THE BLOG
05/25/2016 04:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Business of the Brain on the Internet: Color Psychology

The color of the top I am wearing is black. My shoes are green and the car I will take when I go to pick up my daughter from school in a few minutes is red. Are these just random facts, or is there a deeper meaning behind the color choices I make and what they say about me? That, my friends, is color psychology. So, what is color psychology?

Here, understanding a little of the science can actually help.

Beware though, a quick Google search on the psychology of color will turn up any number of articles full of marketers and branding 'experts' making overblown claims about the magical powers of color. So, how does color really influence website user behavior?

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Here's what we know:

1. Color stands out on the page (the "pop" factor).

Since this is undeniable, it makes sense to use color to immediately draw the eye to particular elements on the page. Call-to-action buttons (CTAs) are the most obvious example. Easy, right? But one mistake I see a lot is using the same color for text links, navigation, headings, and action buttons. If some green elements are action items and other green elements do nothing, you risk confusing your users. Stick to one specific color for action buttons and links and only use that color on action buttons and links. See how the CTAs practically jump right off the page on Spring Insight's homepage?

Is there one color that is "best" for increasing conversion rates? Well, this case study claims that simply changing the CTA button from green to yellow increased conversion rates by more than 19%. But before you run off and change all of your action button colors to yellow, keep in mind that there's nothing special about the color yellow. The more likely explanation for the data has to do with contrast, as this study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology shows. What makes the buttons so prominent on Spring Insight is not so much the color in itself, but the contrast of the maize against the purple.

2. Color increases brand recognition.

Picture yourself for a moment shopping in the aisle of your favorite grocery store. You are hosting a party and need to buy drinks. How long will it take you to find the two-liter bottle of soda you want to buy and put it in your cart? Research suggests, about 90 seconds. Did you put the deep red of Coca-Cola into your cart or the Pepsi with its red white and blue? Color is incredibly important when it comes to brand identity and purchasing decisions. But, just as above, there is little evidence to suggest that one color is more likely to induce you to buy than another, just that that the color becomes a strong brand signal.

What does this mean for your brand? If you are considering colors for a new brand, one good tip is to choose a color for your logo that easily differentiates your business from your competition. Also, when I'm working with clients on website design, I always recommend choosing a color palette with a minimum of five complementary shades or hex values. This ensures that you have enough variety to differentiate all of the crucial elements on your website in an attractive way.

3. When it comes to choosing colors, context matters.

Throughout this post, I've been skeptical of giving too much weight to trying to find "the right" color for your brand or your CTA. Still, it's true that, generally speaking, we do associate certain colors with specific traits (e.g., brown is associated with ruggedness, red is associated with sex and excitement), studies show that when it comes to influencing consumers, the more important factor, though, is whether the color is perceived to "fit" the brand. That means using pink bows to market Harley Davidson is probably a bad idea. Pink just doesn't fit with the biker persona (and this is not a gender thing).

Do the same psychological principles hold for websites? The best websites, just like the best branding, convey a business's personality. You have built your business with your core values in mind and the colors you choose to represent you are an extension of those core values. So, while you shouldn't shy away from using earth tones because you read that women don't like greys, browns, and oranges, you also shouldn't use earth tones just because your favorite color is orange.

Ultimately, color theory is best thought of as a good complement to your own marketing instincts. Case in point, my favorite color is red. So then why is purple the dominant color on Spring Insight's website? Purple is associated with luxury and royalty. So what about my black shirt and green shoes? Simple. The black shirt was on top of the pile and the green shoes are comfy. See, understanding our preferences isn't always about cracking the brain's secret code.

Erika Dickstein is a Web Strategist located in the DC metro area. She
specializes in working with small businesses on creating strategic
goal-oriented websites. You can connect with her at www.springinsight.com.