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Smile less to appear confident and boost sales

Smile slightly or partially in photos if you want to exude confidence. Smile broadly if you want to convey warmth. If you are selling something, smiling slightly (vs broadly) increases sales.

Topics: Brand & Strategy | Retail Store
For: B2C, B2B
Research date: February 2017
Universities: University of Central Florida, Iowa State University, University of Kansas and Adelphi University

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📝 Intro

Your smile in your photos has a surprisingly strong effect on whether people will buy your product or not.

Online or offline, we want to buy from other human beings. Whether we buy something heavily depends on our impressions of the person selling it or promoting it. Think of how much influence your impression of Elon Musk has on how you perceive Tesla. More commonly, you’re more likely to hire a stockbroker that’s in a suit than one in a Hawaiian shirt.

When we are online, the number of cues we usually get about a person are much fewer than offline. Usually, we only have one face photo (e.g. LinkedIn profile picture). This gives that photo an oversized impact. The central, most important signal in that photo? Your smile.

📈 Recommendation

When you display pictures of employees or yourself to promote your business (e.g. on a website, billboard, online ad, LinkedIn), change smile intensity based on what you want to convey.

If it’s more important to be seen as competent (the case for most professions), use a slight or partial smile. If it’s more important to be seen as warm (e.g. a fun Facebook page), use a broad smile. If in doubt, stick to a slight smile.

When people perceive you as competent due to your slight smile, they will be more likely to buy from you and spend more. When they see you as warm and friendly, they’re more likely to help you with small acts, such as sharing on social media.

🎓 Findings

  • When we see the photo of a person marketing something (e.g. the product their company sells or themselves on LinkedIn), we judge someone with a broad smile as warmer but less competent, and someone with a slight or partial smile as colder but more competent.

  • We are more likely to feel friendly and give low-value social support to those with a broad smile. But we’re more likely to buy from those with a slight smile.

  • For example, the researchers analyzed Kickstarter.com - a crowdfunding platform - and found that project creators with broad smiles in their photos received more than double the amount of Facebook shares (475.36 vs 224.54, on average). Those with slight smiles received more than double the amount of funding ($21,560.12 vs $10,179.26, on average) and contributions per person were 30% higher.

  • The effects become stronger or weaker depending on the setting. If we’re looking to gain something in a low-risk situation (e.g. a music performance), a broad smile feels even warmer and the negative effect on competence is much less important. By contrast, in a high-risk situation where we are trying to avoid loss (e.g. heart surgery), we will avoid someone with a broad smile.

One of the ads used in the study was for a nutritionist’s coaching program - Click to zoom in

The difference in sign-ups to a free trial after seeing the image above. Participants were primed for high-risk vs low-risk thinking with a statement that wrong advice from a nutritionist could lead to serious health-related issues - Click to zoom in

🧠 Why it works

  • One of the main ways we make preliminary judgments of people is from their photos.

  • If we are in a low-risk setting and looking to gain something we perceive the warmth of a broad smile as a willingness to help, and focus less on the possible drawbacks of lower competency. When we’re afraid of losing something we perceive a broad smile as a lack of skill.

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  • The study only used static images of faces. We don’t know how the effect could change if it includes other body parts and gestures or dynamic interactions in a video.

  • We don’t know how the effect would change if a smile is perceived as fake (the researchers verified this was not the case in this study).

🏢 Companies using this

  • Most companies and professionals seem to apply this correctly (e.g. it’s more likely to see a lawyer with a slight smile than a broad one).

⚡ Steps to implement

  • If you want you or your business to appear competent and boost sales, make sure the smiles of you and your employees on your website, LinkedIn, and ads are slight or partial as opposed to broad. Do make sure to smile a bit though, you still want to convey some warmth to make you approachable, but do it in a way that radiates confidence.

🔍 Study type

Online and lab experiments and market observation (of profile pictures of 324 Kickstarter.com project creators), United States

📖 Research

Wang, Z., Mao, H., Li, Y. J., & Liu, F. Smile big or not? Effects of smile intensity on perceptions of warmth and competence. Journal of Consumer Research (February 2017).

🏫 Affiliations

University of Central Florida, Iowa State University, University of Kansas and Adelphi University, United States

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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