Influencing Customer Search Behavior through Visual Priming

Priming is a classic technique for developing customer preferences for products and/or features.  And websites offer an ideal opportunity to use visual priming as a means of encouraging customers to focus on certain products or attributes.

Priming researchers have identified several distinct priming techniques:

  • In semantic priming, understanding builds naturally when a familiar word is introduced first and then the unfamiliar word is introduced next.  For example, the word “nephrologist” is more easily identified as a type of doctor if the word “doctor” is used earlier in the discussion.  If you were to use visual semantic priming to introduce a portable ultrasound machine, you could show standard ultrasound-type graphics and then the new machine, allowing your customers to make the semantic leap of understanding that your product is related to ultrasound – even if the product looks nothing like a standard ultrasound device.
  • In categorical priming, customer judgments are influenced by constructs developed during earlier interactions with that category (Mandel, N. and Johnson, E., 2002). To use the example of a portable ultrasound machine again, if you present your new portable ultrasound machine as visually part of your ultrasound device category, your customers are able to make inferences about basic attributes applicable to the category and will then search for differentiating features for the new product.
  • In feature priming, a particular feature is emphasized so that it weighs more heavily in the evaluation phase. Once again using the portable ultrasound machine example, if you were to visually prime the lightweight attribute by using a metaphorical feather graphic, research has shown that there will be a higher recognition of this benefit and a higher degree of subsequent searches for weight-related information (Mandel et al, 2002).

From a marketing management perspective, there are real benefits in using visual priming techniques on a visually rich medium, such as a website. It is well documented in consumer research and social psychology that increased information searches frequently leads to the selection of the product in question. Therefore, a technique that drives searches about key attributes will likely result in more sales to customers that value those attributes.


Mandel, N., Johnson, E. (2002), “When Web Pages Influence Choice: Effect of Visual Primes on Experts and Novices,” Journal of Consumer Research, 29, (September), pp. 235-245.


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