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Usability and Sales – A Contradiction?

The first message associated with the catchword “neuromarketing” is this: Make sure that your communication is emotional. Seize your customers by the heart, not by the head. Convincing arguments don’t matter; what matters is that “good feeling.”

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And there is a lot of truth to this.

Objectively, modern neuroscience has proven time and again that good arguments are not what lead to sales, rather purchases are decided by the same neural pathways that are also involved in emotional processing. The discovery of mirror neurons has settled the matter: It has been scientifically proven that we feel better when we just observe smiling people, because our brain tries to understand their emotional state and even imitates them to do so.

This knowledge has led to the fact that there are hardly any advertisements, hardly any websites, where no one is smiling at us – either statically in a photo or, in the past few years, dynamically in the form of a repeating video.

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Figure 1: Friendly, smiling people on a website - effective?

Fundamentally, this practice cannot be faulted, and this kind of website design is demonstrably more effective than ones where the testimonials are neutral, unhappy, or grim. At least as long as the neutral or fierce expression is not part of a more complex emotional arc...

“Peace, love, and happiness” – the truth behind emotional faces

If you look at the history of emotional research, it becomes clear that it deals disproportionately with emotional facial expressions – that is, a communicative form of emotion, not a perceptive one. According to research and models, there are six basic emotions that people can recognize in facial expressions, independent of culture: happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, fear, and surprise..

Let's look at them one at a time:

It is still being debated whether or not surprise should even count as an emotion. After all, a surprised face communicates nothing more than, "I wasn't expecting that!" – whose deeper meaning depends on the story being told (the service is so good that it surprised me) or not (I wasn't expecting that!). Without context, surprised faces are difficult to interpret – and are therefore seldom used in marketing...

Fear is an emotion that we experience when threatened or in danger. As a facial expression, fear signalized nothing more and nothing less than: I need help. But what company wants to send this message? There are, of course, advertising tactics that seek to trigger fear in the observer... but more on this later.

Anger is an expression of aggression. An angry facial expression communicates: Watch out! I am just about to hurt you, so don't make any mistakes! Mild expressions of anger can be found now and again in visual communication, predominantly in fashion, but this is an exception, even here.

Disgust is an emotion that you don't find in marketing – and for good reason. If a person is visibly disgusted, his or her facial expression communicates: Hands off; the stuff is unenjoyable! My greatest respect goes to marketers who dare attempt this message... (I dare you!)

And, finally, a happy facial expression communicates: "All is well. I am happy with the situation!" Off the bat, it sounds like a statement you can use for marketing, doesn't it?

But to be truthful: Is that what we really want to communicate?

Storytelling: Creating emotions

This is something that is often misunderstood in marketing: emotional communication does not (necessarily) mean that the message to be communicated should contain an emotion. It means that the communication should trigger an emotion!

If that is the case, why do so many websites make me so angry?

Evoking a positive feeling in the user of a service should theoretically lead to increased use – logically. However, there are always websites, and I am not speaking of small hobby projects or meaningless, outdated, or unfortunate online offerings, but globally active, large companies, that are regularly optimizing their websites and that systematically irritate their users.

Here is a standard example:

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Figure 2: The booking platform Booking.com works with the scarcity principle

If a good feeling is ostensibly so important in a website, how can it be that in nearly every hotel offering is something along the lines of "in high demand – only 3 available on our site."

The message: Strike now, or it's gone. 3...2...1... not yours! So, hurry up! This creates stress! Not a very pleasant feeling...

Why would a website such as Booking.com, which belongs to the best-optimized websites in the world, want to create negative emotions in users? Why this function is not abolished, why is the hotel room not pre-reserved until I make my decision? How can this happen with a successful business like Booking.com?

The answer is simple: Booking.com optimizes its website based on sales numbers - not based on the good feelings of its users. And in this example, the negative emotion leads to a measurable increase in sales.

Does this not contradict what I have already said? About the attorney who gives me a feeling of security? - No. I said that the attorney promises security. And that is why, his site supports an increase in sales.

Emotions that we experience – and this is already contained in the name, e-motion – is what motivates our purchases. And it doesn't matter if the emotion is positive or negative. Even negative emotions drive us to act, as for example with Booking.com. The difference is the direction of the action.

Positive emotions lead mostly to actions that are directed to the source of the emotion. We are happy, so we look for the source of the joy. That is why, in most marketing measures, we try to awaken positive emotions.

In contrast to this, negative emotions induce us to move away from the cause of the emotion or to remove it – and in the example of Booking.com, it appears to be easier to remove the cause of the negative emotions than to simply avert them. Because: In the moment in which we book the hotel room, of which only 3 are still available on the site, the negative fear of not getting the room is transformed into the positive feeling that we got something other people will miss out on.

Avoiding negative feelings, linked to the idea that we can transform it into a positive feeling, drives us to action. Drives us to buy. That drives the sales numbers of Booking.com higher and therefore performs well in every A/B test.

Entirely without giving the user a "good feeling,"


People take action because they expect that action to improve their current situation. We call this motivation. This state is experienced as emotion and if we are able to awaken positive feelings with our marketing (instead of just presenting them), we will be able to motivate potential customers to buy.

The user has good feelings..

However, good feelings are not the only way to drive up sales numbers, because even negative emotions can motivate. The key is not in the negative emotions themselves. Working with negative emotions, however, carries the risk of turning off the customer. Marketing with negative emotions is only successful if the purchase more easily and comprehensively removes the negative emotion than simply ignoring it, or if the negative emotion can even be transformed into a positive one through the sale.

This can be very successful.

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Published on May 16, 2017 by Benny Briesemeister