Lesson 44: The psychology of physical attraction applied to your landing pages
All about first impressions
What do Darth Vader, the Joker, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Dante’s version of the Devil all have in common?
It’s not a bad joke — the answer is that they are all evil. But more than that...they are all obviously evil.
You can tell because of how they look.
By contrast, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are, in the immortal words of Carrie Fisher, “gorgeous,” Bruce Wayne is a chisel-jawed playboy, Dorothy is a sweet, fair-faced girl, and...well, okay I haven’t read Dante, but let’s assume that both Jesus and the archangel Michael are depicted with plump cheeks and flowing golden locks in classically oblivious medieval style.
You’ll notice this about villains and heroes. Not that villains are always ugly or disfigured, or that heroes are always easy on the eyes — but as a rule, it’s not okay for a hero to look yucky, whereas it’s pretty common for a villain.
I think I really noticed this rule when my daughter watched Star Wars for the first time, and was worried about Luke talking to Yoda. “Oh no, he’s talking to a bad monster!”
My occasional partner in crime, Michael Foster, had the same reaction to E.T. He’s not wrong. Aliens are demons.
Whence this obviously facile and shallow convention regarding the physical appearance of fictitious characters?
Simple: it comes straight out of our most deep-seated instincts — which is why children are especially susceptible. They have not had their intuitions re-educated yet. They know automatically that the visible images the invisible, that the physical should reflect the spiritual.
But it’s not just children. Consider another stock cliché: the blond bombshell who doesn’t have to lift a finger because every man nearby is falling over himself to fulfill her every whim. I’m sure we’ve all seen it happen, especially among teenagers and young men — again, people who haven’t had time to develop a “resistance” to their instincts. But of course, the same goes for young women as regards tall-dark-and-handsome men with deep voices.
This really does relate to creating effective landing pages, and it has to do with the mental machinery we use for forming first impressions.
When we meet someone for the first time, we make all kinds of intuitive assumptions about their character and intelligence. We instinctively find ourselves feeling a certain predisposition toward them — either positively or negatively. A critical piece of this formula has to do with how they look. The more physically attractive we find someone, the more inclined we are to assume they are trustworthy, intelligent, and worth our time. Indeed, we may even find ourselves eager to help them, because we want to ingratiate ourselves — all based on nothing but looks.
We don’t think about it; our lizard brain just automatically sets off down that path, and we follow haplessly behind.
For example, some years ago a door-to-door saleswoman-slash-proselyte for Greenpeace came a-knocking at my home. I didn’t know much about Greenpeace at the time, but I had heard enough to have my suspicions.
But Greenpeace employs strikingly good-looking salespeople — presumably owing to the fact that they have nothing ideologically to offer that will motivate anyone with a functional brain, or even just a moral compass that doesn’t spin idly. So although I had my doubts — and indeed, I quizzed this girl on them — in the end I found it too hard to say no, and bought a subscription.
I canceled it later when I came to my senses and did some investigating — but that is the true story of how the lizard brain is a shallow, stupid, easily-manipulated sod with the power to override the neocortex at a moment’s notice.
That wasn’t the only time my lizard brain was responsible for poor choices. Another time, it made me buy a bar of overpriced Israeli soap. I was ambushed by a lady at a mall who was selling this stuff — and unlike the Greenpeace girl, she was actually a really good saleswoman. I was analyzing her sales technique the whole way through and was just really impressed at whoever figured out her script. The hardest part for her would have been making that initial contact with passers-by, but after she’d done that, I’d wager she closed nearly everyone.
Now, I knew exactly what she was doing — the way she was leading me through seemingly harmless, sensible questions about my skin that would have me saying yes repeatedly, and then forcing me to be consistent with my answers; getting me to agree that I would pay good money if I had to in order to protect my skin, and so on. She had great answers to my objections. She repeated my own priorities back to me in the order I gave them, to make sure she had answered each one of them. Eventually I even told her, wow, you are really good at this — my job is teaching people to make sales and I’m taking notes over here.
Anyway, I told her straight up as soon as I could get a word in edgewise, look, I’m on a budget and I’m not going to buy anything from you. That didn’t faze her. She didn’t let me walk away. She kept at it. And every time she thought she had me, I would say, ma’am, you’ve done a great job, you are incredibly persuasive, but I just am not going to buy this soap. And she would accept that and make me a smaller offer.
You see how thought sequences fit in here, along with having a small, low-commitment offer for prospects who aren’t ready to take the plunge.
Then as she saw I still wasn’t going for it, she switched tactics a little and came out with a spiel about how she had one special half-price offer she could give away each day, and she really cared about my skin and it seemed like I didn’t, so she wanted to help me and she was going to give me this discount. Now, I didn’t know if this was true or not — I mean, I can guess that it wasn’t — but I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt because it’s not nice to assume that people are manipulative brazen liars. Eventually she asked me if I would just take one bar of soap, just to try it out, and my wife could try it out too, and it would be half price for just $30, and it would last for a year.
And I thought, screw it, it’s easier to just pay $30 than say no again, because I honestly don’t know if she’s really nice or really cynical, and I wouldn’t want to break her tiny heart if it’s the former, and I don’t want to believe it’s the latter. So I bought the massively overpriced bar of soap.
Sure, I rejected all her previous offers, which started at some kind of ridiculous $180 package or whatever. But she got me in the end.
However — getting back to my central point — if she had been a man she would not have succeeded. This is because, as a man myself, I expect men to deal with it when I tell them no. They just gotta “man up.” Conversely, I tend to assume that women are really trying to be nice, and will have their feelings hurt and become embittered if I take the same approach with them.
This might sound sexist, like I imagine women to be delicate flowers — but I’m trying to explain how the lizard brain thinks. And naturally, my lizard brain is male. Men are wired to protect and nurture women — and also to desire them. That makes it easy for women to take advantage of them.
(If your Sam is a Samantha, you will have to make the requisite adjustments, and this isn’t a course about intersexual psychology so I’m afraid you’ll need to do a little side-reading.)
What does any of this have to do with landing pages? Just this:
If even a smart, reasonably rational fellow like myself, who is indeed an expert in persuasion psychology and knows what is happening to him, can still have his lizard brain turned against him by a skilled salesperson, imagine just how little chance your average website visitor would have, if you could use the same kind of subconscious physical attraction on him (or her) — along with skilled sales copy.
This is what the first stage of FRODO is really about.
In four tenths of a second, Sam looks at your site and makes an intuitive snap judgment. This is a pre-reflective decision about the site which takes place in his limbic system — the lizard brain.
As a sidenote, often Mr. Lizard is forced to take more than 4/10 of a second, because the site takes too long to load. This makes him annoyed, and lowers the site in his small-minded estimation. This doesn’t mean your site must be fully loaded 0.4 seconds after Sam clicks — rather, it should ideally go from a blank screen to displaying everything important within that time. It’s okay to have a blank screen while the connection is made and some initial downloading happens (although you want it as short as possible). What you’re aiming for is:
The whole page should “paint” in under half a second, rather than appearing in dribs and drabs;
This paint should happen within a second or two of Sam asking for it.
If you’re a web designer, I am basically saying that first contentful paint and largest contentful paint should be within 0.4 seconds of each other, with a very low cumulative layout shift. But you already knew that ;)
Once the site loads, Mr. Lizard rapidly filters a number of elements through his advanced heuristics to decide whether it is likely to be trustworthy, likely to be helpful, and likely to be worth checking out. And if he is not impressed, the chances of Sam bothering to look further are very low — even though he will scan the site out of habit to feed information into his neocortex, he is very likely to hit the back button more or less straight away if his limbic system is not satisfied with what it sees.
On the other hand, if Mr. Lizard thinks the page looks promising, Sam will devote more time and energy to hunting out the information he needs — even if he has trouble locating it initially.
In other words, the “look and feel” of the site is surprisingly important. That first four tenths of a second can literally make the difference between Sam leaving, or him reading and eventually taking an action.
How do you make your landing page as attractive as possible, so the lizard brain assumes it’s trustworthy and smart and helpful?
The first thing you need to know is...
Sexy web design is not attractive web design.
This might sound counterintuitive — but what web designers usually think of as “sexy” designs tend to be turn-offs for the lizard brain.
It’s kind of like young girls who dress up real skanky and think they’re super hot. Really they’re sending a signal to most guys that they have none of the attributes of a high-quality woman: self-respect, poise, confidence in themselves, restraint...you know, all those things that could collectively be called “maturity.”
So when you go to web design galleries that show off all the hottest designs, and you see all these sites that are supposedly paragons of the art, featuring the best and greatest and most creative and original and technically brilliant elements, or aesthetically desirable and drool-worthy aesthetics...just remember, these are basically the skank galleries of web design.
It’s exactly the same mindset as Madison Avenue. If it’s not flashy and new and edgy and often incomprehensibly “creative,” then it’s not worth doing. So all the awards go to “original” advertising; all the sales go to “boring” advertising. Basically the same thing is true of websites. Ogilvy’s quip about skidding about helplessly on the slippery surface of creative brilliance remains true.
In fact, when I’m teaching web design, I routinely rely on design galleries to find paradigm examples of all the things not to do on your site. But when it comes to finding examples of sites that implement key design features really well, that show how web design has matured into something useful and appealing to the average user, I have to spend a lot of time scouring the web. I usually can’t find any on design galleries at all — it’s a waste of time to even try.
So how the heck do average people decide if a landing page is attractive?
Remember, you do want your page to be attractive. That’s basically the key to getting that positive first reaction from the lizard brain. As usability researcher Brent Coker puts it,
As aesthetically orientated humans, we’re psychologically hardwired to trust beautiful people, and the same goes for websites. Our offline behaviour and inclinations translate to our online existence ... With websites becoming increasingly attractive and including more trimmings, this creates a greater feeling of trustworthiness and professionalism in online consumers.
In fact, Coker did a study in 2011 where he found that consumers are about 20% more trusting of websites, on average, than they were in 2006, and this is mostly because web design had improved a lot since then. The situation has continued to improve, but it is by no means perfect yet, because so many web designers know nothing about this kind of research. (The kinds of sites that Coker would have been testing with are not the same sites that typically show up in web design galleries.)
Here’s what you need to understand about attractiveness: the mental machinery Sam uses to judge your site is the same machinery he uses to judge faces. The face is the main (not only) element we use for making snap judgments of new people. Since Sam hasn’t got any neural circuitry custom-designed to process websites, he reuses what he does have, which is designed to process faces. So Sam subconsciously looks for the same things in a site as he looks for in a face.
What Coker found, and what I’ve personally noted as well, is that this translates into Sam desiring familiarity and balance from a page — and because information is his primary goal, he weighs the appearance of the text very heavily also. Let’s go through these in turn...
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