The Use of Priming for Video Game Ecommerce and Marketing

In an earlier article “Merchandising and discoverability for in game stores and virtual items” I discussed the need to borrow key concepts from traditional online retail when creating in game stores. The article covered the four main pillars of Easy to find, Easy to Evaluate, Easy to buy and Social which when implemented can help players navigate easily and make decisions about what items are important to them without getting frustrated and leaving your store.

Another area from retail and marketing that can help steer users is Priming.

Priming is an implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus influences a response to another stimulus – Wikipedia.

In short priming is exposing someone to a word, phrase, colour or any combination of inputs which influences a later interaction or decision. The effects of priming are subtle but well documented and have been used by big brands and supermarkets for a long time to try to guide consumers towards a concept or purchase. Priming can also occur through normal communication or even the act of research such as surveys or questionnaires which simply make participants aware of something which then directs a later action.

Priming works because as humans we look for connections and reinforcements to our existing ideas and the simplest of these examples are word associations. In tests it has been shown that the word “Nurse” is more readily picked out from a list when it had been preceded by the word “Doctor”. This also works with colours, so introducing the colour blue will help someone recognize the word “sky”. These mental connections are in fact so strong that it is very difficult to separate them, such as when people are asked to read aloud the name of colour which has been written in a different colour.

The wrong colour!

These simple cues can help influence us in many ways and can be seen in how several companies have positioned their brand logo’s and tag lines. In 2007 Morrisons Supermarket rebranded their logo from a plain black and yellow to a softer yellow and green accompanied by the tag line “fresh for you every day”. This was also reinforced in all of their advertising with the subtle but continued use of the word “fresh”. This helped transition the supermarket from a budget brand to one that conveyed quality and freshness.


Priming is generally unnoticed and in most cases we like to believe that we have come to a decision on our own. This is especially so in the case of online purchases where we have had no sales person giving us their patter to try and influence us. However in the act of browsing and weighing up our options we have often already been subjected to several priming influences that have helped shape our decision.

What priming definitely is not is mind control or so called subliminal messaging, if someone doesn’t want to buy something you can’t make them but you can increase the conversion rates of users who already have an interest in something. In fact in most cases priming can be a very positive and proactive thing to do especially when users are confronted with baffling arrays of choices and information. As discussed previously too much choice can actually be a bad thing, making decision makers frustrated, whereas the correct amount of choice can make buyers feel powerful. If you have a large inventory of in game items this can be potentially disastrous with players feeling confused and ultimately giving up on making a decision. In most cases what shoppers want is a few easily navigated options which can be swiftly compared.

However If you do then narrow down your choices you could potentially then make huge sections of you inventory invisible to most players or inadvertently “prime” players into the belief that these items are less worthwhile which will lead you into a spiral of sales to help promote this back catalog.

So what are the design elements you can alter to prime your audience?

  1. Words & Metaphors
  2. Colours
  3. Images
  4. Video & Audio

1. Words and Metaphors

Most retail websites are already littered with calls to action that we have become accustomed to “buy now” or “add to basket” but other more subtle influences exist such as “great value” and “special offer”. However words can also have a direct impact on behavior. In an experiment a group of participants were given a set of words that would normally be associated with older people, think bingo, pension etc and those in another group were given random words with no such connotations. After a linguistic exercise with the words the groups were then observed walking down a hallway. The group that had been given the “old” words moved significantly slower than the second group.
One of the slightly more dubious ways of influencing through text is with Homophones which are words that are spelled differently but sound the same such as buy and bye. Conversion rates have been shown to be increased by adding the word “bye-bye” above the purchase button though it must be noted that the influence of homophones is greatest over those with lower reading levels or those pre-occupied with another task or stress element. I mention them here out of interest but would not necessarily see value in their use.

2. Colours

Colours are powerful triggers and can convey emotion or as we talked about earlier help prime the brain for finding an associated word like “Yellow” and “Bannana”. In general it is accepted that White Space Sells Products but adding colour cues to your text or pages can help steer or reinforce a message or feeling. Colour is very powerful and probably worth a whole article in itself but a good overview of the emotions that can be attached to them can be found here:

3. Images

A picture is they say worth a thousand words and can instantly convey a thought or emotion but also a picture of a product or item seen outside of your store can also be very effective. Highlighting items on social media or other out of game platforms even without strong calls to action or direct links to purchase can still drive increases in conversion. Again this is exceptionally useful if you have a large catalog of items that ordinarily cannot all be showcased on your store homepage. Remember plenty of companies pay for TV adverts in the hope that later you will remember them and purchase what you saw. Aside from this images can also convey behaviors in the same way as words, so showing someone a secluded beach is likely to produce behavior which is calm and slow.

4. Video and Audio

Video and audio are great explaining tools that help people make a decision or get through a process such as a sign up page or to highlight the benefits of an item. They can also prime us for actions at another time such as the published supermarket music field study by North, Hargreaves and McKendrick 1999. The study was conducted over the course of two weeks during which time the music in store would alternate daily between French and German styles. On the days that French music was played more French wine was purchase and vice versa on the days that German music was played more German wine was bought.

Priming via social media

Priming need not take place just before a purchase or decision; in fact it could take place days or weeks before the final outcome. If you have an active community its likely you are already “priming” your players regularly with news updates, images, emails and tweets. All of these messages are informing you players about what you have to offer and what it can do for them. Most modern internet users are fairly immune to direct sales messaging, (though this can still work) but the simple act of showing something even without a call to action will still have an Impact, this is why social media can be a key driver of interest in monetization although tracking of this will be difficult. A test you could implement would be to choose one item from your in game store that is not a top seller and is also not on sale. Then highlight this item on you owned media channels but without a call to action, perhaps just explaining its function or even just showing an image of it. Then measure your sales of that item over the time period. If your player base is high enough and socially engaged with you it’s likely you will see an increase in sales of the item. Remember though this is not a hard sell and your players may rebel against strong pushes to spend money if they don’t want to. My opinion on this is that overt monetization is not viable long term, what you are aiming for is a gentle reminder that your game contains exciting content that is relevant and desirable to players.

social media priming

Of course priming can and is used in other areas of video game design which I won’t go into here and can help steer player behaviors to positive outcomes with messaging in a similar fashion but few companies are following this through to their ecommerce operation, though of course we do see other psychological tactics such as in mobile games where players are offered items at times of stress or frustration or in a time limited fashion to force them into a purchase decision. These tactics may have their place but cannot be considered priming which works somewhat differently.

Mere Measurement Effect

The simple act of asking questions ahead of an outcome can also influence behaviour and this is called the “mere-measurement effect”. Research has shown that measuring purchasers intentions can actually alter the outcome. In field tests students who were asked how they would vote in forthcoming elections were more likely to actually go on to vote than the control group. This was also replicated in a test where shoppers were asked how likely they were to purchase a laptop in the future with a higher percentage of those asked going on to make a purchase than those who were not.

Conformity and Behaviour

As discussed in my article “The Beginners Guide to Community Management” a sense of community can be described as “A feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”
As a result of this sense of community your players are likely to confirm to certain group behaviours or ideas and you can also use the data you have about these conformities to help further enhance positive behaviours or conversely dissuade negative behaviours. An example of this could be messaging that says 80% of players purchased speed boosts. The message is not saying that the player should buy a speed boost it is simply offering some data about what other members of their community did. In essence this is acting in a very similar fashion to Amazon’s “customer who also viewed this also viewed…” messaging on product pages.
As part of a community the natural tendency for the member is to fall in line and do what others are doing, whether that is making a certain decision, a purchase or playing in a certain way.

Amazon related products


Priming can be a powerful tool to help persuade or influence under certain circumstances but is certainly not and couldn’t be used as a nefarious method of mind control. It’s simply a way of setting up visual hints and cues that can guide and inform players to make purchases or interactions. Outside of your store and game priming via social media can be a key way to highlight inventory that may otherwise not be seen or purchased.

Further Reading and References

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