In a soccer game, each side has a clear game plan. It plays to attack or it plays to defend. Most of us operate in very much the same way. We do things to win, or we do things to "not lose".

When we shop, we're either browsing for something that might catch our fancy (win) or we're out to buy a product that does a defined job in the best way possible, without taking chances (avoiding a loss).

Align with your customer's mindset

Advertisers have long taken advantage of this, as explained by Columbia University professor E. Tory Higgins and social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson in their book Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing The World for Success and Influence.

According to Higgins, who formulated the "Regulatory Focus Theory", you're more likely to convince customers to buy your product if your advertising strategy aligns with their mindset.

If they're in a loss prevention mindset, you'll have more success with loss prevention-focused advertising than with a win-focused strategy.

A new study has confirmed this approach even works in the setting of mobile shopping, where a smartphone's small screen restricts the information it can display.

What the study showed

In the study, researchers from South Korea tracked the eye movements of some college students looking at a mobile shopping screen with information about a notebook computer.

Among volunteers who needed to buy a notebook computer, the intention to buy the product was closely related to how much their gaze was drawn to product information.

For the recreational shoppers, however, this intention correlated with how much their gaze rested on promotion information.

What makes shoppers buy a product they don't need?

  • Positives

Recreational shoppers are more likely to buy a product they don't need if they anticipate a "win" or if that product promises a "feeling" or an experience that is new or exciting.

Marketing coupons work better on customers who are unsure of what to buy rather than those who know what they need. Apple's famous "Think different." slogan promised a new "feeling" to millions of customers who didn't really need to buy an Apple product.

  • Negatives

Recreational shoppers are put off by taxing, factual details.

One possible reason is, when shoppers imagine the "feeling" or experience a product promises, they're using the brain's "daydreaming" mode. You can only daydream if your mind is allowed to wander and it can't wander if your attention is absorbed in an analytical task.

Putting it into practice

Psychology studies don't always produce consistent results outside of a laboratory, but Higgins' formula has been shown to hold true in many different contexts. To use the formula for better sales this season, try these three steps:

  • Guess the intention of your customer base. If customers are viewing a high-end sunglass collection at the end of Fall, they're probably browsing. If they're looking at co-working spaces, they probably need one.
  • If you want customers to buy something they need, give them information. Give clear, detailed specifications and offer accurate comparisons with rival products.
  • If you want customers to buy something they don't need, give them a promotion. Encourage them to daydream and minimize factual details. Tell a story that captures their imagination.