses Direct).
The Challenges and Opportunities of Digital Experiences
We did a recent podcast around the whole area of measuring customer emotions over digital. We discuss how one of the challenges in the digital environment is you’re not there when the customer is experiencing these things. It can be challenging to tell what is happening at the moment. You can’t tell, for instance, where the customer is frowning, feeling surprised, or joyful.
However, facial recognition software can do this for you. Facial recognition software reads micro-expressions that communicate emotions, like raising an eyebrow or pursing the lips. The software looks for those micro impressions, making it possible to see what happens at the moment. You can also test things in your digital experience to know the level of emotional engagement you are getting. Moreover, you could identify what those first impressions are and what the customer is feeling.
These micro-expressions are insights into the intuitive processes. They happen without people’s conscious awareness. They appear and disappear. That’s why they’re called micro-expressions. They appear and disappear on people’s faces, often more quickly than the eye can discern when watching a person. When computers detect these things, it gives us some idea of how your customers forming these immediate, intuitive impressions of what they’re seeing in your digital experience.
What we know is that a first impression is essential. Therefore, your home page has got to be excellent. What many organizations do now, particularly on social media, is to promote different landing pages and ensure those convey a proper first impression.
We also know that you can use it to determine what is the first thing customers see. If it isn’t the right thing, it can convey the wrong message. If the most prominent feature is a sales pitch, the customer might feel like you aren’t interested in what they want and need or don’t value them.
However, do not limit your thinking to only the website. So, if the first interaction customers have with your company online is through an app or a digital ad, or an email, people form impressions based on that information.
The idea of when customers get their first impression of a company online reminds me of a challenge we often have with organizations’ limited view when taking on Customer Journeys. Most think the journey begins once customers come into the store. However, we argue that the real Customer Journey starts when customers realize they need the product or service you sell, long before they darken the door at your brick and mortar location. We would encourage that same kind of thinking when considering digital first impressions. It may not necessarily occur when the customers land on your home page. Instead, customers’ digital-first impression might have started earlier, and so by the time they arrive at the Home page, they already have an impression. Alternatively, not all journeys lead through the front page of the website. Sometimes people link directly to some page deeper in, so they might form their initial impressions based on that page.
Whether it’s face-to-face, over the phone, digital interaction, or through social media, human beings receive information and make an impression. Your digital transformation design is critical to creating your digital first impression. The key takeaway is that all the concepts I write about in offline settings are crucial in the digital environment also. People are people, after all, and that’s neither good news nor bad news.
While things are not fundamentally different in the digital space, they come with unique challenges and opportunities. A challenge is you can’t necessarily observe people as easily in a digital area. However, an opportunity is you can make changes a lot easier if you want to improve the first impression that people have, as opposed to the time and resources needed to change the first impression when customers enter your retail store. With digital, you have opportunities to change things around, optimize, and improve that initial experience, because it matters, and it matters a lot.
Another opportunity with digital is you can measure everything. I recommend measuring, analyzing the results, and understanding what you’re getting back. Also, it would be best to interpret that data from behavioral science and a scientific perspective. Moreover, look into this whole area of measuring customer emotions online, through research or facial recognition technology, or both. It is a powerful way of seeing for yourself how your digital first impression is landing with customers.
The fact is, your digital experience is making the first impression right now—in about 500 milliseconds, it seems. So, the question becomes, is yours making an impression of which you would be proud or one you will have to work to overcome?