Place future-related items on the right

People like future-related products and images more if they’re positioned to the right, and past-related ones if they’re on the left. The effect reverses for those who write right-to-left.

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This fascinating research from the Sauder School of Business (University of British Columbia) applied a known psychological principle to marketing to see what happens (i.e. if something is where we expect it to be, it’s easier to process so we like it more).

As always with Ariyh’s tips, while you go through this keep an open mind and think of different ways in which it could be tested and applied to boost your business.

Researchers do the initial hard work for us, but we’re the innovators that make it happen in the real world (years before anyone else, I must add 😉).


Place future-related images on the right and past-related ones to the left

Impacted metrics: Customer acquisition
Channels: Ads | Website | Packaging | Marketing communications
For: Mostly B2C

Tip type: Existing research (January 2013)
Previous tip: What makes a voice persuasive (All tips here)

Recommendation

For many products, time is a relevant component (e.g. new tech solutions, antique vs modern furniture, diet or workout products that progress over time).

If something is associated with the past (e.g. vintage-inspired jewelry, how you are before using the product), position it on the left in ads, websites, packaging, or other marketing material.

If something is associated with the future (e.g. new augmented reality glasses, how you’ll be after using the product), position it on the right.

When you’re selling in a market where the main language is written right-to-left (e.g. Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, Iran), do the opposite.

Effects

  • People evaluate products in which time is a factor as better if the future-relating images are placed on the right and past-relating images are on the left.

  • For example, in experiments:

    • A weight-loss product was rated 37% better when the ad showed the ‘after’ on the right and the ‘before’ on the left, compared to the other way around.

    • When people were asked to imagine themselves shopping for antique furniture, they rated an antique lamp better when an ad showed it on the left side of the image (past) than on the right (see images below).

  • The effect is weaker for people who have less need for structure (who tend to be more creative thinkers) and stronger for those that prefer structure (who tend to be more analytical).

  • The opposite happens for those who primarily write from right-to-left (e.g. Urdu, Arabic, Hebrew, Persian). In this case, the future should be represented on the left and the past on the right.

  • Bonus: a recent study found that to maximize the effect of before vs after ads (e.g. weight loss), you should include images of intermediate steps to show progression.

(In an experiment, the ad was more effective in making people like this antique lamp when it was on the left because of the product’s association with the past - Click to zoom in)

(Effects of the ad above [‘Past’] when it was shown on the left vs the right and of an ad for a modern lamp [‘Future’] - Click to zoom in)


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Why it works

  • We instinctively represent time across a horizontal dimension, with the past on the left and the future on the right (unless we’re used to writing from right-to-left, then we do the opposite).

  • It’s easier to process information when something time-related (e.g. text, images) is located as we would expect it on this horizontal timeline.

  • When something is easier to process, we like it more.

Limitations

  • The researchers only measured product attitudes (e.g. how good or reliable people rate it). In theory, this should translate into better sales, but this was not directly tested. Pay extra attention when testing to how it affects actual sales.

  • Results are mainly based on only three different ads. However, the effect of time and position has been established in other studies (e.g. words referring to the past are categorized faster when they appear on the left side of a screen), so the principle should be solid.

Companies using this

  • Marketers and designers don’t seem to be aware of this effect. However, they may unconsciously be using it in many situations (e.g. the vest majority of before-after ads show the future version on the right).

Steps to implement

  • Think out of the box. There may be more time components in your product and brand than you may initially assume. For example:

    • Is your brand associated with progression and innovation (e.g. online-event startup Hopin) or something where a connection to the past is important (e.g. rum from 1950s cuba)?

    • Do people buy your product because it’s new (e.g. smartphones), old (e.g. wine, whisky)? What about products that are new but reminiscent of the past (e.g. the Fiat 500)?

  • Think of how you can use this effect to your advantage in all your marketing communications. For example:

    • Are you running an email campaign explaining how your product benefits customers? Show where they are now (and their pain) on the left and how it will be solved by your product on the right

    • Are you displaying various versions of your software on your website? It’s better that you show old versions on the left and new ones on the right

  • Remember to flip this around if you’re in a right-to-left language market.


Study type

Lab and online experiments. Canada

Research

Chae, B., & Hoegg, J. (January 2013). The future looks “right”: Effects of the horizontal location of advertising images on product attitude. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(2), 223-238.

[Link to paper]

Affiliations

Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia. Canada

Remember: This research could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.


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