A butterfly flaps its wings and you make a sale

butterfly effectIt’s easy to be taken in by the idea of the Butterfly Effect: That a butterfly gently flapping its wings in the jungles of Madagascar can indirectly cause a Typhoon off the coast of Jakarta.

Or, updating for modern-day relevancy, Naomi Dunford pounds a curse word into a WordPress and Brian Clark makes $172. Or Dave McClure releases a silent-but-deadly outside a Menlo Park Starbucks and a social media company gets funded in Boston.

It’s a great story: Little actions can have enormous influence. A small favor you do on Twitter results in a viral post seven months later. A small change to your download page results in 20% more trials. A subtle shift in background color increases average time-on-site by 27 seconds.

We’re willing to believe it because mathematicians have proven it’s true for complex, fluid systems like weather and economics.

We want to be believe it because it’s harmonious and comforting to think that everything is connected, and that the tiniest action has the potential for significant effect.

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

For me the most compelling evidence comes from cognitive psychology where studies abound with astounding tales of subtle environmental changes radically and systematically affecting people’s behavior.

It’s relevant for marketing and sales because it’s an inside scoop about how to manipulate strangers on the sly. It’s akin to subliminal messaging, but more pervasive, more powerful, and less susceptible to biting satire.

Eerie examples:

  • Touching merchandise while you’re shopping increases the chance that you’ll purchase it. (source)
  • Students performed word-searches from random words. Some of the puzzles were seeded with words associated with old age, e.g. gray, wrinkle, bingo, Florida. While traversing a hallway after solving the puzzle, those students given “old” words walked more slowly. (source)
  • Students took a survey about health risks; half walked down a hallway where someone was sneezing. Those who passed the “ill” confederate reported a more negative view of the American health system and believed the average American was more likely to die of heart attack. (source)
  • Students were asked to recount memories while moving marbles between two trays. When moving marbles from a lower tray to a higher one, the memories were more positive; when moving downward the memories were more negative. (source)

This news should be simultaneously titillating for marketers (“Ooo, puppet strings!”) and frightening for consumers (Are you ever in control of your own decisions?).

But actually, when taken to its logical conclusion, you have to ignore most of it.

After all, these studies must be just the tip of the iceberg. When I’m at the mall I’m passing people who are coughing just like the experimenter in the study… but also people who are angry, laughing, sitting, jogging, yelling, sleeping, shoplifting, and eating. Each storefront beckons me with colors, shapes, fonts, compositions, arrows, borders, lighting, and even sounds and smells.

double-doozieAll this is (apparently) tugging me in different directions, just below the veneer of consciousness where my impulsive, subconscious lizard brain is eagerly lapping up the stimuli and directing my attention and my wallet.

But then again, despite these impressive efforts, I’m distracted by the P.A. system blaring about a 6-year-old knee-deep in the fountain outside the Men’s Dillards. And then my cell phone goes off with a new tweet mentioning @asmartbear and my heart goes all aflutter (Ooo, attention! Please love me so I can love myself!). And then a butterfly flaps its wings (this time in Argentina) and suddenly and inexplicably I decide against the indulgence of a Double Doozie Cookie®.

It’s worse on the Internet. You’re competing not only with the real world but with the virtual world of tabbed browsing, Twitter alerts, back buttons, bouncing tray icons, and instant messaging.

It seems to me that instead of chasing subtle subliminal effects, most of which will be wiped away by the ambient noise of life, we could spend our time on the big-ass, in-yo-face, non-subliminal effects.

Like, if you get a popular blogger to mention you, that’s more influential than the color of your logo. (200 words from Seth Godin is good for 1000’s of unique visitors.)

Like, if you have a compelling story that people intrinsically want to spread, that’s more influential than building a snappy Flash animation for your home page. (Kiva and Zappos win not just because they are awesome, but because it’s awesome for you when you tell other people about their awesomeness.)

Like, if you thoroughly thrill one person in a product demo, that’s more money in the bank than 1,000 people hitting your website and getting “branded” that you’re “trustworthy” because of your steel-blue color palette and stoic font. (I’ll take one Tom over ten thousand StumbleUpon hits.)

I like the idea of subtle yet powerful influences as much as anyone else, and I’m not saying design and attention to detail isn’t important or valuable. I just think most of our efforts are drowned out by the seething distraction that is the Internet and life in general.

Take care of the big stuff first.

What are your thoughts? Am I discounting the importance of details too much? Leave a comment and join the conversation.

18 responses to “A butterfly flaps its wings and you make a sale”

  1. Awesome advice Jason! Those examples you gave are insane haha. I agree though because I believe it’s hard to even tell which subliminal message is really even going to work. When you go “in your face” you know you’re going to get some results.
    .-= Alex’s latest blog post: The Virtue of Obsession =-.

  2. Touching merchandise while you’re shopping increases the chance that you’ll purchase it.

    Isn’t it another case of mistaking correlation for causation? I don’t buy because I touched it, I touch it because I want to buy it.

  3. Touching merchandise while you’re shopping increases the chance that you’ll purchase it.

    Hmm, is that like a 30-day trial? Maybe…

    I totally believe in details. The problem is you (I) don’t have enough resources to measure the effects. So you (again, I) have to do a gut check and possibly keep doing the wrong thing.

    Though I’m not entirely sure about your farting example, I guess it can happen :)
    .-= Sohail’s latest blog post: An easy way to get more feedback: Shout! =-.

  4. Jason, may I recommend a holiday? :-)

    Seriously, though, what I take from your post is what I’ve always believed, and that’s that patterns of causality may be found wherever one wants to see them. Whether they have any actual significance is debatable, and by the nature of the beast observation changes them.

    Very interesting post today, thanks!
    .-= John Clark’s latest blog post: Recent highlights =-.

  5. Interesting post.

    I used to be a manager of a brick & mortar store and did find that if you “created activity” in the store more people were likely to enter. People tend to go where the crowd is, i.e. if others are interested this place may-be I would be too. As a result, more traffic does equate to more sales.

    However, pinning your ultimate success on these little nuances does lead to failure and well…an a bit of A.D.D. enabling as well.
    .-= Liane’s latest blog post: Songs of Spring – here little birdy! =-.

  6. I love your blog, very thoughtful, well written, and appropriately controversial. :)

    I’d argue that the in-yo-face and subliminal stuff are too intertwined to think about executing one instead of the other; they are complementary. It’s like strategy and tactics. Kiva has a fantastic story, but without strong execution on the subliminal level (e.g. coming across as trustworthy so you don’t worry where the money really goes, having pictures of the microfinancees so you feel a human connection, etc.) I suspect they wouldn’t be nearly as successful as they are. On the other hand, tweaking the subconscious messages while giving an utterly boring conscious impression is doomed to failure too. I don’t care how attractively designed that solar-powered flashlight is. :)

    The conscious and the subconscious effects really need to be considered together. See also: Donald Norman’s Visceral and Reflective levels of design: http://www.lukew.com/ff/entry.asp?34

  7. Hacking away at the foundations of Web and Social Network marketing, I see. Wonderful.

    So much of what is done online is exactly and only noise.

    I’ll take the bird in the hand of one customer in the store, over 1,000 “hits” any day. This is the premise behind our Window Video Systems and Digital Window Display products: That messaging to your customer or prospect at the point of purchase is HUGELY more potent than than throwing a few messages out to people casually surfing the net. Or Tweeting.

    HELLO!!! They’re in front of your store–say something to get em in and buy!


  8. What an insightful post! You’ve carefully explained the intricacies of psychology and marketing to a newbie like me! I really enjoyed this article – and as with all marketing tactics – the key is balance!

  9. I think it depends on whether you are looking at this from a personal action angle or running a business perspective. In any business you need both, someone to look at big picture and someone to manage the minutae. Perhaps you are creating a third way – “Big Picture Minutae?”

    Go ahead and brand that Jason, this one is on me…
    .-= Marc Winitz’s latest blog post: Get In Touch with Your Feminine Side =-.

  10. That is a very interesting observation. I am for one, the kind of person that touches clothes before I decide to buy them. Wait, on almost anything that I decide to buy, I touch it first. Except of course, when I’m online shopping.
    Jessica Star
    Designer Sale

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