First Impressions and the Placebo Effect

It turns out that first impressions may be the ONLY impressions that matter – which is why when one of my high school chums wrote on my wall at Facebook “I visited your website and I was impressed” it made my day.

YEAH!  Mission accomplished!  I can now attend my high school reunion even though I’m a LOT older and fatter than I was in high school!

Seriously – I’m very grateful for that input because it lets me know that my little corner of the web here is making a good first impression.  Of course we all know that we should try to make a good first impression because we all know that presentation has a HUGE impact upon the first impression people form of us personally and professionally.  However – if you’re like me – you want to believe in your heart of hearts that if you DO screw up and make a bad first impression that time and experience will help the other person overcome a poor first impression.

First impressions are probably the ONLY impression you’ll get to make

Don’t you hate reading that?  I do but it’s true.   First impressions are the ONLY impressions that count – and the study that illustrates this was done BEFORE the days of Twitter and the myriad of other ways you can screw up the first impression you make online!

If you’re like me, you desperately WANT to believe that if you screw up and make a bad first impression that you’ll get a second chance.  It’s nice to think that once someone “gets to know you” that their perceptions will change.  However,  Harvard psychologist Nalini Ambady did a study which seems to show that the first impressions make an indelible effect on people’s perception – and perception is EVERYTHING!  Ambady asserts that your first impression will be your only impression, regardless of the “accuracy” of your first assessment.

To measure the effect of first impressions, researchers divided a group of  students into two separate groups.  One group watched video clips depicting the professor as a warm, caring and knowledgeable educator. The second group watched video clips which depicted the professor as cold, uncaring and incompetent.  After watching the clips, the students were asked to record their first impressions.

Here’s the kicker – the students then took a class with the professor.   They spent three or more hours each week being exposed to the “real” professor.  At the end of the course, the students were asked to fill out another evaluation.

What we all want to believe is the first impression of the students would change once they actually experienced the professor’s teaching style.  By experiencing the professor in person over an entire semester, we want to believe that experience would change their evaluations.

I know that I personally desperately wanted to believe that despite being fed a “wrong” first impression, people would  use their own personal experience to overcome a negative first impression.  I wanted reality to overcome perceptions.  Unfortunately, that’s not what happened in the study.

It turned out that more information didn’t change the student’s perceptions of the professor.  Despite the passage of time and the opportunity of the students to gather and experience  better and more accurate information, the student’s impressions of the professor as they completed the course was almost identical to their first impression.

First impressions are embraced more fiercely than anyone ever suspected and it appears that first impressions actually become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Which brings us to the role first impressions play when it comes to your business.  You can see why first impressions play a powerful role in the success of your online marketing strategy.

However, there’s another psychological factor at work when it comes to first impressions, marketing and your business – the placebo effect.

When you combine the law of first impressions with the placebo effect, and you’ll see how first impressions not only will determine whether or not someone chooses to do business with you – but you’ll also see how those first impressions form the literal foundation for your relationship with your clients/customers!

The placebo effect is a well documented phenomenon where expectation shapes our experience.  Give people a pill and tell them it will make them feel better and even though there’s no medicine involved, in the majority of cases people do feel better.  The placebo effect is so powerful, cancer can even be cured when a placebo drug is combined with the right first impression!

The placebo effect extends well beyond the realm of medicine. In the case of your business, the first impression your business makes upon a customer will literally create the expectation of the level of service your potential clients/customers come to expect.  First impressions help to create an expectation of the quality of the products/services you provide.

Again there are studies to support this claim.  Science news reports on one in the price tag can change your perception of a wine’s quality.

According to researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the California Institute of Technology, if a person is told he or she is tasting two different wines—and that one costs $5 and the other $45 when they are, in fact, the same wine—the part of the brain that experiences pleasure will become more active when the drinker thinks he or she is enjoying the more expensive vintage.

The placebo effect extends well beyond wine and into every facet of your marketing because that is where your customer’s perceptions are established.

There is no such thing as “reality” – there is only perception of reality.

You never have a second chance to create a great first impression.  You must pay close attention to every contact point your business has with the general public.  From business cards to stationary to your web site, there’s no getting over a poorly made first impression.