New research at Stanford University suggests that a decision to buy something from your web site is based on two competing brain activities. The study tested the brain activity in people making decisions to buy things like a DVD, chocolates or a book. At several points their brains were scanned to see which parts of the brain were involved in the decision to buy or not to buy.

When looking at the products (without any pricing information) the participants in the study were clearly focusing on “reward”. Their brains were actively involved in seeking out the personal benefits to them for buying the product. However, when the price was revealed, their brains switched focus and was concentrating in “pain”.

This implies that our brains are trying to balance the pleasure we get from buying something we want with the pain of having to part with our money. If the pain outweighs the pleasure we are unlikely to buy.

However, the study authors suggested that their research shows why people overspend on credit cards. The fact that the pain of paying is delayed means that the pleasure of buying outweighs the negative potential of the purchase.

For Internet retailers this is an important finding. It means that you need to find several ways of delaying payment in order to make purchasing decisions more likely. Accepting credit cards will obviously help, but so will “buy now, pay later” schemes, or “pay in instalment” systems.

The more your sales material emphasises the pleasure people get from what you are selling and the less it deals with the pain of buying, the better. This research goes against traditional advice from marketers who suggest that people buy because they wish to reduce pain in their life – for instance the “pain” of not having enough customers means they’ll be more likely to buy your book on getting new clients to reduce that pain. However, this research shows that this is less likely to work than concentrating on the pleasure the potential purchaser will gain from meeting new customers. The more you can trigger the pleasure areas of the brain, the more likely it is that people will buy from you, especially if you can reduce the painful impact of paying.

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