This just in: people like things they’re used to. It’s a concept known as “familiarity,” and it’s a nearly universal human behavior. And where there’s a human behavior, there’s a way to capitalize off of customers!

It’s Science

Let’s touch on some research explaining the concept first.

A study on human behavior by R.B. Zajonc led to a finding called ‘mere-exposure effect’, which suggested that the more exposed a person is to something, the more they’ll prefer it. Using a variety of stimulus – from words, to pictures and figures – Zajonc found that repeated exposure to the stimulus, even if negative or fear-inducing, leads to a greater chance that participants will prefer it over an lesser-known alternative.

The findings has been proven numerous times, with ‘mere exposure’ becoming a method of testing subjects as a means to find differences between two variables. To back it up further, a more recent study found similar outcomes. It focused on discovering how exposure effected consumer products, and (big, fancy words aside) the researchers found that positive feelings towards certain products increased with how familiar they appeared. Consumer products shaped in familiar styles, like an aluminum can or Coke bottle for instance, were preferred over an alternative, less familiar shape.

In a second test from the same study, even when product shapes were completely fabricated and made up, the ones more frequently exposed to participants were preferred. Essentially, people will drift towards things similar to what they already know, or things they’ve been exposed to for a while. Whether it’s human nature that prevents us from taking a lesser known risk, or plain old comfort from things we’ve been around, a preference for the familiar is a well-established behavior.

If this type of behavioral stuff floats your entrepreneurial boat, here are some other studies that every merchant should check out.

Putting It in Action

The more familiar customers are with your business, the more likely they are to choose you to spend their hard earned money. That’s why it’s important that you make use to the “familiarity” concept. Whether it’s a customer’s first impression of your store or consistent exposure to your brand, there are two clear ways you can go about putting the principle to work: your site’s design and communication with customers.

The first opportunity a shopper has to get familiar with your business is through your online site itself. A lot of work goes into designing a site’s UX/UI (you can find some background on Ordoro’s own UI/UX here), with much of it depending on customers’ expectations and feedback – two things that are obviously going to skew toward what the customer is comfortable with.

If you create a site that looks bizarre and never-seen-before, it could appeal to some shoppers, but likely not the majority of them. Fortunately, instead of having to worry about whipping up a site design, there are channels that already do it for you! That’s one of the reasons Amazon is such a pivotal sales channel for some merchants. There’s no site mapping or marketing needed on the merchant’s end, and the conversion rate for Amazon is high. Customers are already familiar with Amazon and trust the massive marketplace, and they’re clearly content with the site’s design.


So if consumers are already familiar and loyal to Amazon, it makes sense to replicate their design, right? After all, the goal is for customers comfortable and familiar with your own business so they choose you.

Although the situation is obviously a little different for shopping carts since merchants have more control, the premise is still the same. It’s all about making site layouts that are familiar to customers. Look at these site themes from Bigcommerce. You can clearly see a pattern in the vast majority of templates that’s similar to Amazon. And they’re along the same lines as the big boys, like WalMart:


…as well as Target:


It’s not that these interfaces are unoriginal, it’s that customers are familiar with such layouts and know how to navigate them, which tends to hike up conversion rates. Why complicate a customer’s path to purchase when something already works?

But a site’s design is only the first place you can throw in some “familiarization.”

Familiarity = Loyalty

Assuming your site and products do the trick and you get a sale, familiarity is as important as ever. It’s pretty much implied in the word ‘loyalty,’ so it goes without saying that it effects customer loyalty. A shopper that’s familiar with you, that’s already purchased from you and trusts your brand, is liable to come back for more. The customer’s familiarity with your business is a positive influence that only helps to turn them into a return customer.

That said, the worldwide web is a large place, and your customers are more than likely not visiting your online store every single day. That’s where your marketing comes in.

Like the studies found, exposure is a main factor in building familiarity. That means getting your brand in the customer’s face and exposing yourself to them (in the best of ways, of course). Consistent engagement on social channels and effective email marketing can drive that familiarity between you and your customers, boosting loyalty while leading to more sales and a greater lifetime value.

On the email marketing side of things, you should be sending out regular promotions to customers that have already purchased from you. It will ideally lead to another sale, but it also builds up that exposure the consumer needs if they’re to get accustomed to your brand. On the social side, it’s all about making noise. The more you engage, the more exposure you’re getting. The important part is ensuring that the promotions and messages are relevant and meaningful to your audience, while being non-spammy.

A Quick Caveat

But don’t lose your own personality and creativity in an effort to appeal to a broad amount of customers. If everyone’s doing the same thing because shoppers are comfortable with it, it doesn’t mean you should do exactly the same. Amazon, Target, and Walmart are companies that the vast majority of consumers are familiar with, so they can get away with it. You’re a small business – your audience is naturally going to be smaller, and it’s important to differentiate yourself.

Although this word we’ve mentioned a bazillion times – familiarity – is something in our human nature, your customers are your customers. At the risk of sounding like I’m giving dating advice, be yourself. Every business’ audience is different from another in some way, and what’s familiar and preferable to your base isn’t the same as another business’. It’s important to distinguish yourself from the heavy hitting companies, and your site’s design and brand are two ways to go about doing that.

Combining familiarity with your own creative brand is the key here. You should have unique aspects to your brand that intrigue the customer, all while sticking to old practices that customers are used to. Get them familiarized with your brand, comfortable with your presence, and you’ve got a customer that’s more inclined to be loyal, positive, and – most importantly – generous towards you. Next time they choose between your store and a competitor, they may just prefer you.

Photo: Amy Leonard, Flickr