Does the name Pavlov ring a bell? Some thoughts on Feature Carousels

There has been a lot of conversation recently on the “twittersphere” about feature carousels and how much we either love them or hate them.

“Feature Carousels,” are those those semi scrolling images that sequence through several images and/or marketing content that your website is promoting. These are a way to highlight some goods or services that your company is presenting. Personally I am pretty neutral, when done right, they can be a useful part of a companies web presence.

But what does it mean “Done Right?” In a recently informal study presented by Erik Runyon at he presents an argument against using them because the majority of the clicks were for the first item on the website:

Regarding “Static” Carousels:

“Approximately 1% of visitors click on a feature. There was a total of 28,928 clicks on features for this time period.”

This is 84% of the 1% for a Static Carousel.

A static carousel? I guess this means that the visitor needs to click on the carousel to move it to the next item, and then click again and again. It’s fairly obvious to assume just based upon the number of interactions required that the first item will get clicked on the most and the others will not.

Regarding Auto-forwarding Carousels:

“This site averaged the highest number of clicks with 8.8% of homepage visitors clicking a feature.”

This is a huge difference in the number of visitors clicking on the features. By using an Auto-forwarding feature Carousel there was an 8.8x increase in click-through percentage. This is NOT an insignificant finding!

“Finally, I'd suggest that the subject matter can make a big difference.”

Of course it can, and it did in the data he presented.

Several of our clients have told us that their marketing groups are always fighting for the first slot in an auto-forwarding carousel. The subject matter for the first slots at were sports related. Sports at Notre Dame University are very popular.

Its kind of like having a link that says, “Click here to see Kate Upton Naked.” I bet a lot of people would click on that link.

The reason that users hate feature carousels is that they work. The human perceptual system is designed to automatically attenuate towards movement and change. Auto-forwarding Carousels grab attention away from what visitors are reading and towards the marketing message that your company is trying to present them with.

I’d like to see a study that uses a random order placement of the content in order to control for the order effect. My guess is that when this is done the second item will be the most selected. Why? Does Pavlov ring a bell?

I am sure that you have probably heard for the idiom, “Put your best foot forward,” which according to several online sources means to “act or to appear at one’s best.” This is great advice, because in most all situations you always want to present yourself, or your company in the best light possible.

These present a situation, however, that in my opinion it is best to present your best foot, second.

There has been a great deal of psychological research on what is called the “Orienting Response.” The Orienting Response in humans and other animals is a response to novelty. Whenever something occurs that is novel to an organism, the individual stops what it is doing and “turns its sensors to the source of stimulation” (Pavlov, 1927). Does that name "ring a bell?" It should because you probably remember his work on classical conditioning based upon his study of salivating dogs. It seems that the human learning and perceptual system has a built in reflex to automatically switch attention, at least briefly, to a novel stimulus.

When a web site that has a feature carousel loads, the first image in the carousel is scanned along with all of the other features of the page. Nothing out of the ordinary happens. But, when the first image “flips” to the second image, the human visitor to the site will automatically focus their attention onto the second image. No matter what is displayed on your site, navigation elements, text, etc., the visitor will reflexively focus on the new image that is displayed. They cannot control this, as their brain is pre-wired to respond to change. After a while the feature carousel switches to the third and or forth image and the process of habituation occurs. Now they are used to the images changing again and again and are no longer drawn to the no longer novel effect of changing images, because it is no longer novel.

So, when you are thinking about designing a series of images to be presented in a feature carousel, make sure that you optimize the effect of your images by putting your best foot second. Visitors to your site will reflexively focus on the second image that is presented, and that second image should contain the best “pitch” for the goods or services that you are trying to promote.