The serial position effect is a psychology marketing technique that refers to the tendency for consumers to remember the start and end of your information more so than the middle items.

You’ve invested a significant amount of time refining your message, creating a product or presentation, but did you know your audience is often swayed by the order in which you present your information?

Find out how you can use this neuro-marketing technique called the ‘Serial Position Effect‘.

What Is The Serial Position Effect?

Ever noticed when you have to memorize a set of numbers that you mostly recall the first and last numbers?

In psychology, this tendency is called the Serial Position Effect. It was coined by psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus and explains how items in the beginning and the end of a sequence are recalled better than those in the middle.


Primacy and Recency Effects

The Serial Position Effect is broken into two effects:

  • The Primacy Effect.
  • The Recency Effect.

What Is The Primacy Effect?

The Primacy Effect or Primacy Bias is the tendency to better recall information at the start of a list of items compared to the middle and end items of a list. Here, recall is more accurate due to the smaller amount of effort needed to process and rehearse the item.

In comparison to items in the middle of a sequence where prior information has to be rehearsed, leading to more cognitive burden and poorer recall. 

What is the Recency Effect?

In contrast to primacy bias, the recency effect means a person can easily recall and gives greater weight towards more recent information than earlier presented facts.

What Causes The Recency Effect?

The recency effect depends upon short-term memory (Active or Primary Memory). Although short-term memory is limited in terms of capacity and duration, the amount a memory normally lasts is between 20 and 30 seconds, allowing us to hold approximately 4 concepts at one time.


What’s Stronger The Primacy or Recency Effect?

Tom Capo, Ph.D Cognitive Psychology

Overall the answer would have to be primacy, the recency effect is effectively wiped out by any subsequent information that gets encoded into short-term (or working) memory.”

Tom Capo

Your List Information Order Matters

Another study found that if there is a distraction between the list presentation phase and when respondents were asked to recall, the Recency Effect is reduced.

what is the serial position effect

How To Use The Serial Position Effect In Marketing

When presenting your product, service or idea to prospects:

  • Place your most important messages either first or last.
  • Put your least important messages in the middle.
  • If the prospect has to decide within more than a minute after exposure to information, place the most important information first. If they have to decide as soon as possible, place the most important information last. 

Marketing Examples For The Serial Position Effect

1. Comparison Of Products

As a marketer you could place your most popular/high revenue-generating products either at the start or end of a product carousel.

Previously Australian researchers studied recommendation systems and found that the subjects preferred one tent over the others by 250%. This was the starting tent was greatly preferred because it was the first product that users saw.

2. Ordering Your Page’s Content

Customers tend to consume a lot of content as they make their way through the buying process. It’s crucial to order your information well to encourage the process. Not only is it important to get the main message across, it also matters where you guide your customers and how you craft your final message. 

Homepage Example

You can take full advantage of the serial position effect by carefully selecting the content flow of your web pages. This is particularly true on the home page, where you’re trying to communicate with first-time visitors about what value your product or service can provide for them.

  • Primacy Effect: Place your core value proposition at the start of your homepage to reinforce your brands unique selling points and strengths.
  • Recency Effect: Include customer testimonials and strong call to actions at the end of your webpage to encourage action.
  • Serial Position Effect: Include un-competitive product features or poor positioning messaging in the middle of your web pages to limit the amount that they are remembered.

3. Decoy Effects With Alternative Products

You can add extra products whose primary mission is simply to act as a decoy. These alternative products are introduced in an attempt to greatly enhance the sales of your other products.

4. Boost Your Google Ads With The Primacy Effect

In online search engines, it was found that the Primacy Effect might be stronger, as it was the top two advertisement positions that were the best in search engine marketing.

According to research presented at the 2011 American Society for Information Science and Technology meeting, the top ad ranking was found to be important for conversion and click-through rates.

5. <Title Tags> + Meta-Descriptions

If you’re a well known company, you could include your brand name at the start or end of the <title> tag.

Alternatively you could place a clear call to action at the end or start of your meta-description/<title> tag which would then activate either the primacy or recency effect.

6. Serial Position Email Marketing

As stated by campaign monitor, “8 out of 10 people will read your headline, but only 2 out of 10 people will read the rest”. Therefore an easy way to use the primacy effect within your email Marketing campaigns is to modify either:

  • The Reply Name.
  • The Subject Line.

7. Restaurant Menus

Often, restaurant menus use the Serial Position Effect to entice their customers into ordering the most highly-profitable menu items that may seem overpriced. When people see the first item’s price, they will recall this as they browse the rest of the menu, and this will make it seem like the first item is more reasonably-priced.

8. Real Estate Marketing

In real estate, the Primacy Effect will not play a role in the decision when buyers look for a home. Keeping this in mind, real estate agents often show the best properties last. After viewing several options, the last option will seem the most desirable to the buyer and will be preserved in the buyer’s short-term memory as a result of the Recency Effect.

9. Television

In television, it was found that the Recency Effect might be stronger than the Primacy Effect, according to research published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. The authors noted that television viewers may recall advertisements better at the end of a commercial break rather than at the beginning. 


Anchoring Effects

Customers generally gravitate towards the option with the least friction which is often the most recognizable or memorable choice. This is where the Serial Position Effect can come into play, especially when it comes to sales.

Pricing Primacy vs Product Primacy

There are two ways of presenting information:

  • Product primacy.
  • Pricing primacy.

Product primacy is when the customer sees the product first, and then the price later. Whereas pricing primacy is the opposite, where the customer sees the price first.

  • When a customers views price first, they will evaluate the product’s worth more harshly.
  • When they saw the product first, they evaluate it based on what it is. 

The effects of both product and pricing primacy must be taken into consideration when creating the design of an experience.

  • Pricing Primacy can increase sales in everyday items when their worth is recognized. Make sure to show a bargain price first, as this will be seen as the advantage to your everyday product.
  • But if you want to sell expensive or luxury items, focus on its features and qualities more to show your customers that it’s worth its high price. 

Adobe SaaS Pricing Page

Basically whatever the user sees first will influence the rest of their experience. By placing the black-friday deal at the start of the pricing page it is triggering the primacy effect, whilst also making the photography and single app look option cheaper.

However the above example might introduce friction for comparison shoppers, who are used to seeing the options from lowest price to highest price.

Final Tips

The key takeaway of the Serial Position Effect is that the first or last information is the most relevant and is the easiest to retain. It’s important to start off with your most important message, and then end with another important message. Place the least important information in between.

The Serial Position Effect helps you to carefully plan your information flow better. Also it provides value in any communications media and gives you an effective method for gently nudging customers towards specific products.