The Effect of Unconscious Associations on Visitors’ Behavior

Our thoughts and behavior are not under our own intentional control

Posted Oct 09, 2015

Over the past two decades there has grown a body of evidence indicating that many of our decisions are unintentional, or automatic in nature. This implies that our own thoughts and behavior are not under our own intentional control but, rather, are strongly influenced by environmental factors.

These automatic processes have fundamental implications to how we behave in general, and how we behave online, as we will see.

The Priming Effect in Action

The most heavily researched aspect of this automatic process is called the Priming Effect. This is where exposure to one stimulus influences the way we response to a second stimulus. Mental structures such as schemes and stereotypes are automatically activated on the mere presence of those structures. For example, people tend to recognize the word WOMEN faster if it follows the word HOUSEWIFE rather than the word PILOT. Why? Because brain activation works quicker among ideas that are naturally related.

The extent to which these ideas are related differs for people according to their cultural heritage. And they are learned early in life, often before the individual has the ability to override them or reject them.

Not only has the Priming Effect been shown to influence our thoughts and feelings, but it can also influence our behavior. Researchers have found that priming a social category, such as the elderly can automatically elicit stereotype-consistent behaviors in the subjects such as slower walking.

Some other examples of where stereotyping may influence subject behavior include: priming of the professor stereotype, leading to increased concentration and more analytical and systematic thinking; and priming of the hooligan stereotype, leading to sloppier thinking and reduced concentration (Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 1998).

The Effect of Gender Stereotyping

People also form implicit gender stereotypes. These automatically associate men and women with stereotypical traits, abilities and societal roles, even if they have tried to disavow these traditional beliefs. Because implicit gender stereotypes are so well learned, they can affect perceptions of others without intent.

In the same way, the exposure to a certain image, word or tagline on a website can automatically influence the visitor’s interaction with the website. This reaction has a carryover effect, meaning that the initial stimulus leads to different interactions across the website.

Past research on gender in the media suggests that gender stereotypical representations of both males and females do influence our attitudes and perceptions.

A Web Experiment: Male vs. Female Hero Images

Following this line, we decided to perform our own experiment. We hypothesized that the exposure to a male hero image vs. a female hero image should activate different gender oriented models and thus, trigger different interactions and behaviors with the website.

It is important to note we only examined the reactions of first time visitors, thus eliminating reactions that could be influenced by previous visits.

Source: ClickTale

This ‘gender oriented behavior’ was measured by A/B testing and compared visitors’ online interactions and behavior in each version (male hero image vs female hero image). The visitors’ behavior was measured by tracking their interactions with the elements on the page; what they clicked on, how far they scrolled, what their next pages were, etc.

It’s important to note that the priming effect is indifferent to the gender of the visitor, as the theory dictates that the same associations occur for both men and women. In other words, the stimulus will activate the same cognitive schemes and associations for both sexes.

Over the course of the experiment we used Optimizely to A/B test our two calls to action on the page; ‘Request a Demo’ and ‘Try ClickTale.’ Additional elements on the page that we tracked using ClickTale included; clicks on product images or features, ‘Blog,’ ‘Why ClickTale’ and ‘Search.’

Source: ClickTale

4 Strong Results:

The results were conclusive:

Visitors exposed to the male hero image showed significantly higher click -through rate on the ‘Try ClickTale’ call to action button compared to visitors who were exposed to the female hero image.
Alternately, visitors exposed to the female hero image showed significantly higher click-through rate on the ‘Request a Demo’ call to action button compared to visitors exposed to the male hero image.

Source: ClickTale

Visitors exposed to the male hero image showed significantly higher click-through rates on the Product Features and ‘Search’.
Visitors exposed to the female hero image were much quicker to click on ‘Why ClickTale’ and the ‘Blog’

Explaining the Differences in Visitor Behavior

Visitors who clicked on the ‘Try ClickTale’ button had shown a more active approach. They were willing to try the product. Meanwhile, visitors who clicked on ‘Request a Demo’ opted for a more cautious approach, and wanted some proof of concept before commiting to the product.

Another indication: The verb ‘try’ indicates that an action will be taken while the verb ‘request’ indicates that someone else will take an action for me. Request a Demo’ is regarded as a stronger form of convention on most B2B websites since this usually entails a sales-person getting involved in the demo process. They were drawn to a more passive experience and a more information “absorbing” mode. On the other hand, visitors who were exposed to the male hero image were drawn to a more independent exploration and were unconsciously directed into taking a proactive action.

Visitors who were exposed to the male hero showed significantly higher click through rates on the Product Features and ‘Search’, reflecting an active goal-oriented approach of exploring what ClickTale is. In addition it reflects a tendency to be active on the page and leading the interaction, while visitors who were exposed to the female were much quicker to click on ‘Why ClickTale’ and the ‘Blog’, two areas of the site that symbolize more of a passive exploration.

Clicking on elements such as ‘Why ClickTale’ or the ‘company blog’ is considered to be indirect approach to gain more knowledge about the product and it reflects a tendency to be led. The exposure to content that is displayed on the ‘Why ClickTale’ and on the ‘company blog’ that was created by the company, means that the exploration is guided by the company, alternately, the active search and the interaction with the different featuers of the tool means that the visitor is in control of the exploration process.   

Summary and Conclusion

Using the image a man automatically elicited stereotypical behavior, including taking more direct action, coupled with a desire to control the interaction. Using the image of a woman on the other hand, elicited a more passive, informative response and desire to be guided by the website and the people behind it.

The results reveal that exposure to gender images activates the brain’s related cognitive schemes and thus influences the visitor to act according to gender-related roles.

But the results can be misleading: Had we only checked how the images affected conversion, then the results could cause designers to conclude that female hero images lead to higher conversion rates. But as seen, the male image caused a more direct and pro-active approach to learning about the company and acquiring the product.

The answer may be to avoid asking which gender hero image converts better. Instead we should evaluate which gender hero image is better suited to the overall goals and objectives of the website and the buying process that better suits the product offering. Additionally, we have to consider the effect of the visitors’ unconscious processes. As seen, these processes have tremendous effect on how potential customers interact with the website.  

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