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How to turn a User into a Customer

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

A neuroscientific approach to customer acquisition 🧠

(Part 3/3)

Note: this is part 3/3 of Neuroscience of Search, an article based on my industry talks where we cover how to turn a user into a customer based on principles of neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

I most recently talked about this at BrightonSEO. You can see and listen to the full talk on the BrightonSEO video vault.

Well, it took me a while to get to the third and final write-up of my April BrightonSEO talk! I wish I had a better reason than being too attached to my content and procrastinating to make it as good as possible...but I’m only human 🙂

Anyway, it’s now here!

In the first part of this article, Neuroscience of Search, we saw why it’s important to understand how attentional processes work, whereas we talked about Cognitive Biases and Heuristics in the second part, ‘How users make decisions’.

In this final instalment, we’re going to see how to connect with the user and make sure they stay.

Table of Contents



We made it to the last stage, where transaction, sign-up or a longer commitment is involved - and at this point, there is one thing that really seals the deal: it's the role of social proof.

DO YOU REALLY WANT THAT - or is it just because everyone does?

I know, I know: we all want to be quirky and unique, but what neuroscience tells us is that our brain is ‘wired’ to be social.

We recognise and connect with face-like patterns, we display shared attention by following the gaze of our interlocutors when they look somewhere, and popular studies on mirror neurons in neurotypical populations highlighted how, when we observe someone performing an action, we display the very same pattern of brain activation corresponding to that activity (think about the ‘contagious yawn’ for example).

But the interesting part is that our natural tendency to imitate becomes a facilitation to interact with the person we are observing when the action involves a social cue.

Take this study by Luisa Sartori et al, 2012 about the impact of social cues on motor facilitation. This one is close to my heart not only because I was a participant in this study, but also because I would later join the research team to explore different aspects of this phenomenon.

The study recorded motor evoked potentials (MEPs) that were induced by transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to amplify subtreshold activation.

Participants were asked to sit still and watch a video on a screen. The face of the actor was off-screen, not to distract the user from the action (previous trials showed that the participants' gaze tends to focus on faces otherwise).

In one variant of the video, the participant watched the actor pour coffee or sugar into mugs or cups positioned close to them: in this case, an imitatory pattern of activation was observed in the participant.

Sartori et al., 2012: One variant of the stimulus, used as control in the experiment, showed an actor grabbing a spoon or a mug next to them and performing an action within reach distance.

However, when the actor in the video moved an object towards the participant, a ‘functional shift’ could be observed in the participants’ recordings, from an imitative to a complementary action.

This could be isolated thanks to different types of grips and muscular activation involved in the actions of grabbing a mug versus a spoon.

Sartori et al., 2012: Another variant of the experiment stimulus set showed an actor grabbing a spoon or a mug next to them and reaching out beyond their field of reach, towards the observer.

So while a neutral action triggered an automatic tendency to imitate, a social one overrode this behaviour in favour of a complementary and different action.

Social cues, both explicit and implicit, shape a lot of our daily life and decision-making. We call this phenomenon different things, like ‘bandwagon effect’ or ‘comformity behaviour’, but the overarching factor is the same, our need to belong to a group because it makes us feel safer.

This also applies to the animal realm and goes as far in evolution as of fish: a study by Christian Agrillo on magnitude estimation demonstrated that a single guppy, when put in the center of a tank with two groups of fishes of different sizes on either side, will swim towards the most numerous of them.

Agrillo et. al, 2012

And we do the same, take the world of travel for example: given two hotel options with the very same price, in the same area, we tend to go for the ones that have the most reviews, because the implicit validation of our choice makes us feel more secure in it.

A recent study by PowerReviews on more than 8000 US online shoppers showed that '77% of respondents specifically seek our websites with reviews, with higher numbers for Gen Z (87%) and Millennials (81%)'.

Moreover, ratings without accompanying reviews are considered untrustworthy by 56% of survey respondents.

This is why reviews and UGC are vital in the process of turning a user into a customer - and as we know, even Google has been making the search experience more and more reliant on external perspectives and social signals recently.

E.A.T. guidelines have become E.E.A.T., to reflect the addition of ‘Experience’ as a factor indicative of content quality; Google also added a Perspective’ filter to the SERP to give more prominence to different views, and one of the latest core updates seems to heavily take real-life experience into account as seen by this study by Lily Ray at Amsive Digital.

The result is that brands cannot rely anymore on ‘just’ providing great content, a flawless journey or a valuable product: they need their customers to validate them so that others can do the same.

The relationship between brands and customers is now more bilateral than ever.



And finally, there’s something that encompasses all of these stages, from awareness to purchase: it's the role of emotional connection.


Nothing new here: as marketers, we are always challenged to make our material more personal, more memorable, more emotional. But why?

Arguably, because people make decisions emotionally, then justify them rationally.

Think about that over-budget car you really want, or maybe that aerial trapeze that’s never going to be permanently set up in the living room. How many times did you try to justify the purchase by rationalising your need for it?

(Spoiler alert: my aerial trapeze never made it out of the box after the first tryout, despite me thinking it would save me sooo much money on studio rental…)

While the human spectrum of emotions is complex and cannot be reduced to a single model, for simplicity we’re going to take one by Paul Ekman that’s been quite popular in the past, and identifies 6 basic or ‘universal’ emotions that most of us are familiar with, regardless of our background: Happiness, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Anger, Surprise.

The origins of these six emotions have historically been connected to the limbic system, an aggregation of subcortical structures involved in visceral and autonomic processes as well as emotional recognition and regulation.

Processing of fear and sadness have mostly been linked to the amygdala, disgust to the insula and anger to the basal ganglia, while happiness seems to be reliant on a wider network distribution (as many other more complex and culturally learned emotions).

The 6 basic emotions represent the chords we can play to interact with our users at every stage of the journey, even before they realise they’re engaging with us.

Emotions are, essentially, our highway to the customer’s mind.

The somatic marker hypothesis

While theories on emotions are in constant development, there is one I think it’s particularly relevant to the conversation.

The ‘Somatic Marker Hypothesis’, developed by Damasio in the ‘90s, implies that emotional processes guide decisions - especially when we need to make a fast one.

Somatic markers are changes in the body’s physiological state (such as increased HR and sweating) caused by the processing of emotional stimuli, and they seem to have a direct influence on decision-making, whether it's a conscious process or not.

It’s basically what we came to call a ‘gut feeling’: that pit in your stomach that tells you to walk away from a situation that doesn't feel okay, or the instinct to trust something that just feels right in a moment.

Take familiarity, for example, which I talked about in the previous article: familiar stimuli elicit a SCR (skin conductance response) which is an indication of psychological arousal in response to significant stimuli, and that is the primary measure for somatic markers.

That's why familiar experiences and brands have a particular advantage over novelty - they just feel like home even before we realise they do.

So since emotions take over rationality, we need to make the users smile, to connect with them throughout the journey, to trigger an emotion.

Positive emotions can even reverse some negative experiences or biases that might normally take the user away from us.

A great example of this can be found in some creative 404 pages, a classic point of frustration for a user who's made it that far in their research task. I like this one by Tripadvisor, which connects with users at an emotional level, it makes them smile. Not only does this show some empathy, but offers alternatives, creating a positive experience out of a negative one.

The bottom line is, if you produce an emotion, then your customers will listen to what you have to say. That’s your chance to influence their choices.

Emotional experiences have the added benefit of modulating the perceived authenticity of your brand, how likely you are to be trusted, and ultimately, how much you’re going to have an impact on your prospective customers' choices, as shown by Ming-Yan Wang and colleagues in this 2019 study on WeChat users.

Did I convince you yet? 🙂

If you're still in doubt, I want to close on a tweet that I always like to show whenever I bring this talk out:

This joke made me chuckle, and reflect.

Think about it: whether you’re talking about a boyfriend, or a brand - if you have spent time with someone, you’ve got to know them, and have created memories together…do you really think the first random coming along is going to have the same prospects as someone you’ve connected with at an emotional level?

We're emotional creatures after all, and we need more than just numbers and facts.


Let's recap: 3 Key Takeaways to Turn your visitors into Customers

We’ve gotten to the end of the series - but what do you need to remember?

In short, three main takeaways:

  1. Dare to stand out: the SERP is full of similar results, so make sure yours is one that catches the attention.

  2. Every part of the journey counts, so ditch the silos and start collaborating with more teams to make the funnel smoother to navigate for the user.

  3. And finally, your users (as most people) just want to trust and feel safe, so make it easy for them.

P.S.: I'll be in Brighton again this week with two new talks! If you want to chat get in touch via email (

Going to miss that? I'll share my slides and do a write-up after the event, so make sure you follow @neuroscientive on Twitter to stay up to date with the latest news or subscribe to get a notification right in your inbox!

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