6 Conversion Principles You Can Learn From The Mere-Exposure Effect

Columnist Jeremy Smith explains why increasing your exposure leads to familiarity, which results in a big improvement in conversion optimization.

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Every now and then, conversion optimizers come up with a technique that blows our minds.

Usually, the most effective “techniques” aren’t cute hacks about color or button size. They’re about the psychological underpinnings of human decision-making.

One such powerful feature is the mere-exposure effect. In this article, I want to explain how it can completely change your conversion game.


What Is The Mere-Exposure Effect?

The mere-exposure effect means that people prefer things that they are most familiar with.

Mere Exposure Effect Ss

The mere-exposure effect is also called the familiarity principle, because it’s built on the establishment of familiarity.

Berkeley researchers found that the mere-exposure effect builds dramatically based on the number of repeated interactions of subject and object.

Berkeley research on mere-exposure effect

The mere-exposure effect has been the subject of non-stop study from psychological researchers. The range of tests, research papers and monographs has proven beyond a doubt the reality and power of the mere-exposure effect upon the human mind.

The most famous mere-exposure researcher was the late psychologist Robert Zajonc. Zajonc is among the most-cited psychologists in the 20th century and his study of the mere-exposure effect is the research for which he is most recognized.

Robert Zanjonc

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Usynin and used here via Creative Commons license.

He tirelessly tested the mere-exposure effect upon thousands of subjects. Some of his tests were verbal and auditory. For example, he tested how people responded to nonsense words like zebulons or worbus. The more often these words were repeated to the subjects, the more favorably they responded to them.

In other tests, he showed subjects symbols that looked like Chinese characters but were actually complete nonsense. The more often the subjects were exposed to the nonsense characters, the more likely they were to have positive feelings toward them.

Even other animals respond to this effect. Baby chicks still in their eggs were played a tone of a certain frequency. After they hatched, they preferred that tone to a different one.

The mere-exposure effect has obvious implications in social psychology.

fact-the more often you see a celebrity the more likely you are to love them

For example, if you repeatedly see a coworker, you are more likely to feel attracted and respond favorably to him or her. It’s not because he or she is particularly beautiful, witty, desirable or charming, but simply because you see your co-worker often.

Less commonly known, however, is the impact it has on conversion optimization. If mere exposure is a thing, then what should you do about it?

1. Make Your Website Look Similar To Other Great Sites

As much as our culture purports to value individuality and independence of spirit and style, we’re all just a bunch of conformists.

That’s not good or bad. It just is. The fact is, we are socially programmed to conform to a degree so that we will be perceived as nonthreatening or even appealing to others. The fact that we are familiar means that we are accepted.

This social phenomenon carries over into the arena of digital interactions. If a website looks vastly different from any other website we’ve ever seen, we may not at first appreciate it. It automatically creates a nibbling sensation of distrust rather than visceral appeal.

To make your website feel safe, familiar and enjoyable, make it similar to other websites in your industry and space:

  • General layout should be similar to other websites
  • Placement of familiar features should be similar to other websites
  • Checkout processes should be similar to other websites

Let’s take, for example, an ecommerce site that wanted to be incredibly unique. They decided to dispense with the shopping cart, place the “buy” button in the far upper right (who does that?!) and put a static category selection bar at a fixed bottom position on the user’s view portal.

Even if you’re not visualizing that layout, let me assure you that it’s completely aberrant from all ecommerce website trends.

Most websites look the same, even sites from different industries.


Who decided that website conventions should be a certain way? The society at large did. We are accustomed by mere exposure to prefer things that look familiar.

Don’t rock the boat. Your conversion rates will thank you.

2. Through Mere Exposure Of Your Unique Selling Proposition, Your Website Earns Conversion Potential

Another powerful result of the mere-exposure effect is the way that your audience becomes accustomed to your unique selling proposition.

The more you feature your USP, talk about your USP, rave about your USP and display your USP, the more familiar your audience will become. Ergo, the more appealing it will become.

It’s important to understand your audience before you create a USP, however. If you are to truly understand your audience, there is no replacement for simple observation. Big data can only help you so much, especially if you are drawing much of it from social media.

Seeing how your target audience reacts to your product or to your website will help you determine how to best move forward with your conversion efforts. This is best engineered if you have targeted the social leaders within your target market — the people and personalities who can convince their social circles that your business is the one to patronize.

3. Assess The Extent Of The Mere-Exposure Effect On Your Audience

There are thousands of niches and subgroups on the Web, and you aren’t looking to market to all of them. Instead, you should be identifying the niche you want to target.

Just as there are different niches and subgroups, so there are a variety of potential responses to the mere-exposure effect.

Group A may have a different level or extent of familiarity and will therefore respond differently from Group B. It’s crucial to determine through observation and psychographic analysis who’s who and how they respond.

As your products and your website are exposed to more people who are under your observation, you will have plenty of genuine data to pull from when you make your later iterations.

You will be able to see firsthand the actual demographic and psychographic that you should be targeting. The energy level in the room is a great indicator of who is actually interested in what you have to offer. There is no way that big data can track this.

4. Observation Of Mere-Exposure’s Impact Is A Cost-Effective Way To Cross-Reference The Validity Of Big Data

Big data should be an important part of your marketing analysis. However, the mere-exposure effect can serve as a cross-reference and a balance on the dry statistics you receive.

Sometimes simple observation is what is needed to validate data at all. Because of the discrepancies that you can get if you are marketing on more than a couple of social media sites, it is often difficult to tell who your target market really is.

When you define psychographic data to the extent of intuiting the mere-exposure effect, you’ve gained a powerful conversion optimization advantage.

Observation is also a great way to tell the differences between the various psychographic types that you may find inside of a single demographic. In short, observation will help you hone down your big data even more, so that your marketing can be as precise as it possibly can be.

5. Mere-Exposure Effect Can Tell You Things Your Analytics Can’t Tell You

There are many aspects of behavior that big data, even sophisticated analytical tools, has not caught up with just yet. This is especially true if you are marketing anywhere in the mobile environment. The same kind of people will act completely differently on their mobile phones than they do on a laptop or a desktop that is sitting at home.

It is often very helpful in the marketing of a website or a product to make sure that the data from a responsive website and the data from a laptop website are kept completely separate.

Although it can be helpful to cross-reference these sets of data at some point, this is usually only when a business has a good handle on its demographic and psychographic information. As stated before, this requires a great deal of personal observation and the exposure effect, along with a close analysis of big data.

Make sure that you understand the limitations of big data and Web analytics. It will increase the level of value you place on psychographic data and observation of the mere-exposure effect.

There are significant limitations in the way traditional web analytics program

Exposure also incorporates the dimension of time into your marketing analysis. All ads have a diminishing rate of return, but do you know exactly what that rate of return is? Certain demographics may simply tire of your ad; however, others may require seeing it more in order for it to completely register in their minds.

You will never know this if you stick specifically to your online data — These reports are notoriously bad for freezing the scope of analysis. There is virtually no good way to capture a good time log using just big data.

6. Without A Ubiquitous Presence, Your Conversion Efforts Will Flounder

No matter how effective your marketing may be, you will not achieve any sort of presence with any audience unless you are ubiquitous to a point.

There’s a old marketing rule that states that an ad must be shown to an individual at least seven times before it ever consciously registers. This does not even take into account the propensity of the human brain to forget things even if it was engaged at one point. Nor does it account for the exponentially increased amount of ads that people face now in the modern age of the internet.

Without the appropriate observation for your ads, your products and your website in front of your customers, you will spend a great deal of money and time on paid search ads. You need to have initial exposure in order to earn the potential of the mere-exposure effect.

This is perhaps the first and best way to go out of business on the internet. Everything in the online world is about precision and directness, and you will not be able to study these things in relation to your business without some level of saturation within your target market.

In order to create this ubiquity for yourself in a cost-effective way, you may have to put your product out in front of people in the real world in a very informal manner. As a matter of fact, doing so in an informal way will likely give you a better indication of how people respond to your advertisements in the real world. After all, no one views an advertisement, website or product in a vacuum.

A wide array of noise and direct competition are all competing for the sensory information of a potential customer. In order to counter this, you must do whatever you have to in order to make your product ubiquitous within your target market in as many locations as humanly possible.

Remember that you are not necessarily going for high sales. You are simply pursuing more exposure — more exposure, which leads to mere-exposure costs.

It’s not a free hack or some cheap-and-easy growth technique. You’ve got to possess a sizable presence, which leads to your creating a saturation of familiarity.

The conversion impact doesn’t happen instantly. It takes time to build familiarity, but it will come.


Analytics will continue to become more complex as the technology for big data improves its ability to drill down into statistics and social media. However, the basis for success in business will remain largely the same: The bottom line is what matters.

By understanding what the mere-exposure effect is and how it works, you will possess a significant advantage in your conversion optimization efforts.

More exposure leads to familiarity, which leads to comfortability, which leads to remarkable improvements in conversion optimization as a whole.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith is a serial entrepreneur, trainer and conversion consultant, helping businesses like IBM, Dow Chemical, American Express, Panera Bread, and Wendys improve conversions and strategically grow their businesses. Jeremy’s experience as the CMO and CEO of technology firms has given him a powerful understanding of human behavior and profit-boosting techniques.

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