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7 proven ways that facial cognition can drive business

7 proven ways that facial cognition can drive business Joseph Carrabis

Most people are amazed at how much of the brain is geared to recognize faces and respond to someone's gaze. This capability comes from millions of years of our ancestors looking at each other and having to decide if they were staring at a friend or a foe. But our individual training in what's called facial cognition starts at birth -- when someone picks us up and stares into our tiny, newborn face, and wants to get our attention.

7 proven ways that facial recognition can drive business

Recognizing faces and "wanting to get attention" are so important to human existence that we lingualize that importance with expressions such as:

  • "Why are you looking at me like that?"

  • "You look happy."

  • "Why the sour face?"

Scots Gaelic speakers describe an angry person with "his face is set against the world," Polish speakers use "cabbage face" as a put-down, and Italians use "faccia di culo" for much the same purpose.

It's that "wanting to get attention" part that's the boon to User Experience (UX) and content designers, especially when it comes to consumer testimonials. Proper use requires some knowledge of how the social parts of our brains work. NextStage has been studying facial cognition and related fields in marketing for several years now, has published some scholarly articles on the subject, and demonstrated how companies can drive business with the correct image.

The comment, endorsement, referral, recommendation hierarchy

Often product service or offering testimonials -- comments, endorsements, referrals, and recommendations -- are made that have:

  • the testimonial and nothing else

  • a first name and last initial

  • a first name and a location/business name

  • a full name but no location

  • a picture, a first name, and a location that's geographically distant from where the comment, endorsement, referral, or recommendation is made (often done in TV ads and infomercials)

  • a picture, a full name, and a location/business name

Humans evaluate the validity of any marketing testimonial in the order given. Meaning a testimonial with no attribution is discounted while a testimonial attributed to a picture with full name and a location/business name is evaluated as worth considering.

Consumers are jaded to the point that they go into a state of inattentional blindness or choice blindness when their minds determine something is marketing. They literally a) stop seeing what you're presenting even though it's right in front of them or b) involuntarily shut down their brain's decision centers causing an emotional bias that stops them from deciding for or against your offering.

NextStage discovered some ways to stop these neuro- and psycho-logic defenses from keeping your message out of your audience's consciousness. Here are seven items we learned about the use of faces in testimonials in our most recent study. As always, our criteria is a simple one: Did business increase or not? What follows are simple things that increased business (conversions) 25 to 300 percent on various digital properties.

The first face should be a woman's face

Both men and women, across all cultures and ethnic groups, respond positively when the first content based image is a woman's face. Content based meaning "the changing portion" -- not the banner, the menu, the ads, or the background, but the area where you place your message.

This was surprising because NextStage performed this study with some strongly patriarchal culture groups and common wisdom would have indicated that a male face would create greater positive affect in such cultures. Never-the-less, a woman's face presented first among many causes the strongest positive response and that positive response haloes the rest of the content. The major caveat here is that the face must be from the audience's peer group. This reinforces studies about the best corporate spokespeople and presenters being mirrors of the audience the company wants to penetrate.

Position is everything in the visual field

You can place a given content element in one position and people will think it's wonderful. Move the same content element to some another position and people will think it's terrible.

This is especially true of facial images. Notice the image above again. The woman's face is towards the camera from the left of the screen. This would normally send a non-conscious signal to the audience that the woman is analyzing or evaluating them, basically scrutinizing them. More often than not, facial images on the left of the screen cause subtle anxiety responses in people.

This was not the case here due to the actual testimonial, "Loved your presentation!" The short, direct statement at the visual level of the woman's mouth and using an emotion verb signaled that this woman could be trusted, could be believed and was "right." When study participants were asked, "Is this woman telling the truth", over 90 percent agreed unconditionally. Participants in the study demonstrated subtle, non-conscious anxiety responses to the image, but immediately relaxed (as gauged by breathing, keyboard/screen attack rate and pressure, flexion in the large muscle groups, etc.) upon reading the comment.

This tension/relaxation response almost always causes favorable reactions to information.

Enthusiasm and emotion beat a straight flush

The top image shows a male with a joyful expression holding a sparkler, and the image below it shows a smiling woman with her head canted towards both the audience and the content. Both images signal a blend of enthusiasm and emotion, and both focused participant attention strongly.

More to the point of marketing, the text next to each image was evaluated for a longer time period -- meaning the participants were self-branding with the image and its matching content -- than with other image-text combinations used in the study.

NextStage often tell clients that emotion is energy in motion. All marketing and all consumer decision processes, in their base form, are emotional appeals and decisions. Logic and higher cognitive resources may be involved and in the end, if the higher and lower brains (cognition and emotion) are in conflict, the sale will go sour or won't happen at all. The consumer will suffer buyer's regret and remorse, they will become a customer service nightmare, and it'll go downhill from there.

Show your audience an enthused peer group member who's showing welcoming emotion about your product or offering and you've branded your audience that product or offering is good, necessary, and will make them happy.

The danger here is that the use of enthusiasm and emotion is extremely product and audience specific. A teenager's emotional display regarding a mobile phone won't move a boomer to purchase, and a boomer's emotional display at a sunset won't move a teenager to take a vacation. Too much enthusiasm or emotion caused negative responses across all demographics studied. Today's audiences more often equate high levels of enthusiasm and emotion with a lack of education, experience, or as attention seeking behavior. And each demographic has strict morals regarding what attention seeking behavior is acceptable and what isn't.

Known authorities should be shown being authoritative

Suppose you're going to use a testimonial from someone whom your audience recognizes as a known authority. Good for you!

But now suppose you have them doing something that your audience doesn't recognize them doing. For example, you sell skis, your recognized authority says your skis are the bees knees, but your authority image is him or her reading a book by a fireplace.

Two things happen that hurt you:

  • Your audience has to decide if the image is a gag and you never, ever, ever want your audience to make a decision when you haven't tilted the scales in your favor. 

  • If your audience can't decide, then your recognized authority's reputation goes down a notch in the community. Bad for you, bad for your authority, but great for your competition.

Have your recognized authority doing something that demonstrates their authority. The image below shows a known authority lecturing/teaching. The text is lengthy, something expected from a teacher/lecturer.

Very few participants read the complete text associated with this image, however over 80 percent of them evaluated what they read as true. Note that some positional elements come into play; the image is on the left of the screen and that adds to the "authority" aspect.

Engagement with others is a good thing

The above image is a psychosocial masterpiece in itself for interaction-causing design in and of itself. The image is on the right of the visual field, signaling the brain to use social intelligence to understand its content. The image itself is of a female looking both towards the reader and the text, so whatever is in the text is being said to the reader.

But also at the bottom of the image is someone else's arm, so the woman is interacting with someone who's just out of the frame and who happens to be in the reader's psychospatial location (have you ever seen an image and felt you were part of it, as if you were in the picture? That's psychospatial location kicking in).

This overall non-conscious impact is brilliant. The woman is looking towards the reader and the text, and she's also interacting with someone in the image. Readers will non-consciously identify themselves with the person just out of the frame in the image, hence the woman is talking to the reader person-to-person, and the text is being said directly to them because they identified themselves with the individual just out of the frame.

Leaning into the text indicates a willingness to help, serve, and assist

The image below is also on the right, so again psychosocial aspects come into play. This non-conscious signal for social engagement is heightened by the subject's slight lean towards both the text and the visitor. Note that it is a slight lean, not so much of a lean as to be threatening, more like the subject's ready to lend a hand.

This non-conscious suggestion of help is reinforced by the subject in the picture having a genuine smile. Our brains are masters at recognizing subtleties in facial feature placement and can determine a fake or forced smile from a genuine smile faster than it takes to make one. Non-consciously, the fake or forced smile signals danger, threat, and trouble, that the smiler is not to be trusted. Fake or forced smiling images in marketing are a big reason that well designed content produces minimal results.

However, a genuine smile, especially when the smiler is slightly leaning towards the viewer, non-consciously signals that the smiler is saying something like "Wow, that's neat! Can I play, too?" and is possibly a friend that's genuinely interested in what's going on with the reader and their actions.

Candid wins over posed, professional, and glamour shots

The last item is specific to images used for testimonial purposes an is also audience and product specific; candid, personal images are more believable than posed, professional, and/or glamour shots. For most audiences, the latter are quickly recognized as marketing, therefore any text attributed to the person in the image is also marketing. Another risk is that the posed, professional, and/or glamour shot is so striking that the viewer's attention is locked on the image and the accompanying text is ignored or lost (see above image).

However, a personal and/or candid shot (see image below) allows the viewer's brain mirror cells to engage rapidly, and trust is established between the viewer and the person in the image, meaning whatever they're saying must be true because mirrors don't lie.


Using facial images to influence visitors is incredibly easy to do so long as you remember three simple rules:

  • The faces must be of your target audience

  • Place the image according to how you want any accompanying text evaluated

  • People assign greater validity and truth to what is recognized than what is unrecognized (mirror-selves).

Joseph Carrabis is founder and chief research officer at NextStage Evolution.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Emotional man in a business suit" image via Shutterstock.

Joseph Carrabis is Founder and CRO of The NextStage Companies, NextStage Global and NextStage Analytics, companies that specialize in helping clients improve their marketing efforts and understand customer behavior. He's also applied neuroscience,...

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