How people respond subconsciously to your website

What many call “fight or flight” is a quick way to describe the brain’s innate responses to stimuli. It might come as a surprise that it also offers some valuable advice related to websites and other marketing communications materials.

Humans like to think we’re rational animals who don’t give in to automatic judgments about people and situations, but the simple fact is that evolution has hard-wired us to make lightning-fast reactions to all sorts of situations.

When we encounter someone new, our brains automatically absorb, process, and analyze gigabytes of data in nanoseconds to determine how we’ll interact.

The way they’re dressed, their hair, their posture, the expression in their eyes, the shape of their mouth — your brain instantly assesses all those data points and more before telling you whether you should like or trust this person. Ever heard someone say, “I don’t know what it is, but my gut doesn’t trust him”? That’s exactly what I’m describing, but the brain and not the gut is making the call.

We don’t like to admit having these animal-like reactions, but evolution created them for our survival. They’re a vestige from when something or someone unfamiliar might have posed a deadly threat to the well-being of our distant ancestors.

How does that relate to websites (and other marketing materials)? Again, we can pretend to be intelligent, rational animals all we want, but when we’re confronted with a website for the first time, our brains perform similar scans and draw conclusions about what we see. Is it safe? Does it seem to present a threat? Is it appealing? Does it draw us in a friendly way?

With no conscious thought or action, our brains instantly start the flow of hormones through our bodies. Based on what we’ve seen, they may be the stress hormones that cause our pulse and blood pressure to perk up. Or they might be the same calming hormones we experience from a quiet song or a pleasant smell. How we respond to and interact with that site begins there.

If the website has made our brain wary, we’re going to approach the content with hesitation. We’ll be less open to the messages being presented and less willing to believe them.

Savvy marketing professionals and highly effective salespeople understand that consumer behavior comes down to basic psychology and awareness of how people function at a subconscious level. It’s why sales training programs focus on the small steps that resonate well within an individual’s psyche. Using their first name in conversation (amazingly powerful when done subtly, downright creepy when it’s blatant), looking them directly in the eye, smiling, listening intently to questions, restating objections — they’re all tactics designed to overcome or trigger subconscious reactions.

So the effectiveness of your organization’s website comes down to hundreds — maybe even thousands — of seemingly small, seemingly unimportant factors with profound effects upon the people who view it. Factors that determine their impression of your organization and affect their willingness to do business with you.

The point behind all this is that developing websites (and other marketing communications materials) isn’t for amateurs. Yes, there are online services that make it “easy” and “affordable” for you to develop your own website. But if you’re not aware of the many tiny subconscious impacts and how much they matter, you’re probably unwittingly undermining your efforts.

Typos, poorly worded sentences, or even copy that you believe says one thing but actually says another, the out-of-focus or poorly composed photos you took yourself, using seven different fonts and font sizes on a single page, navigation that returns a 404 code … all those little things hurt your image and your message more than you realize.

Professional web developers, graphic designers, photographers, and writers have the knowledge and experience to spot all those little things. They know how a small change will dramatically affect how a viewer thinks about your company. Just as important, they view your site and your image from outside, free of the internal prejudices that color what you think of your own organization.

If making the right first impression is critical to your organization, make sure the right person is creating that impression for you.