Get Customers to Buy Using the Familiarity Effect

Have you heard of the time eBay changed its background color from yellow to white?

People hated it.

yellow eBay

Yellow eBay

So what did eBay do?

The legend story goes that they made a code which in the course of a few months, incrementally changed the color to white. One shade different every day. Fading the color one day at a time.

And guess what? After a few months, no one noticed.

Why did people hate the change in the first place?

You could argue that we’re creatures of habit. And we don’t respond well to change. Add to that the online environment where everyone feels entitled to an opinion. And you have the combination needed for anger towards something as “trivial” as changing the background color.

But shift your attention away from that anger and into eBay’s response: the incremental color change.

Whoever thought of it knew a thing or two about human Psychology:

That to stop the barrage of hate, they needed to find a way to get people used to the white background. It was obviously not possible to do it overnight. So they did it slowly. One day at a time.

Each day it changed. And customers didn’t notice it one bit.

And they were right. Familiarity slowly built and when it finally turned to white, everyone was already used to it.

Here’s the thing. Familiarity is an important part of our survival as a species. When our ancestors saw an animal that didn’t jump at them every time they saw it, they knew it had no intention of eating them for dinner. They put their guard down and put away their bow and arrow. The regular friendly exposures gave them a reason to feel secure with the animal nearby.

This desire for what’s familiar is something we still crave today. It attracts us like a fly to honey on a summer’s day.

We crave it so much that when something is familiar, we break down our walls and become more open to engage with it.

Science has proven this so many times. Over and over again.

Here’s one of the mind-opening experiments that Social Psychology pioneer Robert Zajonc did to illustrate how familiarity influences our attitudes.

During one semester, 4 women who were similar in appearance attended his lectures at a different number of times. All they did was sit in the class and did not interact with any of the students. One woman attended 5 times. The second one, ten times. And third woman, 15 times. And the last one didn’t attend any lectures at all.

At the end of the semester, the students were presented with pictures of the women to rate them on different traits like attractiveness, familiarity and similarity. Even though the students never once interacted with any of the women, they evaluated the one who joined the class 15 times a lot higher than the other women.

This is the familiarity effect or the mere-exposure principle in action.

And it doesn’t only apply to rating how much we like people. Decades of research have shown that we respond in the same way to smells, sounds, and even unrecognizable shapes.

But how useful is this to you?

That’s what this article is about. How you can get customers to buy from you using the familiarity effect. We’ll talk about:

What is the familiarity effect?

The familiarity effect also called the mere exposure effect suggests that the more you see, feel or experience something, the more you like it. The more familiar something is, be it a feeling, a person, a place, a product, or a brand — the more you have positive associations with it.

It’s a mental shortcut that we regularly take when making decisions. It’s a strong factor that affects which people we trust, which brands we become loyal to, and which type of music we like.

You can credit the familiarity effect for the millions of dollars big brands spend on product placements. Or why people who spend a lot of time together get attracted to each other.

It is one potent tool in your marketing arsenal. And if you want to know how to get people to buy your products, it’s worth your while to learn how you can apply it in your business.

The familiarity effect works better with these other psychological concepts at play

We’re complicated creatures. And when we make decisions, it’s not based on one thing. So we can’t say that the familiarity effect is the only reason why people buy from you.

To properly grasp how you can use it in your favor, let’s talk about other psychological concepts that work hand-in-hand with the familiarity effect. Use them all together and you increase your chance to make this work.

Frequency Effect

For familiarity to happen, there should also be frequency. This means exposure happens as many times as possible.

This is why the same ads repeat on tv.

As Wikipedia states,

In the advertising world, the mere-exposure effect suggests that consumers need not cognize advertisements: simple repetition is enough to make a ‘memory trace’ in the consumer’s mind and unconsciously affect their consuming behavior.

Reduced Cognitive Load

Cognitive load is your brain’s mental capacity at any given time.

It’s like your computer’s working memory. And you don’t want to overload it if you want it to work at its full potential.

Why? Because it has a limit.

Here’s how Richard E. Cytowic M.D. from Psychology today eloquently describes it:

Human brains operate at low speeds of about 120 bits (~15 bytes) per second. By comparison, my Verizon fiber-optic connection shoots data into my home at 75 megabytes per second, 5,000 times the rate that my brain can handle. We ask our brains to sort, categorize, parse, and prioritize gargantuan data streams it never evolved to juggle. It should shock us all at how unprepared it is to weigh and navigate the glut of decisions that modern life throws at it.

Only 120 bits. That’s how much you can process per second.

You know how much reading consumes? 50 bits per second! That’s almost half of what your brain can process.

The bottom line is this: As an online marketer, you’re faced with a challenge. You don’t want to overload your customer’s mental processes as they navigate your site.

Why? Because when the brain is overwhelmed, it shuts down.

Say goodbye to him clicking that buy button!

But here’s the good news.

The brain has its own coping mechanisms. And to stop itself from overloading, it takes mental shortcuts. It borrows from past experiences to gauge the actions it’s going to do today.

What’s one of these shortcuts?


Let’s say you’re shopping for perfume for your lady love.

You go to a site. You’re faced with dozens of choices. If you had to rationally compare each and every perfume, you’ll go crazy. Or forego buying it and play Crusader Kings II instead.

So what do you do? You narrow it down to brands and products that you’ve heard of before. It’s no contest. You’ll buy the one you know. It’s easier that way, right? That’s your brain telling you, “Come on, dude. Just make this easy and buy the one you’re already familiar with! Let’s get back to playing that game”

Fear of the unknown

Fear of the unknown

Uncertainty is scary. When things are uncertain, your brain wants to go back to a state of equilibrium and take back some level of control.

Not having heard of a product or brand before puts your defense system up high. You tend to be suspicious of things you’re not familiar with.

Let me show you what I mean.

Let’s say you’ve just moved to a new village. Your children are in the playground. As they play happily, you think that you’re not sure if you shut the doors of your car. It’s not far of a walk. About 3 minutes away. Assuming you can’t take your children with you. Do you ask one of the parents who you’ve seen many times in the school run (but have never interacted with) or some random stranger you’ve never seen before?

You won’t even think twice about it.

You take the mental shortcut and go with the familiar person — the one whom you’ve had more exposure to. Even if you haven’t talked to that person before.

The same is true for the person who lands on your site the first time.

He’s not familiar with you! You need to develop that familiarity first before he’ll trust you. And on the web, trust is the currency that makes your bank account very happy.

Foot-in-the-door technique

This one I’ve talked about in detail before: the foot-in-the-door technique.

If you can get a target customer to do a small request first (watch your ad, sign up to a newsletter, read your blog), he is more likely to agree to a bigger request in the future.

The first small request is the start of the familiarity process.

Add a few more small requests (frequency effect), and you cement the foundations of familiarity.

The more the person engages with you. The more he responds to all these little things. He becomes more inclined to buy from you when this big ask comes.

How to encourage customers to buy your product using the familiarity effect

There are many ways you can encourage customers to buy your product. If you’ve read my other blog posts before you probably use some of these already. But one of the effective methods that big brands use every single day is the familiarity effect. The good news is that it’s something that you can easily apply in your own online business, be it eCommerce, Lead Generation or an affiliate site.

1. Make yourself visible 

There’s a curious thing about the familiarity effect. It doesn’t necessarily happen consciously.

In fact, some studies have shown that even when a person is not aware of it, repeated exposure to a product or business, inevitably makes him familiar (ergo likes) to the product.

Like product placements in movies. You may not notice them but they get into your subconscious.

Yep. Like some voodoo sh*t.

And tbh, it’s why marketers get a lot of flack for manipulating people.

So yeah. There’s that.

But as I’ve always said. You can use your power for good or evil.

Which brings me to my point.

Make yourself visible everywhere. So that the more they see you, the stronger their familiarity towards you becomes.

With the wide world that is the internet, you’ve got to find the places where your target customers hang out. Regularly and consistently make a point of being visible in these places.

There’s a reason why big brands pay tons of money to advertise in the Super Bowl.  And why actors go to every talk show under the earth when they’re promoting a movie.

It may seem nothing to you. But just being exposed to that logo cements the foundations that build the familiarity effect.

I know that it sounds implausible that ads you don’t even “notice” can affect your decisions. Some kind of witchery. But so many research studies have shown this subliminal power of the familiarity effect that you can’t afford to ignore it.

2. Aim for quality interactions

So. You’ve got all that subliminal power up your sleeves.

But don’t just flood your target customers with your logo or your ads.

It’s not only the number of exposures that matter.

If you want to strengthen the customer’s positive affection for your business, then the quality of the engagement affects familiarity a lot more than just the quantity. 

It’s pretty obvious once you think about it.

People buy with their feelings. If they feel good about you, then they’re more likely to engage with you.

Imagine you’re deciding which of two  conversion rate optimization agencies to use. Assuming that both are top-notch businesses. And you’ve been subliminally exposed to their products an equal number of times. The only difference is this: one company had more quality interactions with you.

Which one would you choose?

I bet you’d go with the one whom you’ve had positive interactions with.

3. Make use of retargeting

Make use of retargeting

Most visitors who land on your site for the first time will fall through the cracks. And they might never visit your site again.

But you can get some of them back with a retargeting campaign.

This keeps your product or your brand in their consciousness.

Also repeated retargeting campaigns often give the impression that you’re selling a good product. In one study by the Journal of Consumer Research, when companies spend lots of money on advertising, the consumer assumes“If they’re willing to spend a lot of money on advertising, the product must be good.”

When you do a retargeting campaign, you’re not only getting them back to your site at that precise moment. You’re also developing familiarity which will benefit your business down the road.

4. Have a sales funnel

So we’ve talked about retargeting. Together with it comes using a funnel.

It’s not just some fancy word businesses use. This is a way to get consumers to slowly build trust and confidence in your business. Every time a person passes through each level of the funnel, he becomes closer to you. He knows more about you. He becomes familiar with you.

And as long as you’re delivering content and building a trustworthy relationship at every level, your target customer will feel that sense of familiarity and closeness towards you.

5. Engage with target customers on different social media platforms

Every time you engage a customer, you pull the gap between you and him closer. The level of virtual proximity narrows, and he slowly puts his guard down and develops a sense of trust towards you. Your business becomes “imprinted” in his memory. And if at some point he needs what you sell, he’ll think of you first.

There are many ways you can regularly engage with customers.

Through regular email newsletters. Orby having a regular blog post schedule.

But in the current landscape, having conversations with them on different social media platforms is an effective way to build trust and familiarity.

6. Take advantage of what’s already familiar

Turns out familiarity can be passed on by somebody (or something) to your business.

This is another shortcut your brain takes. Let’s say we both hang out in the same Facebook groups. You know who I am. In fact, we may have chatted with each other in some of the threads.

Now you’re looking for SEO services. I recommend a business you’ve never heard of before.

Wouldn’t you be more likely to avail of the services of the one I recommend than say, the recommendation of a stranger on the street?

Why is that?

Because you’re familiar with me already.

You’re taking your familiarity with me and then transferring it on to another business.

In the same way, you can do this for your business, too.

How? By using social proof.

Social Proof

There’s a reason why one testimonial from a person the target customers respect has more impact on sales than dozens of anonymous reviews.

That familiarity (ergo trust) is passed on to another business.

So how can you take advantage of this: Here are some things you can do:

  • Get customer testimonials from people your target customers are already familiar with
  • Add logos of businesses you’ve worked for, businesses that use your products, or places where you’ve been featured.
  • Harness the power of influencer marketing. And let them do the talking. Their followers (as long as they’re targeted good quality ones) will transfer that familiarity to your business when they recommend you.
  • And for you web designers out there, use a design that your customers are already familiar with. Every industry follows a website template. A SAAS design is different from an eCommerce site or from a news site. By following these familiar templates, your visitors find it easy to navigate your site. With this familiarity comes ease of use. And if I haven’t said this enough yet, making things easy for your customers will as a matter of course increase conversions.

7. Look at the camera

Harness the power of videos.

I know that many of you are not too keen about putting yourself on video.

But videos and live streams increase trust. It solidifies familiarity.

If you want to add a boost of familiarity, then get over your fear and make videos part of your marketing strategy.

A study by Cornell University showed that when brand ambassadors make eye contact in ads, 28% of target customers felt a higher brand connection.

Right there is your ticket to better brand connection.

Eye contact.

You can easily do this on videos and live streams. And if you can’t get yourself to live stream or make videos, at the very least, do it with the images you use to spread brand awareness.

Warnings and last thoughts

Geoffrey Chaucer once said,

“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

And with these words, I leave you with a warning.

The Familiarity or Mere Exposure Effect is an effective and very popular marketing technique. Just look at the millions of dollars that big brands spend on product placement.

But there are two caveats to implementing this.

First, always aim for positive interactions and exposure. A study has shown that a customer’s first impression of the product affects his subsequent feelings towards it.

Great if it’s a good feeling.

But when the first impression of your brand is negative, subsequent exposures are only going to amplify this feeling and make him dislike you even more.

Now you wouldn’t want that, would you?

The second caveat is this:

There’s a point when an ad will start to work against you. In fact, studies have shown that interest in a brand or product wears out when they see an ad too many times.

So know the balance. And regularly change your ads at different levels of your sales funnel.

And more importantly, remember this:

You’re competing with other companies who are doing the same thing as you. So don’t immediately assume that customers will choose you just because of the familiarity effect.

Think of familiarity as the springboard to get your target customer to consider you next time he wants to buy something that you sell.

There will be other psychological processes at work when a person buys something. But the one that will make you stand out. The one that will get the customer to choose you over the competition is the quality of interaction you’ve had with him.

It’s a no-brainer.

The familiarity effect is a wonderful psychological tool to use in your business. But if you want customers who buy from you over and over again. If you want the type of customers who become loyal to your brand, then you have to make every engagement and exposure a way to deepen the relationship.

Forget about tricking the subconscious.

And prioritize good quality interactions. That’s how you win. Every. Single. Time.

Author: Kurt Philip

1 Comment

  1. Ruti Dadash

    Wow, plenty of food for thought here. It’s harder for businesses on a lower budget who can’t spend much on advertising, whether in print or online. I guess they have to double down on email, social media, blog posts etc.
    Thanks for a great article!


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Hi, I’m Kurt Philip, the founder & CEO of Convertica. I live and breathe conversion rate optimization. I hope you enjoy our findings.

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