You may never get a second chance to make a good first impression. But when does that first impression begin?
Human beings are simply incapable of ingesting, sorting and rationalizing every piece of new information that’s presented to them. Why? Because there’s simply too much stuff out there, and – ultimately – most of it isn’t really of importance to us.
Over millennia we’ve evolved to become selective in what we consciously see, hear, smell, feel. Most of us don’t notice the change in daylight when the sun comes out from behind a cloud, for example, and certainly not after the 57th time it’s done it that morning.
That’s not saying that we don’t notice such things at an unconscious level. For me, I often find myself “recognizing” a song on the radio (or increasingly on Spotify or Pandora) even though I feel I’ve never heard it before. Clearly I do know the song from somewhere, so I must have heard it before even if I didn’t consciously acknowledged it at the time.
Customers Don’t Think In Bullet-Points
It’s impossible to impart every single element of your proposition, instantly, to every person that you’re trying to reach. People don’t think in bullet-points, because it’s harder to interpret random abstracted information compared with something designed to resonate with how people think, and feel.
That’s why marketing is about telling stories, because stories are a way to encase data in a way that people can digest, remember, and recall. Marketers will tell their stories in many different ways – through their packaging or their advertising, for example. The goal of the Marketer is to impart the message within the story to their audience.
However, what is said is not always what is understood.
When an impulse/message/idea reaches a person’s brain it is interpreted based upon a bazilion factors that may include historical, cultural, socio-economic and age-related influences. Whether you see that interpretation has being “right” or “wrong” is ultimately irrelevant: it is how it is. It’s one of the reasons why marketing messages need to be simple in order for them to have half a chance of being understood and (hopefully) spread. It’s also why you need to know as much as possible about your audience: you can’t tell a story without knowing about who’s going to hear it.
Once people are exposed to your message, they interpret it and digest it in their own way – not yours. Once that decision has been made, it’s very difficult to convince them otherwise. We make snap judgements – on people, on brands – and defend our decisions, often even in the midst of receiving information that may prove us wrong.
Think about the last time you were at a social gathering where you didn’t know all the people who were there. Perhaps you were introduced to someone, a person you hadn’t previously met, but after perhaps only a 10 minute conversation you’d forged a dislike towards them.
We all make snap decisions. In order to deal with the unending tidal waves of influences, messages and choices we take in a very limited amount of information and come up with a decision. The way someone talks, or looks, or smells, or dresses. The packaging, the pricing, the design of the website, the way the phone is answered. That snap decision may be right or it may be wrong. There may be subsequent, compelling data that contradicts our initial judgement, but usually (and certainly at the beginning) we ignore it. No-one wants to be proved wrong, do they? Our minds are made up, and that’s all there is to it.
In a very short space of time, the customer has pieced-together the elements of the story and made up their minds. If the story is confusing or inconsistent, then the customer becomes uncomfortable and the story is ignored. But if the story is compelling, resonating with the customers own moral/social/political compass and echoing their own opinions, goals or aspirations, then the story is accepted – and embraced.
The First Impression Illusion
Which brings us back to the title of this piece. Surely, if our audiences are making snap judgements based upon their own criteria that we may or may not be able to control, the importance of making a good first impression is greater than ever, right?
Well yes – and no. Because my point isn’t that first impressions aren’t important – because they most certainly are. My point is that we don’t know when that first impression is forged in the customer’s mind, because we don’t control the combination or timing of the influences that ultimately lead the customer to make that decision.
More often than not, the first time a customer interacts with your brand they’re left with no impression at all.
Most people don’t notice your advertising, your signage, your pricing, the muzak in the elevator, or the color of your necktie. At least, not the first time that they interact with you. We need to differentiate between a prospective customer’s first contact with you, and their first impression of you.
“First Contact” Is Rarely “First Impression”
This is why your story not only has to be something that your audience can embrace, but something consistent across every customer touchpoint. We don’t know – or control – the factors that will be used to create the story that the customer will tell herself, which is why authenticity matters.
You may have a cool logo, a fantastic website, trendy-looking staff uniforms and offer the lowest prices in town. But if (in the minds of your customers) your products suck and your staff are unhelpful then your story isn’t seen as being coherent.
When an organization – or individual for that matter – is seen as authentic and consistent from whatever angle approached, the story being told is deemed sufficiently consistent to align itself with the greatest number of audience members.
It’s not about spending a fortune redesigning your corporate ID, updating your support desk software or putting a flashy video on your website. It’s about every point of contact between you and your audience before, during and after the transaction.