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The Looking Glass Strategy: What is the Self-Reference Effect?

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Quick Definition: The Self-Reference Effect people remember information more easily when it reflects how they see themselves.

Have you ever spent an entire video call looking at yourself on screen instead of the people you're supposed to be listening to?

Nothing’s more fascinating to people than themselves. In fact, people spend 60% of a conversation talking about themselves. When people use social media, this jumps to 80%. People’s brains even code information differently when it’s about them.

Why? It’s down to a behavioral science principle known as the Self-reference Effect.


What is the Self-Reference Effect?

The Self-Reference Effect says people process, learn, and remember information more easily when it reflects how they see themselves

For example, several studies have found that customers are more likely to respond to ads when the models look like them. If a woman thinks of herself as “strong”, she’s more likely to prefer experiences that reference “strength”. If she’s shopping for running gear and notices the female mannequins have obvious muscle tone, she’ll see the brand as more relevant to her (as UFC fighter Tecia Torres did in the tweet below).

Tecia Torres Self-reference Effect

Self-referential advertising can even cause what’s known as a “transportation effect” - getting totally absorbed in a story or narrative, causing us to like or prefer certain products and brands over others. 

How Brands Apply the Self-Reference Effect


1. Netflix: Personalized content recommendations

Netflix’s biggest challenge is getting the right content in front of the right people. So they’ve developed an algorithm that recommends content based on what people already prefer. In fact, more than 80% of Netflix shows customers watched in the last two years have been as a direct result of Netflix’s recommendation engine.

Netflix leverages existing customer behavior to create a relevant experience. And when customers see their preferences reflected in a recommendation, they’re more likely to engage.


2. The Dove “Real Beauty” Campaign: Reflect your customers in your advertising

Source: Dove.com

In the early 2000s, the Dove personal care brand discovered its customers didn’t see themselves reflected in beauty marketing. Featured models were nearly all tall, thin, white, and young. This visual uniformity had a negative impact on how women felt about their looks.

In fact, Dove found that “only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful.” This insight, and others like it, drove Dove to create the Real Beauty campaign.

The brand began championing female empowerment by using more diverse models, and the results were incredible. In the first ten years of the campaign, sales jumped from $2.5 to $4 billion. Dove bars became the number one preferred soap brand in the U.S., and the product became parent company Unilever’s best selling product.

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3. Optimizely: Hyper-relevant lead pages

Optimizely works with big brands to perfect their digital content. But the company’s biggest challenge is making sure the leads gathered by their contact forms are strong. As Takeshi Young, Digital Marketing Manager at Optimizely wrote:

“Although many visitors would create accounts, lots of them were unqualified, with incomplete lead data. This created problems further down the sales funnel…”

To meet this challenge, Optimizely created 26 different versions of their site. Different audiences would see a different landing page. For example, unknown customers see a different page than customers who’d spent a few hours reading the Optimizely blog.

Optimizely even created specific landing pages for potential customers, like Adidas and Microsoft:

Source: Optimizely Blog

Source: Optimizely Blog

After implementing this self-reference strategy, Optimizely saw impressive results:

  • 113% increase in conversions to their “solutions” page
  • 117% increase in conversions to the account creation process


4. Brooks Footwear: Dynamic Content

The Self-reference Effect can also be used to reflect a customer’s environment. In fact, 60% of marketers say using contextual signals such as location, weather, and temperature, drives action.

Brooks, a running shoe brand, used this insight to create dynamic emails based on a user’s environment. If their local weather was warm and sunny, customers would get an email featuring a runner wearing shorts with the headline, “Hot weather, cool runs”. If the weather was rainy and cold, they’d see a headline image of a woman wearing a jacket with the headline, “Don’t take a rain check on your run”.

Source: Email on Acid

The Bottom Line: How to Apply the Self-Reference Effect

When it comes to applying the Self-reference Effect to your marketing, start by asking yourself:

  • How deeply do we know our customers? Not just their surface-level features, but their thoughts, fear, goals, and dreams? Do our product images and marketing reflect how they see themselves? A Buyer Psychology Report or a Customer Journey Map are two great places to start.
  • Are we creating experiences that reflect peoples’ environment? For example, are they getting ads for winter coats when it’s 80 degrees outside? If it’s cold outside, are we trying to sell them ice cream? Is there something unique about where they live and work that we could reference when designing marketing messages for them?
  • Are we using language that encourages people to reflect on themselves and their experiences? For example, a painkiller brand might start an ad by asking customers to “think back to the last time you hurt your back doing yard work” then present the brand as a solution to that remembered pain. 

And one quick bonus tip - using self-referential language is a great way to create more relevant marketing.

For example, just using second-person pronouns like “you” in copy makes messages more effective by invoking the Self-reference Effect.


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About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi 👋 I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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