Would you use positive or negative emotions to convince your customers to order a product or service from your eCommerce site? We invited Tim Ash to help us understand how the primal brain works and how to use this knowledge to create more relatable messaging that builds trust in our audience and generates repeat customers.

Tim Ash is one of the original conversion rate optimizers. He is the writer of two best-selling books on landing page optimization, and founded the Conversion Conference in 2010 (held every year in the U.S., U.K., and Germany). As the founder of the strategic conversion rate optimization agency SiteTuners, Tim contributed to creating over $1.2 billion in value for clients like Siemens, Expedia, Google, Facebook, and Nestle. Tim has refocused on executive marketing advisory services and keynote speaking as the founder of TimAsh.com 

We invited Tim Ash to our “Top 100 eCommerce experts” interview series to share his thoughts on: 

  • Neuromarketing in eCommerce;
  • The primal brain knowledge applied to marketing;
  • Adapting to changing customer behaviors;
  • Finding your differentiator;
  • Using customer research to leverage tech tool’s potential.

Neuromarketing in eCommerce

Alexandra Panaitescu: When people hear “neuromarketing,” some might think of a set of sophisticated lab experiments that take a lot of work and resources. How would you briefly define neuromarketing?

Tim Ash: Neuromarketing is an approach to marketing based on evolutionary psychology. We all have certain tendencies or certain biases based on our evolution. Understanding how our “operating system” works is the key to any kind of persuasion, and definitely applies to marketing. 

Neuromarketing is just evolutionary psychology applied to marketing. 

I wrote my latest book, “Unleash Your Primal Brain: Demystifying how we think and why we act,” for those who want to expand their evolutionary psychology knowledge and learn how to move people to action.

The brain is there to help you survive, not to remember things accurately or to be rational. The brain is very threat-focused. If something is negative and a threat to my survival, I will pay about twice as much attention to that as I would to something positive. 

The primal brain knowledge applied to marketing

A.P.: Could you give us some examples of primal brain knowledge applied to everyday marketing processes or campaigns?

Tim Ash: One of the things marketers don’t do enough is to emotionally motivate customers and talk about the negative consequences of staying on their current path. Companies always say, “Well, we’re the nice brand. We’re not going to say bad things.“ But if you don’t move me off of my comfortable spot, I’m not going to act at al,l because my brain is conserving energy, and it’s default response is to do nothing. 

If it’s possible in your eCommerce business model, free trials and free bonuses can be very effective. It’s very important to understand that the same part of our brain interprets prices and physical pain. The consumer is thinking, ”If I spend money with you, I don’t have that money to use for something else to help me survive.” What you can do to eliminate remorse is use the magic of the word “free” because that doesn’t trigger any kind of pricing pain in our brains. The difference between one dollar and free is very big in terms of the results you can get.

You should only present the price after building your full value proposition. A lot of times in eCommerce transactions, you feature the price too early in the process. So you should talk about what problems it solves and the pain it avoids. The bigger the pain avoidance, the more customers are willing to pay to make it go away. Mention the price only at the end, after increasing the pain – “it only costs this much to make that big pain go away.”

Another piece of advice for eCommerce is to think of ways you can transform a one-time purchase into a subscription. We tend to discount the future because the future we’re predicting will probably never happen. If I have to pay money tomorrow, I don’t treat the price the same way. It’s not as painful for me to pay. So that’s why breaking it up into multiple payments that stretch into the future, or turning it into a subscription is often a good idea.

As consumers, we also like certainty. One of the things that we pay for is knowing that something will happen for sure. If I want to go to a restaurant and they tell me, “We don’t take reservations, but there’ll probably be no wait when you get there,” that makes me anxious. I want to be able to reserve a table instead. We’re willing to pay a premium for certainty. 

Mixing certainty with scarcity is also something you can do as an eCommerce. For example, you can inform your customers that only three items are left for immediate shipping. When people have the certainty they’ll get something rare, it makes that item even more valuable and desirable in their minds.

> Learn from our interview with CRO expert Steven Shyne how micro-moments impact customers’ trust.

Adapting to changing customer behavior

A.P.: What are the most striking changes in customer behavior after the pandemic?

Tim Ash: The first two months of the pandemic generated the same percentage increase as the previous 20 years in terms of eCommerce adoption. We’re much more comfortable buying online because we had no choice but to do that with many products, and it wasn’t safe to go shopping in person. We see less friction as people are less concerned about buying online, including the older generations.

The other thing that changed among consumers is the expectation of fast delivery. If you’re selling physical goods and you can’t deliver them to me quickly, then I look at that as a big negative because Amazon has calibrated us to expect one-day free delivery on anything. I could buy an item that costs only a dollar or two, and they’re not going to charge for shipping. 

Obviously, most businesses can’t function that way. Most smaller eCommerce businesses are at a disadvantage. Focus on your fulfillment, dropshipping, and shipping costs, but build it into your price and make it sound like fast, free shipping. Otherwise, you can’t compete with Amazon.

Finding your differentiator

A.P.: Which is the biggest differentiator for today’s eCommerce businesses, in your opinion?

Tim Ash: The only way to compete is to truly understand your audience and offer customers more than a product at the lowest price with fast shipping. If you’re selling a commodity, you can’t really compete with big stores like Amazon. But if you’re selling a more complicated product or service, you can educate your clients and make them feel like they’re part of your cultural tribe. It’s very important for them to develop a personal connection with you through your backstory and content marketing.

Let’s say you sell laptops and you’re not a big retailer, but you specialize in laptops for people who love camping or working in the outdoors. They look for more rugged construction, and longer battery life. You can easily build a personal story for those who love camping in the mountains, a story that ties them to you and makes people feel like they’re part of your cultural tribe. Having a backstory, or what I call an “origin myth” for the business, helps you compete against low prices and free shipping.

I have a whole chapter on storytelling in “Unleash Your Primal Brain.” We can avoid the pain or effort of learning through direct experience by hearing a story about someone else going through it. Stories have a powerful influence on people, and they bypass all of our logical defenses.

> Read our interview with André Morys and see why he believes that the emotional resonance you create with your target audience is the only differentiator.

Using customer research to leverage tech tool’s potential

A.P.: Digital businesses tend to focus a little too much on tech solutions and forget about customer experience in their effort to automate and optimize processes. What’s your advice on using customer research to leverage the potential brought by tech tools?

Tim Ash: Some of your best customer insights will come from qualitative methods. Do everything you can to get close to the customer, instead of staying in your own bubble and thinking about return on ad spend or talking to your marketing colleagues inside your company.

When I used to run my agency, some of the best sales copy and messaging for ads weren’t written by our staff. It was the language used by customers during service calls. We don’t have to make it up. We’re just borrowing their language. 

Talk to your salespeople or customer service teams to know what people really think about your brand. Listen to some of your customer service calls, or answer some of them, and customers will tell you how bad the situation is and why they hate you or care about you.

Get as close to the customer as possible, even if it’s informal. The best insights will come from direct contact with people in their own environment. If you can, go out into the field and see how your products are being used, analyze the context, and how products fit into people’s personal or work lives. I’m a big fan of not having formal surveys or statistically significant sample sizes. You can do split testing and other things, but I encourage marketers to have a personal and emotional understanding of how their products are used.

> Learn from Talia Wolf how to use emotional triggers for content that converts and sets you apart from competitors.


Tim Ash gave us a better understanding of how we can tap into the customers’ primal brains, adapt to changing customer behaviors, and what are the elements that can help online stores differentiate from big players like Amazon.

Here are some takeaways from our interview with Tim Ash:

  • Neuromarketing is an approach to marketing based on evolutionary psychology.
  • Explore customers’ emotional motivation and amplify the negative consequences of staying on the current path
  • The same part of our brain interprets prices and physical pain. Present the price only after building your value proposition.
  • We’re much more comfortable buying online, and we see less friction. Customers expect fast and free delivery.
  • The only way to compete is to truly understand your audience and offer customers more than a product at the lowest price and fast shipping. This can often be done by focusing on your “origin myth” and mission/purpose.
  • Some of the best sales copy and messaging for ads are based on borrowing the customer’s actual language.

If you’re interested in Tim’s marketing consulting or keynote speaking, I go to TimAsh.com. If you’d like a free chapter of your choice from “​​Unleash Your Primal Brain: Demystifying how we think and why we act,” Tim’s new book, go to PrimalBrain.com/book.

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