What The Walking Dead Can Teach You About Persuasion

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Scenario: You're in something of a hurry. Behind you, you have three or four “walkers” - you've yet to try and confirm by stopping to look- and you're trying to assess if the shed ahead will be stable enough to hold them off. You know that if you find another route, getting back to the rest of your group shouldn't be too hard, but first, you need to ...

The shed's locked. You were beaten to it, and ...

That's it, then. You turn, take out a knife out and look at the distances between the three zombies - only three after all! - and take them out.

That’s a scene right out of “The Walking Dead,” and this is what Rick Grimes – the show’s main protagonist – calls, well, Tuesday. Or Saturday. Or ... well, you get it. For those who aren't familiar with the show, The Walking Dead is AMC's top-rated character-driven take on zombies, what you'd get if you took Dawn of the Dead and viewed it through the lens of LOST, season 1.

For those who are avid fans of the show and who get the feeling that the The Walking Dead crew's  decision-making seems too rigid and instantaneous, you're not alone.

The Reptilian Brain

What's responsible for that rapid filtering of information down to what's required/essential for decision-making is a part of our brain called the brain stem,  an early, early stage development in the evolution of the brain. We share it with our reptilian cousins of old. Its job, aside from keeping your heart beating, is to figure out which thoughts get filtered out and which ones get processed. It's a gateway to the limbic system, the part responsible for socialization, and the neo-cortex, the more recent development in the brain's evolution which is involved with more “rational” decisions (like planning ahead). This, in a nutshell, is what SiteTuners CEO Tim Ash shared on his webinar with Optimizely CEO Dan Siroker "Online Persuasion: Insights from Neuroscience & Evidence from A/B Testing." 

The key thing to remember is that - like with Rick - the old bugger, your brain stem, is calling the shots. And it only asks two key questions. Is something dangerous? Is it interesting? If it fails on both accounts, the thought does not get processed.

The Four Fs

The reptilian part of your brain essentially handles the 4 Fs: fleeing, fighting, feeding, and fornication. That's it. That's everything. Your neo-cortex may be capable of figuring out interoperability between your CMS and your CRM while automating the search for hot leads, but your brain stem still rules the roost.

In Krug's "Don't Make Me Think," there's discussion about how firefighters essentially do not compare two options when pressed to come up with solutions. They pick up the first option they can think of, do a quick mental check for problems, and proceed to act. They compare no options.

If you're a digital marketer, this is also how your visitor's brain works when scanning your page. At the beginning of the process, your job is to get their brain stems to realize they are in the right place. Once they do that and switch from the brain stem to the neo-cortex, at the latter part of the process, your job is not to distract their reptilian brain with anything while they are already processing more conscious, more complex  thoughts.

The fact that perfecting your landing page has more in common with dealing with “walkers” than, say, writing a book, means it's an exercise in focus. Figure out exactly what your visitors want, focus on the messaging, and remember that it's dangerous out there. Make sure you double-tap.

If you were at Tim and Dan's webinar on online persuasion, thanks for attending, and we hope you found it useful. For those of you who missed it, you can watch the recording below: