Priming in Marketing—Good Strategy or Manipulation?
Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and author of the bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, observed:
What we think of as freewill is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act—and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment—are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.
Ten years later, that statement is still true.
Gladwell was referring to a psychological phenomenon known as priming. As humans, our actions and decisions are often largely determined by input we do not even consciously categorize as having occurred at all. We are, for better or worse, highly susceptible to even the most subtle suggestions.
Using Priming for Good
There are many benefits to using priming in marketing strategy. If used carefully and ethically, it can be effective in a wide range of uses. Either way, it shouldn’t be ignored as an element of strategy. While there is still much to learn about the complexities of the human psyche, marketing strategies at their best incorporate what science has revealed about the human mind.
By seeking to understand the needs, desires, and motivating forces behind consumer behavior, those who design marketing campaigns can use the knowledge learned to increase consumer engagement and satisfaction, ultimately driving sales growth and better brand recognition.
Priming, Assimilation Bias, Social Proof in Social Media
Who has the better budget plan? Who has the heart of the middle class voters? How are social media users trying to influence their favorite candidates? In an effort to understand some of these questions, it is probably useful to draw some background knowledge from social theories and psychological research to understand these phenomenons.
First, there is the research on impression formation. Psychologists have long known that impression formation is deeply connected to priming effects, but yet are the subject of considerable debate. Priming is the exposure of some stimulus influencing the response to a later stimulus, including perceptual, semantic, or conceptual stimulus repetition. For example, repeatedly seeing the word "economy" associated with a candidate help influence voters to think that particular candidate cares more about the economy.
Second, once the impression forms, clearly there is a lot of Assimilation Bias going on in social media. Also called confirmation bias, this is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms to their beliefs or hypotheses. We all would like to believe that voters are rational actors that evaluate the evidence presented by the candidates equally, and then make an informed decision, but in fact, of course that's not the case. What's worse is that Assimilation Bias contributes directly to Attitude Polarization, with people holding on to their belief stronger by actually searching for and interpreting evidence selectively.
, once attitude polarization sets in, it appears that Social Proof adds fuel to the fire. Social Proof is the social psychology
fancy word for herd behavior --- the tendency to assume the action of others reflect the correct thing to do. (Sometimes network analysts will refer to this as Preferential Attachment if they're talking about tie formation .) Therefore, a voter living in a blue neighborhood is more likely to vote blue, and vice versa. It's conformity, pure and simple.