You're scrolling through Instagram, Facebook, or your social media feed of choice when suddenly you see an image or a video that causes you to - almost subconsciously - put your thumb down and stop scrolling. You quickly realize it's an advertisement that caught your eye, but nonetheless here you are watching an ad. In 2016, Facebook found that 65% of people who watch the first 3 seconds of a video will continue watching for at least 10 seconds. While those first 3 seconds are crucial for engagement, the first step is getting the user to actually stop and watch your ad in the first place.
How do you increase the odds of someone stopping to look at your ad? And then engaging with it? Let's ask science.
Patterns, Faces, and Other Brain-Friendly Imagery
Our brains love patterns. They use patterns to learn, make predictions, and recognize familiar visuals. Most importantly (for our use case at least), the human brain produces dopamine when it recognizes a pattern, and again when we act on that pattern successfully. This means we should be able to use familiar patterns in advertising to both attract a viewer's attention as well as reward them physiologically for engaging with our ad.
The human brain has evolved to recognize patterns, perhaps more than any other single function. Our brain is weak at processing logic, remembering facts, and making calculations, but pattern recognition is its deep core capability. [source]
Multiple studies show that our brains also love faces. It's not a coincidence that people often see faces in clouds, rocks, and even burnt toast. Using faces in your ads can definitely grab a viewer's attention, although you're likely competing with tons of other faces on social media. However, certain faces will still stand out more than others. For example, which face are your eyes drawn to first?
If you were drawn to one of the middle two faces it could be due to their sillier expressions or their vibrant clothing. It could also be the center stage effect at play. Visual composition plays a very important role in your ad design, and the center stage effect describes our tendency to prefer the middle option when presented with a set of choices. This is why subscription tiers often highlight the middle choice as the "best value." Keep this in mind when designing your next ad.
Viewbait (or Confusing Perspective)
AKA clickbait for your eyeballs. This tactic relies on the brain's distaste for missing information. When you see an image that doesn't look right, or appears impossible, your brain gets upset and tries to fill in the blanks. As marketers, we can take advantage of this response to engage a viewer's attention. If you glance at the images below, your brain will likely go "WTF?" a few times. Or in other words, the images are going to catch your attention.
How do you apply this to advertising? Well, the most obvious approach is to simply take a suggestive or confusing image and create ad copy that fits. But that's probably not the best solution from a branding perspective. A better approach is to take an existing ad and distort it. By time the viewer's brain understands what it's looking at, 2-3 seconds of your ad has already been absorbed and the chance of the viewer engaging further is increased drastically.
Let's Get Textual
You've probably heard that people prefer images over text, and that isn't wrong. The brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text and images are more likely to be remembered than text. While many studies support this, it doesn't mean text is entirely worthless. Text can direct users to take action, it can convey information or persuade emotions, and it can even steal our attention. For example, which images are your eyes drawn to most?
Taboo words tend to be emotional words, and emotional things attract our attention and keep it. [source]
In the pair of avocado images above, the word "EAT" gets visually lost on the bright background, causing the overall image to look a bit messy or cluttered. However, in the third image set, the word "SHIT" pops very well on the muted, darkened landscape. "SHIT" is also far more shocking of a word than "EAT." The same way certain words might catch your attention when spoken, those words can also stand out when read.
The Power of Color
You've likely spent money testing the color of your CTA buttons, or at least heard anecdotes about fast food companies using red and yellow or how the color blue gets more likes on Instagram. Color psychology has been studied for hundreds of years, and while some studies have caused debate, the general model of color psychology relies on these six basic principles:
- Color can carry a specific meaning
- Color meaning is either based in learned meaning or biologically innate meaning
- The perception of a color causes evaluation automatically by the person perceiving
- The evaluation process forces color-motivated behavior
- Color usually exerts its influence automatically
- Color meaning and effect has to do with context as well
Ultimately, everyone perceives color differently, and the way colors can influence a customer's emotions really depends on several factors: past experiences, culture, religion, natural environment, gender, race, nationality, etc. However, many studies have been able to connect colors with certain meanings and feelings, as seen in the chart below:
Most marketers swear that a red CTA will perform better because red catches your attention (see: stop signs). Based on this chart, red could also convey excitement about your app. Likewise, you might use white or blue to help convince users of social proof. One of the most famous instances of color in marketing occurred in 2017 when the team behind the now infamous Fyre Festival used the color orange to grab attention, spark curiosity, and build excitement around the globe.
The Ultimate Ad
Can science really create the perfect advertisement? Theoretically, yes. But it would likely be less effective than what you're doing now, simply due to it needing to appeal to every person on the planet. The success of your ads rely on numerous factors that are nearly impossible to account for in an actual campaign, specifically the individual viewers of your ads. Fortunately, the almighty algorithm is on our side, meaning the people most compatible with your ads will likely be the ones who see them. But that doesn't mean you should rely entirely on the machines to optimize your creatives. Try applying the above theories to your next batch of ads and measure how they affect performance. You might be pleasantly surprised.