Connecting Emotionally With Users Online Is NOT Just About the Emotional Benefits of Using Your Product
A classic marketing strategy is to engage your customer emotionally to get them to buy. In the offline world, achieving emotional engagement is done best by face-to-face interactions, such as talking to the car salesman in the lot, and tactile interactions, such as picking up the book and turning it over in your hands. When you make people feel something, you help them open up to hearing your messages with less suspicion.
When we talk about connecting emotionally online, though, there’s a sense that you have to get your product alone to trigger an emotional reaction. That, or you need a big ol’ photo of two happy people. But is that really the case? Does a stock photo of a woman hugging her computer make me feel connected to the software you’re trying to sell me… and open me up to receiving the marketing messages?
I’d argue that we’re missing the point.
In E-Commerce, The Computer Is Your Salesperson
Yes, it’s true. The computer is your salesperson. The website is not your saleperson —– it’s just the storefront. The messages on the screen are the words your salesperson says. The images on the site are the framed photos on the wall of the store.
That means that this hard, cold little box with wires sticking out of it is the most frequently approached member of your sales force.
That reality raises a few points of concern, as anyone in computer-mediated communications might tell you:
- The computer doesn’t have a warm handshake or smile
- The computer doesn’t know when a prospect is backing away from a purchase or having trouble making a decision
- The computer doesn’t create a sense of comfort or open itself up for questions
- The computer has no name, no identifiable hairstyle, no jovial laugh across the room
Uh oh. A cold, hard box is supposed to replace the salesperson – and the emotion-filled opportunities they bring to a sales chat. Is there any hope?!
Your Computer Isn’t Just a Cold, Hard Box
Okay, well, it is. But as more people use computers more frequently, the truth is that people are beginning to assign personalities to their computers. I recently wrote a paper on this subject, with the following explaining this phenomenon briefly:
As Nass, Steuer and Tauber showed, even though interactors know that a computer is not a person, they will often assign personalities to computers (as referenced in Zdenek, 2007) and, as Cassell showed, “attribute to them human-like properties such as friendliness, or cooperativeness” (as referenced in Zdenek, 2007, p.404). To overcome the mediation of computer hardware, interactors effectively transform the computer into something that more closely ‘resembles’ a person.
We’ve already noticed this behavior at our desks, when the computer freezes and we shout at it. Or when we’re trying to retrieve a file we think we’ve lost, and we beg the computer to find it.
This means that users can be open to connecting emotionally with this little plastic salesperson. You just have to pull their heads away from the idea that they’re dealing with a little plastic salesperson instead of a warm-blooded salesperson who can blink, laugh, get distracted, pay attention… and basically be as imperfect as a human. You have to make all cues that say “computer” virtually disappear.
Faking Human-ness Online to Persuade
People connect emotionally with people… so you need the computer to disappear from the line of sight of your users. When the computer goes away, it makes room for a personality-filled, emotional interaction between your website and the person sitting at their desk.
(It’s like watching a movie – when the screen starts to disappear, and your emotions engage magically enough to make you believe you’re in the activity. Or reading a book, and feeling so engrossed that the scratchy paper pages disappear.)
How? Well, there are lots of ways! Like, for example, ever noticed how, when you write something by hand, the letters are imperfect? That’s because we don’t put pen to paper and churn out letters in Calibri 11-point font.
That means that a perfect font is a cue that you’re dealing with a computer – not a human.
No, you shouldn’t eliminate all fonts on your site and hire some poor chap to come in and handwrite all your copy. That may not result in the most usable site. But you can follow the lead of some websites that are managing to find a balance between precise, readable fonts and short, quick, personal-feeling notes.
If you’re not keen on using handwriting on your site (‘cos, say, your brand managers have a stranglehold on the fonts you can use), using a variety of fonts can also replicate the sense of ‘scattered’ personal writing.
The goal is to keep people from believing they’re interacting with a machine. Remove cues that suggest coldness and perfection, and opt for a little bit of fun and personality to encourage users to open themselves up to the suggestions (i.e., marketing messages) of your website.
- Coyle & Thorson, 2001: A structural element of the medium
- McMillan, Hwang & Lee, 2003: A perception variable in the mind of the user
- Ha & James, 1998: A multidimensional construct
Let’s try a definition that’s a bit more… tangible. Interactivity is the action that takes place between users, as [ostensibly] humans, and the computer. At its most exaggerated, interactivity on the Web is, like, World of Warcraft, where you’re playing a game “with” the computer… not to mention the millions of other players super-glued to WoW worldwide. Interactivity’s most common form is a link on a page… or even the opening of your web browser.
The more you get people to interact with your site, the more interactive it is. And interactivity is very, very good for persuasion.
Not only does interactivity engage the senses and stimulate the mind, but it’s also been proven to solve world hunger! …No. Okay. Not quite.
It has, however – in all honesty – been proven to improve impressions of politicians on their websites. That is, a 2003 study by Sundar et al., referenced in a 2006 paper by Wise, Hamman and Thorson, found that “increased interactivity on a political website led to more positive impressions of a political candidate and higher levels of agreement with the candidate’s policy positions” (p.28). So it doesn’t directly solve world hunger… but if that now-elected politician ends hunger, then interactivity kinda helped, no?
Why is interactivity persuasive?
Hard to say… but we can guess! We know that, to persuade someone, it’s good to get them nodding with you. Hence the success of great DM pieces by brilliant copywriters like Schwartz, where the writing asks the readers questions that they can’t help but nod along with… and, soon enough, all that nodding tricks your mind into believing that you actually do want a lifetime supply of super-absorbent shammies. In clicking on a link, expanding a div-tag, hitting ‘play’ on a video demo, users are actually nodding along with you. You’ve offered them the chance to do something, and they’re doing it.
We also know that people like playing. Playing can be very persuasive. So, if you put a cool quiz, a poll or a fun YouTube video of a cute little cat on your site, you’re inspiring interactivity & play… which equals persuasion.
So give it a shot! Run an A/B test today.
PS: Apologies for the lengthy absence. The 30 Days of Persuasion absolutely exhausted us. We’ve since been asleep for five weeks straight.
June 30th, 2009. It’s a big day for us. The 30 Days of Persuasion has come to a close, but we’re not going anywhere. This is just the beginning of what we hope will become a valuable resource for anyone looking to improve Web site conversion through understanding how people behave.
The concept of a ‘persuasion blog’ was entirely Joanna’s (take the credit or the blame, Jo!). We talk a lot (perhaps too much — just ask our friends) about conversion and persuasion since we’re both responsible for those aspects of Intuit’s global business’s Web properties, but we’ve never put fingers to keyboard to capture our conversations — until June 1st, when this little project began. As many of you know, a blog requires a huge commitment, so what better way to demonstrate our commitment than to blog every day about this hugely interesting and new-to-the-Web topic.
It’s been a valuable learning experience for us, too. We’re not formally trained in social psychology (i.e., the foundation for much of what we cover here), so we’re relying on the research of experts to form our own thoughts on how the principles can be applied online. To be fair, however, Joanna is completing a graduate thesis on persuasive information design, a component of which is her own research project.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle for me to overcome initially was the notion that we’d be writing for nobody but ourselves — and those friends who tire of hearing us talk about persuasion. But based on what we’re seeing in our WordPress Web analytics, the falling tree is making a sound, and the idea that people may actually benefit from what we’re writing has become a motivator and given us reason to deliver against an aggressive posting schedule.
So, where to next? First thing is to package up the 30 Days of Persusasion into a free e-book… something you can easily take with you, print & read offline, email to others, or scribble on during your Web site conversion meetings! From there, and after a short break — no more than a week — you can expect to find a continuous flow of new ideas and examples on how to apply persuasive design to your own e-commerce sites.
In the meantime (or anytime), we’d like to hear your thoughts on the first 30 days of the blog (use the comments feature or email us: lancecj at gmail dot com OR wiebe.joanna at gmail dot com). We’d really like you to share your ideas on where we might take this project. And we’d absolutely love it if you’d share this resource with people you feel would enjoy it.
Here’s to the beginning of something new and exciting. Thank you for coming.
~Lance & Joanna
You and I’ve both noticed how much free stuff there is floating around the Internet. Free software. Free email accounts. Free [legal] music downloads. Free information — in the form of blogs, ebooks, podcasts and webinars. Free, free, free.
But have you noticed how crummy a lot of that free stuff is? There’s the really bad free: Free software downloads that come with free viruses. Free email that comes with free spam. Even free music lyrics that leave you with a screen full of free! annoying “smiley face” pop-ups. And there’s the less-bad free: Free ebooks that are pure fluff. Free music that’s interrupted with “Music now!” mid-way through the song. And free webinars that promise one thing and end up being about something quite different.
I recently attended an hour-long webinar by David Meerman Scott (the uber-bright ”New Rules of PR and Marketing” guy). It was called something like “Creating an Effective Social Media Strategy” – a timely, relevant topic pour moi, given that I was working on creating exactly that for the global division of Intuit. My colleague and I signed on to the webinar… and, after 10 minutes, we thought, K, this’ll get on topic soon. And then another 10 minutes passed. By the time 35 minutes had passed and we’d sat through a very general introduction to the power of social and how social can support PR and marketing initiatives, we decided to cut our losses.
We’d heard nothing of developing a social media strategy — not what to do, not why or how. We’d been taken in. Promised one thing, and delivered something else. We’d given up over an hour’s worth of combined time on, basically, nothing. Not cool.
When Free Goes Bad: Beggars CAN Be Choosers Today
I guess the idea with giving something away free is that people who take your free offering should just be happy with anything you give them. “Beggars can’t be choosers.” Kinduv an old idea, though, no? ‘Cos the thing is that ‘beggars’ using your freebies are, of course, potential customers. (You knew that! That’s why you were giving your stuff away to begin with, right?) The beggars on the phone for Meerman Scott’s webinar are people who might’ve purchased his books at minimum… or even advocated to invite the man to consult with their Fortune 500 companies. So why the lack of quality, on-topic content? Can’t ‘free’ be ‘great’???
So here’s the deal: If your webinar or ebook’s title promises something, the content had better deliver on it. When it doesn’t, we as consumers — even ‘free’ consumers — get offended. We shake our heads and say, “Why’d you waste my time like that?” — and what we really mean is, “Why did you make a commitment to deliver something, and then act inconsistently with that commitment?”
It speaks to Cialdini’s “commitment and consistency” persuasion principle. If you want to persuade people, you should:
- Make a commitment to do something, and then
- Act consistently with that commitment
Acting consistently with what you promise — also called a high say:do ratio — builds trust in you. It emulates an ideal that society has reinforced since we were knee high to a grasshopper. If you say you’re going to do it, do it. People like it. And likeability is persuasive.
The Reverse: Persuade Users to Do What You Want by Asking Them to Make a Commitment
Just as people expect companies to act consistently with their commitments, so will people act consistently with the commitments they make. I mean, no, this isn’t always the case — if it was, no one would ever default on a loan, and no contractor would ever skip town before finishing the drywall in your basement. But, by and large, when you give people the opportunity to act consistently with what they’ve said/thought/felt, you will find them persuaded to do so.
What does that mean, practically speaking?
It means that when you want someone to give you a $25 donation, you say, “Will you please commit to a $25 donation to the SPCA?” rather than asking them simply to donate (e.g., “Please give to the SPCA”). It means that you ask the people who download your free plugin to rate your plugin 5 stars. Not just to rate it. But to rate it at 5 stars.
So here’s the trick: Write calls-to-action that closely mirror exactly what you want users to commit to doing, and see your conversion rates skyrocket. Avoid ambiguity. Instead, get right to the commitment you want them to make, and in doing so set expectations as to what they will be doing to follow through on that commitment. Check out these examples.
Long story short: Get your users to make a commitment, and they will be more likely to act consistently with that commitment. It’s all about commitment and consistency — for your users and for your company.
I’ve been a web writer for quite a few years now, and I’ve developed a list of pet peeves along the way. It’s a short list of pet peeves, thankfully — yes, I’m one of those annoying people who loves what she does more with each new day — but it is a list nonetheless. And at the top of that list is this statement, commonly made by marketing managers or executives reviewing a website’s copy:
“There’s too much copy on this site! Let’s just get to the point.”
Balance that bit of opinion-based criticism with this statement we often hear from users in usability studies:
“I need info. Where is it? Why can’t you just tell me what I need to know?!”
Given that we’re sticklers for usability around here, I tend to listen a bit more to the frustrations of our users regarding copy quantity than to management. (Call me crazy! ) As a result, I lean more in the direction of writing additional content — and, of course, positioning that content in non-interruptive but easily accessible ways — than in the “get to the point” direction.
But am I right?
Are study user groups right?
Are managers right?
And, hey, you have an opinion on the subject. Are you right?
That really brings us to the obvious, oft-debated question: How much copy is enough copy on a website… and how much is too much?
The answer: Ha ha ha! Were you really expecting an answer here? I mean, how could there be just one answer? We’re dealing with people — so there’s always an exception (or a whole massive group of exceptions). But it would be nice to get closer to an answer… So let’s ask a better question.
The better question: When my users are on my site and are trying to find a product without wasting their time sorting through content, how much copy is enough copy… and how much is too much? Now that’s a question we (with the help of Chowdhury, Ratneshwar, Mohanty and their lovely recent research) can answer.
Time-Harried Shoppers: Crafting Enough Copy to Help Users Make Decisions as Fast as They’d Like
Not everyone makes decisions the same way under the best of circumstances — nevermind when they’re uber-busy. The truth is that, when consumers need to make decisions quickly, time becomes a hugely influential factor in their choice processes. Chowdhury, Ratneshwar and Mohanty showed us (in 2009) that consumers will even alter their preferences, switch brands or fail to buy products when hurriedness enters into the equation.
That’s right: Time is an influencer. Actually, it’s both an influencer and a barrier. (Double-edge swords are fun!) A lack of time can prevent people from making decisions… That said, when considered during your site’s content development, a user’s lack of time can actually work in your favour and help to persuade your users.
Time is an influencer.
Here’s how time influences the decision-making of the 2 primary groups of consumers, Maximizers and Satisficers.
- MAXIMIZERS – This group of consumers strives to make the best decisions possible and seek out content to help them make those decisions. Maximizers are born window shoppers: the more options you present to them, the more time they’ll spend considering those options. When pressured for time, maximizers feel it heavily and may make a rapid decision accordingly,… but they’re more likely to feel regret about those decisions and change their minds later, if given the opportunity to do so.
- SATISFICERS - This group of consumers is willing to settle for decisions that are adequate rather than perfect. These folks like to get to the point. When pressured for time, satisficers hold up well, making rapid decisions with little regret; unfortunately, satisficers may be more prone to making the wrong decisions (given that they are happy with “good enough” and may not consider what “good enough” fails to address).
If you’re building a website for satisficers who may be rushed, less copy/content is fine-and-dandy (as are fewer options). Just get to the point — you’ll make satisficers happy enough to make a purchasing decision. (Just hope that they don’t have a maximizer partner at home to point out why their decision was not good enough and force them to return the purchased item to you.)
If you’re building a website for maximizers who may be rushed, you need to be a bit more careful with the amount of copy you choose to put on or cut from your site… not to mention how you organize/design that copy. Maximizers require enough content to make them feel that they can make the best decision because they know all the facts and are 100% informed of their options. …But when they’re busy, maximizers need to find a balance between getting enough content to feel confident and not getting so much content that they feel they won’t become 100% informed (because they don’t have enough time to read everything!), can’t make the best decision and, as a result, may not buy at all.
Make sense? The primary point I’m getting at, without saying it, is that you have to know if the majority of your site’s visitors are satisficers or maximizers, and you have to write content for them.
Example Site: Designed for Satisficers
This website is one of the top-converting sites today and is made, largely, for quick purchases rather than well-researched purchases — not too surprising for flower-ordering/-delivery sites. That is, it’s designed as if it’s made for satisficers first, maximizers second.
ProFlowers.com can still help maximizers (rushed or not). But that’s not what the home page is for. That’s what the rest of the entire site is for. (Pretty smart, if satisficers are the primary visitors to this site.)
Example Site: Designed for Maximizers
Top-converting QVC.com provides more content to help maximizers find the info they want to find… and purchase it only when they’re actually ready to. (That is, not from the home page.)
At the end of the day, of course, as you’ve already guessed, building a site for satisficers makes less sense than building a site for maximizers. Why? Because satisficers are happy with “good enough”. It’s the maximizers who give a damn what you’ve got for info. It’s the maximizers you can actually help with your site’s copy. So give ‘em what they need… and see how the amount of copy you place can lead to better conversions thanks to better persuasion.
Over the past 23 days (whew, 6 days still to go in our 30 Days of Persuasion!), we’ve explored a ton of persuasion principles, discussed their application and potential on the Web, and tried our best to illustrate the techniques and why they work. Discussing each principle separately – in our opinion – is the most effective way to inform and educate readers of our little blog. However, in my final few posts this month, I’m going to pull together the various elements and examine some companies that are doing an admirable job of taking their sites to a holistic persuasive level of design (i.e., beyond just functional and usable, as discussed in yesterday’s post).
It’s hard to write a blog without loving blogs in general. I have my list of favourites and probably scan 200-300 posts per day. Of those I read about 10%. Sometimes I come across a reference to an older article or interview that piques my interest – which is likely a form of nostalgia – and the aging articles that are most interesting to me are related to Web site design and conversion. In this little gem from 2003, Christine Perfetti of User Interface Engineering interviews Andrew Chak about persuasive design. In the article, Andrew mentions that one of the most persuasive sites he’s seen is eBags.com, so I decided to check it out and see for myself if Andrew’s praise was (and still is) deserved.
Upon arriving at the site, the first thing I noticed was how little eBags.com has really changed over the past 6 years. While some may consider its design somewhat outdated, it’s hard to argue with success (10 years, 10 million bags sold). And there are a few other companies that have done well to slowly evolve their site designs… like Google, Craigslist, eBay, Amazon.com, Lands’ End, and ProFlowers.com. The second thing I noticed was how right Andrew was to point out eBags.com as a leader in persuasive design. Many of the elements of persuasion we’ve discussed here are being applied – year after year, visitor after visitor – to their home page, category page, search results, product page, cart, and others:
The visual and content designers at eBags.com clearly understand how to deliver for customers as well as the business. The company is placing its biggest bets on the principles of scarcity (e.g., one-day sales) and social proof (e.g., user reviews, number of people currently browsing the site), but it is also adept at establishing trust and credibility on the very first visit. Remember, persuasion is not manipulation; it’s about engaging and guiding visitors to making confident purchase decisions – and it certainly looks as though eBags.com approaches this effective style of selling with integrity and a sincere focus on the customer.
Influence guru Robert Cialdini and several fellow researchers this month published an article on “Evolution, Emotion and Persuasion” (Journal of Marketing Research) in which they discussed the interplay of evolutionary shaping, fear & romantic arousal and the widely used persuasion heuristic scarcity. Here, very briefly, is what their discussion led to:
- FEAR – Fear contexts and fear-heavy content can cause normally persuasive scarcity appeals to backfire
- ROMANCE – Romantic contexts and romance-heavy content can cause scarcity appeals to more effectively persuade
Why does fear cause scarcity appeals to backfire? Because, from an evolutionary perspective, people facing fear have survived by sticking together — not by being conspicuously visible, off doing their own thing and seeking out limited editions.
And what of the power of romance in increasing the effectiveness of scarcity appeals? Simply, mate attraction equals reproduction, which is a very basic human need — and we become more attractive when we are differentiated from the larger group. That is, it’s good to own a limited edition as that scarce item is one more thing that separates you from the crowd and makes you more attractive to a potential mate.
Moving from Cavemen to Conversions
What can we as online marketers do with Cialdini’s insights into the popular persuasion heuristic that is scarcity? Let’s consider visual design. First, an example of a site that creates fear context — and the banner ads that attempt to persuade users in those spaces.
According to Cialdini’s research, ComCast may not achieve the results they might otherwise have simply by virtue of the fear arousal that users felt prior to clicking the banner ad and landing on ComCast’s offer page / lead gen form. That’s because scarcity appeals and fear do not mix well.
Fear’s not very fun… but romance is! So let’s go there next. Remember, romantic arousal — including photos of attractive people or even stories about romantic desire — can cause a person to think less about their decisions and be more readily persuaded by the widely used persuasion technique that is scarcity.
Missed Opportunities? Swimsuit, Lingerie and Other Women’s Apparel Sites
Given that attractive members of the opposite sex have been shown to make scarcity messages more persuasive, it’s surprising that sites targeted to women shoppers are so filled with photos of women. …And beautiful (which is not necessarily likeable) women at that! From a persuasion perspective, it seems safer to assume that women shoppers would be more effectively influenced with images of men-and-women…. So why do sites for women — like JuicyCouture.com & BlueFly.com (a scarcity-heavy site) — feature images of women only? Simply because women wear the clothes? Really?
And why does VictoriasSecret.com not have a single man on their entire website? Is it because, after all, the site really is for men? Surprising.
Short answer: Never. If you’d like to understand why, please read on.
Simply put, in the context of the Web, usability is making it easier for your visitors to accomplish their intended task or goal. Persuasion, on the other hand, is compelling a person to want to get there, or perform the given task in the first place. Without persuasion, making something easy to accomplish doesn’t necessarily make it something people want to do. Think of it as ‘can do’ versus ‘will do’. Making a site easy for visitors to use makes them more proficient users but does not necessarily make them customers.
Eric Shaffer of Human Factors International (HFI) writes in a blog post dated January 26, 2009:
“The next wave in Web site design is persuasive design, designing for persuasion, emotion, and trust. While usability is still a fundamental requirement for effective Web site design, it is no longer enough to design sites that are simply easy to navigate and understand so users can complete transactions. As business mandates for Web site design have grown more strategic, complex, and demanding of accountability, good usability has become the price of competitive entry. So, while usability is important, it is no longer the key differentiator it once was.”
On this blog, persuasive design gets all the attention, but Eric makes a valid point that we have not yet delivered here: “…usability is still a fundamental requirement for effective Web site design.” Once the foundation of a Web site is laid – functionality and usability – attention can and should be turned toward engaging and persuading visitors to act on their desires.
In the physical world, people may overlook poor usability in favor of aesthetics. Think about the Lamborghinis of the 1980s (I’m a car nut) – drop-dead gorgeous design but terrible ergonomics. Affluent car shoppers were persuaded by the sexy Italian exterior, crazy performance statistics, melodic exhaust, and thoughts of people staring back from their Ford Fairmonts and Buick Skylarks. Luckily for Lamborghini, they were purchased by Audi, the undisputed king of interior design. And now purchasers can experience all the emotions afforded by the car’s beautiful design and still feel like everything is at their fingertips and still manage to walk without back pain after a long cruise. Lamborghini sales have never been better.
On the Web, persuasion without usability (or even basic functionality) just doesn’t work. On the Web – and especially on e-commerce sites – people expect to be able to accomplish tasks in an efficient manner. The ‘rush’ of a long-anticipated purchase may be equated to a ride in an Italian supercar, but any obstacles encountered along the way will likely diminish the overall experience. There is no exhaust note or rush of acceleration to make users forget about an unusable Web site (and very few Web sites spur the release of dopamine in the human brain!).
No, in our opinion, you cannot have a persuasive Web site until you address basic functionality and usability. Think of them as pre-requisites for graduating to the level of persuasive design. Let me break down the differences between these three concepts:
Functional sites offer all the basics but typically get launched with no user testing. Everything works, but not necessarily the way visitors expect (i.e., there is some frustration). Forms are reasonable in length, spelling and grammar is correct, and there are no broken links on the site. Images include alt tags, a site map is in place and basic search engine optimization is complete. Basic Web analytics are collected. However, it is also likely that a high percentage of shopping carts are abandoned, conversion rates are below average, and customer frustration is expressed through high bounce rates, frequent support calls, or occasional email complaints.
Usable sites are the next step up in the evolution of Web site effectiveness. Usability guidelines are embraced by site designers and user testing is part of the release lifecycle. Forms are optimized, navigation is intuitive, product features are clearly messaged, and essential tasks are completed by visitors without frustration. Traffic patterns are reviewed regularly and basic Web testing (e.g., A/B or multivariate testing) helps to deliver a more delightful user experience. Conversion rates are higher than the purely functional site but orders may still have to be completed via other channels (e.g., phone) in order for all customer concerns and questions to be answered. The user experience at this level is still far from optimal because persuasive elements such as motivation, emotion, and trust have not been addressed.
Once functionality and usability are in place, persuasive design can become a reality. Persuasive sites employ the principles discussed throughout this blog, such as social proof, social learning, contrast, authority, reciprocity, and likeability. The site’s value proposition is clear, visitor paths are free of ‘friction’, benefit statements abound, and calls to action are obvious and compelling. Forms are designed to be completed with minimal anxiety and maximum ease and trust is reinforced at key decision points. All elements of visual design support and enhance key messages and company branding is consistent throughout the experience. At the other end of the sales funnel, visitors typically purchase more than they intended when they arrived at the site – and they often recommend the site! Additional outcomes of persuasive design (contrasted with a usable site) include lower customer service and acquisition costs, higher average order values, and higher customer retention rates. Email and pay-per-click-campaigns also yield higher returns.
Persuasive design requires a deep understanding of customer needs, desires, and barriers. But to reach the level of persuasive design, a site must first enable visitors to complete the purpose of their visit and deliver an experience free of usability obstacles. Until a site reaches the persuasive level – or until functionality and usability have been fully addressed – marketing dollars to promote the site are not optimized, conversions are lost, and business performance is well below what can be achieved.
Where is your site on this spectrum?
What happens when you look for a flaw… but find nothing? The athlete who must be on steroids… but isn’t. The 24-year-old millionaire who must be a drug dealer… but actually runs a successful start-up. The beautiful actress who you hope has veneers & extensions, gets Botox by IV, is brainless & shallow… but who’s actually naturally gorgeous, a PhD and a math tutor for inner-city kids on the weekends.
There’s power in looking for flaws and being proven wrong. It’s persuasive. Research into consumer decision-making behavior even proves it.
The Experiment: The Power of Being Proven Wrong
What if someone sat you down in front of the aspirin message to the right (from Bayer’s Aspirin website) and said, “Tell us what you think about this product”? And what if they then sat your friend down and said, “Tell us all your negative thoughts about this product”?
Drs. Derek D. Rucker and Richard E. Petty of Ohio State University conducted that experiment almost exactly. The widely held assumption in consumer research, prior to their research, was that people can’t be persuaded once they’ve started to argue against the claims or messaged benefits of a product. …So when Rucker and Petty asked one group to focus on their negative thoughts about aspirin, they might’ve expected that the effect of all that negativity would be “anti-persuasion”.
The actual result? People who aggressively considered drawbacks to aspirin but found none concluded that they had truly few negative thoughts about the product… which actually increased their certainty in choosing aspirin. Those who sat and objectively processed the aspirin message — that is, those who were asked just to ‘think’ about aspirin — were less certain about choosing aspirin. Why? Because they had not attempted to find fault and come up empty-handed. They hadn’t engaged in battle and lost. They hadn’t been proven wrong.
What Happens If They Counter-Argue… And Are Proven Right?
Umm… don’t let that happen. As researchers Tormala and Petty found, people who successfully counter-argue a message ended up feeling even stronger negative feelings towards a product… because they’d been proven right. Their negative attitudes stuck and even further solidified. Good luck breaking down that wall! (Well, it can be done… but why go there if you don’t have to?)
Examples of Companies Who Benefit from This “Flawed” Persuasion Principle
Some companies use guarantees, inviting consumers to investigate their products for flaws and return the product if there are, in fact, flaws in it. The truth is that any company that has a truly great product can confidently encourage people to try to find their flaws. When no such flaws are revealed, the effect is a more positive attitude towards the company and/or product.
The moral of the story? As Rucker and Petty put it:
Aggressively considering drawbacks to a product, but finding none, allows individuals to conclude they have truly few negative thoughts, which increases attitude certainty. Individuals who objectively process a message have not aggressively considered the faults, and therefore are not as certain.
Are you ready to put yourself out there? Is your product so good that, when put to the test, consumers would talk themselves into using your product rather than talking themselves out of it?
It’s a big challenge, putting yourself and your brand out there to be picked apart — but we’ve seen that, if you’re as good as you claim to be, there’s no reason people should choose the competition. So the real question is whether you’re as good as you claim to be. And no number of persuasion principles — even expertly applied — can help you if you aren’t. (Not in the long run, at least. )
A core mission of this blog is to explore proven principles of persuasion and their potential to influence your site visitors — while still being completely transparent with your target audience. Yes, persuasion techniques can be abused and human behavior can be exploited, but Joanna and I firmly believe that integrity is critical to building a successful online business.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve read a few books about traditional sales, marketing, and advertising. One of the best so far, in my opinion, is “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert B. Cialdini.
Cialdini distilled the thousands of sales, influence, and compliance-seeking tactics he observed down to a handful of techniques that he calls “weapons of automatic influence,” or the common denominators found in most of the methods he studied. He claims that each of them is based on a human psychological principle that has the “…ability to produce a distinct kind of automatic, mindless compliance from people, that is, a willingness to say yes without thinking first.”
Applying persuasion principles taps into the auto-pilot programs under which we operate every day — programs that enable us to make decisions quickly and survive a busy [and sometimes dangerous] world. Given how many decisions we make in our lives (and have had to make to ensure our survival), it’s not surprising that we are conditioned to avoid over-thinking every single scenario we encounter.
In his book, Cialdini explores the most effective ways we can influence people to comply with our requests. He writes, “A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.” The strategy itself makes sense if you think about it. We don’t like to be told things or asked to take action without a reasonable explanation.
So when you need people to be receptive to your thoughts or requests, always give a reason why. And the most effective transition word when giving a reason why is because. People are simply more amenable to influence with the addition of this simple word.
The ‘power of because’ has been well-documented by social psychologist Ellen Langer. Langer performed an experiment where she asked people queued for a copy machine to cut in line ahead of them.
She tested three different ways of asking people the same basic question and recorded the results:
1. “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
Result: 60% said OK
2. “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?”
Result: 94% said OK
3. “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?”
Result: 93% said OK
By providing a reason — and using the word ‘because’ — Langer’s desired compliance rate improved dramatically. More surprising perhaps is the fact that in case #3, it didn’t really seem to matter what specific reason was given (surely making copies is the most obvious reason to use a Xerox machine!). The word ‘because’ triggered an automatic response in the participants and changed the outcome.
This technique is well-known amongst direct marketers and ad copy writers, but I haven’t seen it applied on Web sites with any frequency — and a quick Google search is not yielding great results. For example, why don’t companies who offer a product promotion give visitors a reason for the price reduction? And with ‘free’ becoming so prevalent on the Web, why not provide potential users an explanation (using ‘because’) as to how a product can be offered for free in the first place — like gaining market share, or eventually moving customers into paid products.
Since all we’re talking about is adding the word ‘because’ and a reason to your online requests, why not test the theory out for your next campaign? Test it in your email subject lines… or Web page headlines.. or primary calls to action — basically anywhere you wish visitors to comply with your request.
Bottom line: If you want to persuade someone to buy your product or complete a task, give them a reason. Of course, a good reason will likely be more effective, but even if you think your reason is less than compelling, the research suggests that site visitors are more likely to comply than if you had given no reason at all.
Let’s imagine that each website is its own environment, influenced by surrounding websites (e.g., the search engine that brought them to the site) but ultimately creating its own context, its own reality. In this way of understanding websites, a site is a microcosm, if you will — complete with norms and social expectations that are the equivalent of those in the ‘real world’ but are perhaps more… concentrated in a specific online environment. For example, the norm “people should not tell lies” still makes its way into the context of every website, but in sites, like Twitter, as a news-heavy microcosm, telling the truth is a even more important than in other environments.
If that is the case, then the norms you reinforce and even create on your site will influence how your users respond to your messages.
Basically, norms can actually persuade (or dissuade!) your users from acting. That’s right. You can leverage what your users believe (social/cultural norms) in the way you message on your site to help users conduct themselves in keeping with norms they were raised with (e.g., people should say “thank you”) and the norms you highlight in the unique context of your unique online environment (e.g., people like to use our products). The idea, of course, is that people want to conform to the norms — it’s a great survival technique we’ll get into another day — so they’ll act in normative manners.
It’s called normative conduct, and it’s a great way to persuade your users.
The Focus Theory of Normative Conduct
This theory suggests that norms influence the way people behave, with norms fitting into 2 categories:
- Descriptive norms: “People do X.”
- Injunctive norms: “People should do X.”
Further and of great importance, when two norms are at odds in a situation (e.g., people shouldn’t litter, but people do litter in New York), people focus on the most salient or highly observable norm ‘wins’, and most will conform to that norm.
For example: There are 3 apartment building lobbies, each with a wall of mailboxes. Lobby A is very clean, suggesting “people don’t litter here”. Lobby B is very clean with a single bit of litter (actually, a watermelon rind). And Lobby C is covered in litter, suggesting “people always litter here”. The question: In which lobby will apartment residents discard their mail (i.e., litter) more frequently?
Such was the premise for a study Cialdini (with Reno and Kallgren) conducted in 1990. The results were very interesting:
- In Lobby C (the dirty one), 26.7% of residents added to the litter
- In Lobby A (the clean one), 10.7% of residents littered
- In Lobby B (just 1 piece of litter), a mere 3.6% of residents littered
What does this study show? That norms guide behavior. In this study, the norm was built around what people do regarding litter. For Lobby C, the norm was to litter, and so people littered. For Lobby A, the norm was to avoid littering, so people avoided it… but as soon as a few people started littering, the norm shifted to “people litter here”, and people responded accordingly.
And then there’s that weird little surprise that is Lobby B. This situation saw several norms at odds: the injunctive “people shouldn’t litter” norm that sits in the back of our heads, and a conflict between the descriptive “people don’t litter here” and “people litter here” norm. In the otherwise clean environment, the injunctive norm and the former descriptive norm rose to the top, beating out the “people litter here” descriptive norm. People acted in accordance with the most powerful norms.
We can take this theory beyond the litter example to the idea that a norm is ultimately an expectation of people, and when you tell people what the norm is, they are more likely to act that way. Consider that “neighborhood watch” signs have actually caused an increased perception of crime in an area and, in turn, more crime.
Applying Normative Conduct to Online Environments
So, great, people act based on what they think they’re expected to do. They act based on the norms of the environment they’re in. Now what does that mean for persuading people in your eStore? Well, you want to show people that buying your product is the norm, conforming to the norm is good and deviating from the norm is bad. Of course, doing this effectively requires knowing — without question — what you’re trying to sell and that you are, in fact, absolutely trying to sell it. Obvious? Not really, actually. Case in point:
In the above examples, the comparison charts, which might normally be a great way to be transparent about how you stack up, actually create the norm that people should shop around… and that people do shop around (if not, you wouldn’t even be looking at that comparison chart, would you?)… so you, too, should shop around. Not good for conversion unless you’re 100% positive that your product will blow the others out of the water.
Now, if you get normative conduct right and can create an environment in which buying your product/service is the norm and conformity is good, you’re set. Here are a few examples of websites that successfully leverage normative conduct.
Do you know how you might turn your brand, product or service into the norm — without causing users to feel like real deviants if they choose not to conform to the norm on your site? It’s a fine balance… and the stuff of another post down the road.
Cialdini, R., Reno, R.R., and Kallgren, C.A. (1990). A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: Recycling the Concept of Norms to Reduce Littering in Public Places
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 58(6), p.1015-1026.
You’ve heard of cause marketing. That’s when businesses support/sponsor a cause publicly in order to, ultimately, line their pockets with the proceeds of goodwill. Think Dawn cleaning up birds affected by oil spills. Pampers’s tetanus shots for expecting moms. The Lexus/Scholastic Eco Challenge for students. Haagen Dazs’s support for bees/pollinators. And the oh-so-popular Sears sponsorship of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
At their most basic, cause marketing campaigns are product placements. The Extreme Makeover designers go running through Sears in search of appliances for the new home, with a big ol’ “Sears” sign overhead. Product placement.
So, here’s the question: Are product placements — as overt attempts to entrench a brand in one’s memory and, hence, as overt marketing — actually persuasive in cause marketing campaigns?
If you read this popular article from AdAge, you’d say that, yes, they are. But let’s dig a bit deeper than that, shall we? On Day 17 of the 30 Days of Persuasion, that’s exactly what we’ll do.
When Consumers Reward Companies for Self-Serving Selflessness
Consumer decision-making researchers Drs. Becker-Olsen and Cudmore argued that consumers will support a company that engages in cause marketing (i.e., sponsoring philanthropic efforts) when these 3 things are true:
- The consumer believes the effort makes sense or fits with the company’s products/services offerings
- The consumer believes the act is from the heart (motivated by pro-social ideals)
- The consumer perceives the act as proactive rather than reactive
So Sears engaging in cause marketing on Extreme Makeover should enhance consumer attitudes towards Sears because it meets those 3 heuristics. That is, it makes sense for Sears to donate appliances; they consistently sponsor the TV program, which feels like true corporate motivation; and their efforts were not motivated by negative PR. Even further, Sears restrains its product placements, so viewers aren’t beaten over the head with their commercial intents.
Surprise, surprise: Even consumers think it’s okay for companies to engage in cause marketing… under the right conditions.
…And When They Don’t (and Your Efforts Backfire)
You’re motoring along a road in Kentucky, and you pass over the black-filled remnant of what once was a pothole. You glance down, and what do you see but a big ol’ KFC logo and “Re-freshed by KFC” stamped in white paint on it?
Now tell me, do you feel oh-so-glad that KFC was kind enough to take a few of their billions of dollars and fill in the potholes you thought your tax dollars were going towards? Or do you maybe feel a touch choked that not only are taxes crazy but now you’ve gotta deal with KFC’s thinly veiled attempt to get you off the road and into their drive-thru… where the chicken is barely chicken, nevermind “fresh”.
KFC, you already knew consumers were hugely skeptical about being marketed to, but you had to go and slap your logo all over their streets.
What KFC was trying to do here was to engage in cause marketing (not a bad thing) and enhance their brand in consumers’ memories (not a bad thing). But here’s where they went wrong, insofar as persuasion is concerned: they revealed their hidden commercial intent. How? By spray-painting every single pothole with their logo and even incorporating some sort of new tagline around their product as “fresh”. (Wha….?)
It’d be like every person on Extreme Makeover wearing a Sears t-shirt. And the entire program being named “Sears Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”.
According to Drs. Bhatnagar and Aksoy, companies like KFC can expect consumer backlash to heavy-handed cause marketing in the form of a negative impact on:
- The trust consumers have in that brand
- The trust consumers have in the claims that brand makes
- The trust consumers have in the media used
Companies Who Are Doing Cause Marketing Persuasively Online
The web’s a persuasive tool, so why not take these efforts online? These websites designed around cause marketing initiatives meet Becker-Olsen and Cudmore’s 3 criteria of fit, motivation and timeliness/proactive-approach.
So, at the End of the Day, Is Cause Marketing Persuasive?
Well, 92% of US adults have a more positive image of a company that supports a cause the consumer believes in, and 87% of consumers say they’d switch brands if quality & price were the same but the other brand supported a good cause. So we can say that, when done well, cause marketing can be extremely effective. According to Nielsen Media Research, Extreme Makeover has helped Sears achieve better recognition and positive feelings among consumers:
August 28, 2007, New York, NY – The Sears Department Store placement on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” had the top product placement score on broadcast network television in June 2007, The Nielsen Company reported today in a new metric based on both brand recognition and positive feeling. According to Nielsen’s product placement measurement service, 58.1% of the “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” audience not only were able to recognize the presence of the Sears store brand during the program but also came away with a positive feeling for the brand as a result of that exposure.
Time will tell how people actually respond to KFC’s initiative. So far, it looks like the mayors of a lot of the towns KFC is approaching re: their city’s potholes are not jumping at the opportunity……..
Really effective persuasion is based on tapping in to the decision-making processes of consumers to address their barriers to purchasing and break those barriers down by highlighting/applying their motivators for purchasing.
Principles of persuasion are largely based on how to help consumers make the decision you want them to make. But “purchase decision delegation” is all about consumers stepping back and letting others make their decisions for them. It’s like subcontracting your decisions to someone better able to make them.
Why would a consumer want to let someone else make up their minds? Most often, it’s because:
- They’re lacking the product knowledge they need to make an accurate decision
- They’re too busy to be bothered
- They don’t really care and just want to get the purchase over with
In such situations, consumers may be open to using an online recommender agent to show them their options and suggest the best matched product for their needs. (Let’s call this an “online agent.”) Think of any time you’ve asked a coworker to recommend a real estate agent, for example — if you ended up going with that agent, you effectively delegated your decision. Doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch anymore, does it?
What Purchasing Decisions Might Consumers Delegate to Your Online Agent?
Before we go too far, let’s be clear: Delegating decisions doesn’t always mean delegating the final purchasing decision. Consumers aren’t going to necessarily give you their credit card numbers and tell you to buy whatever you think they need (except maybe for personal stylists and interior decorators). No, instead we can ask consumers to allow us to help them make decisions at one of these 3 (of the 5) purchasing stages:
- Information Search – They need your help to figure out what characteristics they should be looking for in the product/service they purchase
- Evaluation of Alternatives – They need your help to narrow down their choice sets (or products in product categories)
- Purchase Decision – They need your help to make the final decision
Regardless of the stage at which your customers may wish/need to delegate their decision to your online agent, the fact is that they will have at least 2 major barriers to overcome in order to subcontract that decision to you… The good news is that there are at least 4 major motivators that you can highlight to help break down those barriers and open them up to delegating to your online agent. This chart describes.
The desire for control in making a decision about what to buy cannot be underestimated. It might be impossible for your online agent to erode the control barrier for some users — but it is not always impossible, or, if it were, this blog post and the research that supports it (e.g., Crane; Klein & Ford, 2003; Ratchford, Lee & Talukdar, 2004) would never have happened.
For you to make the most of this information and its opportunities, it may be valuable to consider first the elements that litter the path between your users and their use of your online agent:
This path diagram shows that your potential customer is separated from subcontracting their decision to you by the barriers and the motivators, where the barriers need to be lessened and the motivators highlighted. (With regards to the motivators, it’s worth noting that accountability, authority and customization all lead to an increased sense of trustworthiness of your site and its online recommender agent.) Here are some ideas around how you can highlight motivators:
- Accountability – On the agent landing page, message that you have a 100% 30-day money-back guarantee for any purchase and that, for purchases made from the online agent, consumers get an additional 30-day grace period for returns. Or offer a ‘feedback’ tool that lets users return post-purchase and tell others if they liked the product or if they should use the online agent.
- Authority – Give the credentials of the people behind your automated online agent or on your chat tool.
- Customization – Create a truly robust online agent that takes the detailed info of the consumer and uses that info to generate a custom recommendation.
- Trustworthiness – Huge topic! Click here to read about building trust on your website
Examples of E-commerce Sites with Online Agents
(BTW, WhatToRent.com is begging to be linked to NetFlix or even BlockBuster.com. Why o why, WhatToRent, don’t you turn your cool tool into an opportunity for your users to actually purchase or rent the movies you recommend?)
Where Are We Seeing Online Agents Today?
The above examples are for wine, mortgages and movie rentals, respectively. There are also a schwack of travel, insurance, stock/trading and wardrobe recommenders out there. These online agents are pretty obvious solutions, given how align closely with at least one of the “reasons to delegate” we noted at the start of this post:
- They’re lacking the product knowledge they need to make an accurate decision = WINE, MORTGAGES
- They’re too busy to be bothered = MOVIES
- They don’t really care and just want to get the purchase over with
But where are the software recommenders? Where are the contractor recommenders? And what about options in the “I don’t care — just get it over with” area? I’m seeing a future of online agents that recommend birthday cards for coworkers, new wiper blades for your car…..
In yesterday’s post, “Designing Trustworthy Web Sites,” I outlined the fantastic and still timely research conducted by Florian Egger in 2003 on building trust and credibility for e-commerce sites. Florian’s doctoral thesis includes a checklist of the elements to look for in a ‘trustworthy’ Web site, and they are categorized into the following high level categories — or trust factors:
- Pre-interactional filters
- Interface properties
- Informational content
- Relationship management
Since yesterday’s discussion was so ‘theory heavy’, I’m going to let pictures do most of the talking today, but for each trust factor above, I’ll quickly summarize the basic premise.
Pre-interactional Filters refer to the trust that is established prior to direct interaction with a company. I’m highlighting Mint as a company that doesn’t just rely on conversations taking place about its site, but brings those conversations (happening amongst users and the press) back to its Web site via reviews and testimonials:
The second trust factor is known as Interface Properties, which can be thought of as the ‘look and feel’ of a Web site – and it can be split into two components: branding and usability. Companies that excel in building trust through their interface design choices include MailChimp, 37signals, Invoice Machine, and Product Planner:
Informational Content is the third factor in establishing and building trust with your site visitors, and it includes company identity, products, security, and privacy. Examples of companies doing a great job of building trust through content are Instabox, Clearleft, Tapbots, Bridge55.com, 37signals, and MailChimp:
The fourth and final trust factor is known as Relationship Management, which describes the quality and availability of resources for site visitors before and after a purchase is completed. MailChimp and Bridge55.com have designed their sites to give visitors confidence in their customer service capabilities:
There are obviously countless more examples of small businesses and start-ups that are demonstrating expertise in building trust and credibility on the Web. If you’d like to offer an example of a site doing well in the areas outlined above, please use our blog’s comment feature and we’ll do our best to showcase your recommendation!
And if you’re interested in reading Florian’s extensive research in its entirety, here is the link.
What elements are essential to making a Web site persuasive? Human Factors International (HFI) pioneered a new way to look at the effectiveness of Web sites, called PET Design, where P=Persuasion, E=Emotion, and T=Trust. In our ’30 Days of Persuasion’ we’re obviously focused on the “P” in “PET”, but I’d like to dedicate a couple of posts to trust as well. Today I’ll introduce some trust-building concepts for e-commerce sites developed by a Swiss PhD student, Florian Egger, back in 2003. In a follow-up post, I’ll explore how online start-ups and small businesses are applying these concepts to establish trust and credibility with first-time visitors – particularly on their home pages.
So, on to the concepts…
Trust and credibility are vital in the pursuit to persuade. If you can’t establish trust and credibility, then your site will not likely persuade. Which means it won’t convert, either.
Florian Eggers conducted an interesting series of studies in 2003 – for his doctoral thesis – on establishing trust online. His thesis, titled “Designing the Trust Experience for Business-to-Consumer Electronic Commerce,” explores the most influential factors in building credibility on a Web site, and goes so far as to design a checklist for evaluating trust factors and a survey for understanding site visitors’ perceptions of a Web site’s trustworthiness. Although Florian’s publication is nearly 6 years old, most of it is still relevant to the process of building trust on e-commerce sites.
So what are the elements of trust on which Florian’s research recommends focusing? There are four main categories:
- Pre-interactional filters
- Interface properties
- Informational content
- Relationship management
Pre-interactional Filters refer to the trust that is established prior to direct interaction with a company. The reputation of the industry to which the company belongs is a pre-interactional filter. For example, people likely have more trust in banks than in high interest rate loan companies. Within a specific industry, what is the reputation of the company? How much offline awareness exists for the organization? If the company has an offline presence, what is its reputation? Offline brand awareness and experience play a critical role in trust – and are eventually transferred online. And, in addition to our own experience with a company, we tend to rely on the experience or advice of sources we trust, whether friends or publications – a concept known as transference.
The second trust factor is known as Interface Properties, which can be thought of as the ‘look and feel’ of a Web site – and it can be split into two components.
The first component of the interface is branding, which Egger refers to as a site’s visual design – and is primarily responsible for making that positive first impression. For example, are the graphical elements appealing and appropriate for this kind of Web site? But it’s not only visual appeal that comprises branding; other elements of branding include the company name, logo, and its unique value proposition. What exactly does the company do? Is it immediately apparent? Does the design compel users to explore the site further? And finally, the perceived professionalism of a Web site also factors into branding. It should be customer-centric and pay attention to detail (i.e., convey a professional image through good use of grammar and spelling).
The second component of Interface Properties is usability, which Jakob Nielsen (1993) describes as a system’s learnability, efficiency, memorability, error prevention, and user satisfaction. A usable site should be easy for first-time visitors to grasp and engage with. Is the content organized and laid out logically? Legibility should be high if the appropriate fonts sizes and sufficient contrast are used. In terms of the site’s navigation, how easy is it to understand the labelling and categorization of content? Upon visiting the home page, users should be able to form a mental model of how the site is organized based on the content, layout, and navigation. Usability also addresses how information is requested from visitors (e.g., during registration and checkout) and how the site delivers feedback, guidance, and error messages during data entry. Even site performance is an important element of usability, relating to the availability of pages and the download speed of those pages (and it goes without saying that there should be no broken links or orphaned pages!). And finally, the degree to which visitors feel that the Web site is relevant to their needs is also a function of its overall usability.
Informational Content is the third factor in establishing and building trust with your site visitors. It’s a pretty big topic, spanning how a company presents information about its identity, its products and services, as well as its security and privacy measures.
Identity. So how do consumers assess the trustworthiness of your organization without a face-to-face interaction? On the Web, this can be addressed by providing complete information about the history of your company, its legal status, and the people behind it. You can also use well-crafted content about your company’s values, partnerships (especially with trusted organizations), achievements, and community participation (including charity support) to bridge the gap. How you message your company’s success will influence visitors’ trust, whether it is providing a portfolio of recent work or links to an annual report or the size and reach of your customer base. Does your site show that there are real people behind the company – including key names, photographs, bios, and email addresses?
Products and Services. The quality and depth of information about your products and services also contribute to establishing trust. Whether visitors have a specific goal in mind or show up simply to browse, detailed descriptions of your offerings will help them make confident and informed decisions. Product descriptions should be objective and free of sales jargon and lofty claims. Images should effectively complement your product descriptions. Prices should be prominently displayed – and being transparent with respect to additional costs (e.g., shipping, taxes) early in the purchase flow will prevent negative surprises for your visitors later on. Are product availability and shipping times provided? These are all ways to reduce the perception of risk for your site visitors.
Security. Speaking of risk, your site’s content should include summary level and detailed information about your security and privacy measures – as risk and trust are closely related. Consumers react well to explicit security policies, which typically detail how data is transferred, processed, and stored. But although consumers appreciate the sense of security such policies provide, it has been observed that they rarely read them in great detail – so a prominent link to your policy will likely suffice. Your ordering process should take place on secure pages and provide multiple payment methods to address visitors’ varying comfort levels with credit, debit, or electronic transfer of funds. Displaying seals from trusted third parties that assess your company’s commitment to security is also a common consumer expectation.
The fourth and final trust factor is known as Relationship Management, which describes the quality and availability of resources for site visitors before and after a purchase is completed.
For pre-purchase interactions, the availability and ease of locating different methods of contact – both online and offline – can be an indication of how much a company cares about its customers. Is there a dedicated customer service area that includes multiple forms of help such as FAQs, live chat, and user forums? Once communication is initiated by a visitor, response time becomes an additional indicator of the value a company places on its customers (and no response at all will likely result in no sale). Is the company’s response to your question relevant and complete? Does the response include a ‘personal touch’ such as a real person’s name and email address? And what is the tone used by the respondent?
Post-purchase interactions include how the order is processed, how it’s fulfilled, and how any issues are handled. Once a purchase is complete, are customers able to manage and track the progress of their order? Seeing an order progress through the various checkpoints helps consumers feel confident in the vendor. Fulfillment refers to the delivery of the product. Was it delivered on time? How about the package’s condition and presentation? The correctness and completeness of the order is critical, and the amount charged by the company should be identical to the original amount specified on the Web site. And finally, the company’s method of handling returns and customer service inquiries is crucial to the maintenance of trust and development of the customer relationship.
Part II: Applying trust-building theory to your Web property
If the list of trust cues and considerations seems daunting, it should. Trust is not something you achieve quickly or easily or with a single headline on your home page. No, trust is built over time and across multiple interactions, and it should be treated as a fragile commodity. From what people read about your organization on the social Web, through their first exposure to your site, and on to completing a purchase and experiencing the quality of your company’s customer support, there are dozens of opportunities to build or erode trust… so let’s explore some examples in the next post.
Hands down, the topic of persuasion architecture in online catalogs is… my favorite. It’s pretty fascinating to think that you can design information/content in a high-stimuli page to persuade more users to click on products that are actually better suited for them. What’s even more fascinating is that so few companies actually seem to be designing their catalogues with even basic persuasion principles in mind.
Here are a few examples of what seem to be haphazardly organized default product catalog pages — with complete apologies if I’ve dissed your catalog design (please comment to tell me how wrong I am! ).
Each of these 3 catalogs presents a lot of information for the user to sort through. That’s asking the user to do work. Not good.
To give the above page designs the benefit of the doubt, could we assume that these etailers are simply counting on users to use their sorting capabilities to create for themselves a better shopping experience on the catalog? — and that’s why they’ve done very little with the default catalog? Even if that is the case, the question still remains as to why the default catalog is not organized in a meaningful, persuasive way, given that users will spend time on it before sorting.
So, what can make a catalog page more persuasive? And what might a more persuasively architected catalog page look like? Let’s discuss.
Persuasion Architecture’s Low-Hanging Fruit: Context Effect
It’s been argued that consumers make decisions based on one of two desires:
1. To make an accurate choice (i.e., “which product is absolutely right for my needs?”)
2. To minimize effort (i.e., “which product can I acquire without having to think about it?”)
It’s ideal to exert as little effort as possible to make the most accurate choice for you. Users online want that — especially, research has shown, when they’re shopping for utility rather than for pleasure. Consumers have well-developed methods of trying to make sense of a lot of information — one of those methods is leveraging social proof, and another is choice simplification via relational comparisons.
All summed up, it’s called the Context Effect. And it can be your closest ally in designing a catalog page. Why, you ask?
Well, in 1992, Simonson and Tversky showed that consumers determine the value of an option by focusing on it in relation to other items in a “choice set” (or a grouping of items). Context Effect shows that, in decision-making environments, consumers make relational comparisons between options. They scan the information they see to start comparing and making sense of everything. They look at the bullet points of a product description and begin making trade-offs between the one list of bullet points and another list on the page. Rather than standing back and looking at the environment and its information from a ‘global’ perspective, consumers go local — they focus in on certain product attributes in relation to the attributes of another product and make decisions accordingly.
This information is a bit different from a persistent assumption that people look at objective facts in making ‘rational’ purchasing decisions.
Case in point: Buying insoles is a decidedly non-emotional purchasing decision, but do you think you’d be able to look at the insole catalog above and not start sorting the information by eliminating certain items and contrasting others? How else would you make sense of it all?
So the point is that consumers make relational comparisons between options rather than making absolute assessments. What can we, as catalog designers, do with that?
Applying Context Effect to the BestBuy.ca Catalog Page
If people need choice sets to begin making better relational comparisons, let’s give those sets to them. To develop choice sets, just begin by looking at the products in your catalog to see which are most similar; the ones that have the most in common become natural choice sets because they may make it easier for users to compare.
The goal is to help users compare and, if possible, to make the best products actually look like the best products by showing that, compared to other products, they’re just numero uno.
Now here’s an example of a default catalog page that feels like it could benefit from the Context Effect.
Generally speaking, “BestBuy.ca B” lines up all camera images, product names, prices, savings/discounts and feature lists to facilitate ease of comparisons in choice sets. It also creates choice sets by grouping similar cameras to help users who are looking for a certain camera attribute or shopping with a budget in mind to easily find the cameras they want and eliminate the ones they don’t. Finally, the use of whitespace on the $1199 camera shows its lack of similarity to or relationship with the two ‘colour’ camera options, which can work to either eliminate it as an option for people who don’t have a $1200 budget OR to eliminate the two colour camera options for those who have a bigger budget.
Nothing has changed except the grouping of the choice sets and the lining up of names, etc.
In this example, there’s of course still some room to improve. For example, the huge savings on the $599 camera could absolutely be called out to persuade users; this is also an opportunity to contrast the $599 with the $1199 for those who might’ve been shopping with a $750+ budget. Another option is to pull the megapixels out into bullets so those can be better, more quickly compared.
What You Can Do with the Context Effect
Context Effect helps users make sense of all the information you’d like to present to them… information that is otherwise overwhelming. All you need to do is sit down with your catalog, your product managers and your marketing team to figure out which products to group into choice sets and what attributes you’d like to line up to facilitate relational comparisons. And, by all means, test your newly architected catalog against the old one to see if Context Effect affects your users.
Dhar, R., Nowlis, S., & Sherman, S. (2000, September). Trying hard or hardly trying: An analysis of context effects in choice. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 9(4), 189-200. Retrieved June 12, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.
Here’s a persuasion don’t: Don’t interrupt people when they’re trying to buy your products. It’s like you’ve got a cookie in your hand, it’s nearing your mouth… and someone bumps your hand. Even if you don’t drop the cookie, it’s still kind of frustrating.
Or how about this? You’re on a website. You’ve added to your cart the products you’re willing to pay your hard-earned money for. You’re ready to checkout…. And suddenly you’re confronted with a cross-sell page that’s keeping you from buying your products and getting on with your life.
If you’ve been in this situation and had a less-than-great response to the interruption, congratulations! You’re human! And as a human, you’re evolved to avoid delays in consumption of any kind. It’s part of foraging theory, a model within the behavioral ecology of consumption… and it’s what we’re talking about today.
Yes, Consumers Are Foragers
Even the most ‘civilized’ among us can’t train out the evolved behaviors of our ancestors. Human consumption, according to some theorists (e.g., Hantula, Brockman & Smith, 2008), is a bio-behavioral phenomenon where behavioral adaptations from ancestral environments impact decision-making. That means that what you consume has more to do with built-in decision-making processes than you might’ve expected.
The idea calls on foraging processes of ancient times, wherein hunters/gatherers sought out often-scarce food — and the scarcity of the food made acquisition of it (and eventual consumption) highly competitive and valued. Foraging theory is what makes us want stuff now… and it applies to online consumers.
People who shop online experience the same major phases of foraging our ancestors did:
Handling – or the period that begins with an item sitting in your cart and end with that item being delivered to you (via mail or download) — is the period during which interruption most frequently happens. Items that have a longer handling time are less preferable than items that can be consumed with little delay.
Enter Interstitial Upsell Pages (i.e., Interrupters), the Bain of the Forager’s Existence
I’ve been in marketing for years. So, I mean, trust me, I get the importance of cross-selling — and I know how powerful tools like recommender agents can be in getting people to add more products to their carts. I like higher conversions!
But I don’t like interruptions.
And marketers know that people don’t want to wait in line at retail or experience page load delays on e-commerce sites… so why the helsinki are e-marketers adding these interstitial upsell pages in to the shopping flow? Here are two experiences I had recently.).
Did I love being interrupted in these two separate product acquisition (i.e., handling) processes? Well, I didn’t abandon, at least… but I do remember not liking the experience — feeling disengaged and sold to. That was my personal experience.
The first real question is, Does extending the handling period and delaying consumption cause users to abandon their carts? Not necessarily, according to Jason Goldberg. In fact, interstitials have shown great results for many e-tailers… and they must be working a bit, or test-savvy sites like QuickBooks.com wouldn’t be using them.
The second and more interesting (to me) question is, Are the interrupters themselves persuasive? Do they actually help rather than hinder? Is it an interrupter that increases sales… or the entire concept of cross-selling? Can you achieve the same results you might achieve with interrupters by using a less-interruptive technique than an interstitial upsell page?
Trigger Their ‘Rapid Forager’ Response
Whether you use interrupters or not, it’s clear that people care about delays. That means there’s an opportunity to remove possible barriers to purchase for your users: tell users how far they are from getting their hands on the products they’re ordering on your site. Throughout the conversion funnel, try messaging any of the following that apply to you:
- How many days it takes to ship a product within an area
- How long it will take to download software from the site
- How quickly users can expect to receive free whitepapers in their email inboxes
- How long it takes to get a refund
- How many hours it takes to receive a response from the technical support team
By eliminating barriers re: delays, you move your users closer to a place where you can persuade them to purchase your product.
Read more about foraging theory and consumer decision-making:
Delay-reduction effects on foraging in Internet malls
Consumption based on social psychological and marketing models
Saad’s evolutionary bases of consumption
What do you do when somebody you just recently met gives you a birthday or Christmas present?
What happens after your neighbours invite you over for dinner? Or after a friend buys you a drink at a bar?
How do you respond when a co-worker gives you a recommendation on LinkedIn or Naymz?
And then there’s Twitter. What do you do when someone decides to follow your tweets?
If you’re a typical, well-mannered and considerate human being, you reciprocate.
Turns out, reciprocity is one of the most powerful principles of persuasion, spanning demographic, socio-economic, geographical, and cultural boundaries. Sociologist Alvin Gouldner says that there is no human society on Earth that does not follow the ‘rule of reciprocity’.
This rule states that we are all bound — even driven — to repay debts of all kinds. Someone does something for you… then you feel obligated to repay. It’s an almost automatic reaction.
Reciprocity is at work in all the above examples. When one person does something for another, that other person senses that a debt is owed and is compelled to repay.
An example of this principle at work (from some years ago) is the Hare Krishna technique of giving travelers at airports a flower. The Krishna disciple would say that the flower was a gift. Then when the gift was accepted, the disciple would ask for a donation. With a pretty flower in hand, it was hard to then refuse a smiling request for a small donation. And those little flowers and small donations added up nicely, helping to build a multibillion dollar religious empire that spans the globe.
Another example comes from the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). For years, the DAV sent a basic form letter to potential donors, asking for their support. With that basic letter, the DAV had enjoyed an 18 percent response rate. But the DAV hoped for better. Using the principle of reciprocity, the charity made a brilliant strategic decision. One year, instead of sending the form letter alone, the DAV also included in their donor package a small gift: personalized address labels. As a result, the response rate jumped to 35 percent.
Applying reciprocity to high tech
If you’ve looked for free anti-virus software or free online financial products lately, chances are you’ve had decent success. It’s not difficult to understand why people seek free applications, but what motivates companies to offer products that generate no direct revenue? Are they consciously applying the reciprocity principle to their business?
[Note: I’m treating free software differently than free trials. Free trials enable site visitors to try before buying, but software developers are counting on the fact that when the trial period ends, people will pay for the privilege to continue to use the product. The quality and usefulness of the product may persuade users to pull out their wallets, but this is not really the reciprocity principle at work. I’ll save that for a different discussion.]
Let’s take a look at some of the leaders in the anti-virus and online financial product businesses to get a better sense of their free offerings – and whether or not the principle of reciprocity is being used:
AVG offers a free product as well as trial and paid versions of their popular software. According to their site, more than 80 million people use the AVG Free Edition, which is offered at no charge for non-commercial use. It appears as though AVG’s strategy is to drive traffic to their site with a free offering and highlight its limited feature set – in the hope of immediately upselling visitors to the paid products. If visitors choose to proceed with downloading the Free Edition, we would expect some percentage of users to upgrade eventually. Neither of these ‘techniques’ are great examples of reciprocity. Remember, reciprocity is about creating an urge in people to repay a favour in kind or remove a feeling of obligation.
Quicken Online is free personal financial software offered by Intuit, the makers of TurboTax and QuickBooks (and also my employer). There are no strings attached and no paid versions. So what’s the catch? Although I am not involved in the Quicken Online business at Intuit, it’s safe to say that Quicken sees adoption of its free product as a way to bring people into Intuit’s family of products. By offering a great user experience at no charge, it’s certainly possible that people will feel a sense of obligation to at least explore (and possibly pay for) other Intuit products when presented with an appropriate offer at the right time.
FreshBooks is a Canadian start-up that offers online billing and invoicing services to freelancers and small businesses. There are five fee-based monthly subscriptions and one free plan. If you have fewer than four customers (as a small business), the free plan will accomplish all your needs, but as your customer base expands, you’ll require the paid plans. So there is no need for FreshBooks to upsell customers because the adoption of paid products should happen organically. Even so, there is an element of reciprocity at work on FreshBooks. The company explicitly requests that you share your experience with friends (and other small businesses) if you like their product. And if a great experience is offered for free, it’s likely that many people will follow through.
Mint.com offers free personal financial management software on the Web. Positive reviews by the media and consumer word-of-mouth have generated double-digit growth rates since its launch. With a completely free product, how does the company make money? Well, once you set up an account, Mint assesses your financial picture and presents you with offers from participating financial institutions:
“We give you personalized ideas on how to save money by presenting the greatest savings from among thousands of financial products. If you decide to make a change that saves you some cash, we sometimes earn a small fee from the bank or company you switch to. You save a lot; we make a little.”
So Mint has attempted to create a user experience that keeps you coming back. And with each visit, they have an opportunity to present you with another offer. Now it’s unlikely that you’re going to blindly accept a savings account, credit card, or loan offer because you feel obligated to the provider of free online software (i.e., a person’s decision to accept is likely going to be based on the quality of the offer), but the reciprocity principle suggests that you’re more open to receiving offers. It’s a favour (being open to Mint’s offers) for a favour (free useful software).
If the Mint.com example seems like a plausible example of reciprocity, then could reciprocity also be a factor in Google’s success? Sure, Google has created a search engine based on ease, speed, and relevance, but it’s also counting on search users clicking on paid advertisements to generate revenue. It’s clear that people will continue to use Google because of its user experience, but I’d like to suggest that users are also open to being presented with and reading paid ads due to reciprocity. Google provides a great online experience at no charge, and people are happy to reciprocate by looking at marketing messages.
If you want to make the principle of reciprocity work for your business, remember to give first. And whether you choose to give away your time, valuable advice, a whitepaper, or free software, the potential to persuade increases just the same. To improve your chances to convert, create a sense of obligation in your customers’ minds and don’t be afraid to ask for something in return.
Sites need to be usable. Who could possibly argue that they don’t need to be? Jakob Nielsen‘s done a great job of teaching us all that useful tidbit. …But what if you could take a really usable site like this:
And merge it with a fun, playful site… like this?
You might get something like this:
Today, we’re talking about making usable sites playful in order to persuade users to move through your site, return to your site and, if you’re selling stuff on it, buy products or services on your site. We’re talking about the power of play (or what some call user engagement).
Play: A Key Part of User Engagement (Along with Flow, Aesthetics and Interaction)
If you work on the web, you already know about the importance of sorting out a user flow and crafting stories through interaction design. Not to mention the importance of aesthetics. These three elements help to create user engagement… But have you given much thought to play, the fourth element of engagement (O’Brien & Toms, 2008)?
In 1967, William Stephenson developed the Play Theory of Mass Communication. This theory takes shape around the concept of communication-pleasure, which posits that play can be the sole purpose of a user — that play for the user need not lead to any concrete outcome. Playing is enough. Playing is pleasurable. (I mean, who hasn’t been distracted from a work task by something fun?)
But is the idea of visitors playing on your site and buying nothing good enough for you? No, probably not. That’s why it might interest you to know that play leads to happier users who are more willing to stay on your site and return later.
For example, research on affect in online shopping (e.g., Nahl & Bilal, 2007; Arnold & Reynolds, 2003) allows us to extrapolate that engaging users in playful e-commerce experiences increases pleasure, which renders users more likely to return to a website. Atkinson and Kydd (in 1997) wrote about the role of play in decision-making on the web, where play is associated with increased satisfaction with using a web system and is attributed to increased motivation and affect for users.
So let’s say you want to apply the very broad concept of ‘play’ to your site. Is a playful site just a good-looking site? Is it just an easy-to-navigate site? Do you basically need fun little icons to engage users via play? All legit questions… and the following checklist should help when you test the value of play on your own site.
Checklist of 10 Common Play Characteristics:
- Stimulates or challenges the mind/imagination
- Is totally easy to use, with big bold targets and larger fonts in a range of styles
- You can navigate it without any triangulation techniques
- Makes the user feel like they’re in full control
- Includes novel elements — cool features users didn’t expect and maybe haven’t seen before
- Has great aesthetic appeal, whether it’s an uber-clean interface or something reminiscent of the Ringling Brothers
- Creates a feedback loop with the user
- Lives and breathes variety
- Offers a high level of interactivity
- Creates sensory appeal with a range of multimedia (e.g., text, graphics, sound)
The more of the characteristics your site offers, the more playful — and, in turn, engaging — it will be for users. And when you keep users happy and on your site longer, you have a much better chance of them noticing one or two of your persuasive messages and converting.
Here are a few examples of (what could’ve been ‘serious’) websites that encourage play while remaining largely usable by incorporating some of the above play characteristics.
And if all else fails and you just can’t see the point in play, remember this: If it’s good enough for Porsche, it’s good enough for you.
Behavioural researchers consistently find that we are inclined to respond positively to people whom we like. That means we buy from those we like, we accept their proposals, we comply with their requests, and we refer business to them.
This is the likeability principle of persuasion: People are more likely to say ‘yes’ to people they like.
This principle is very simple, and it’s good news to people who are naturally charismatic. But what about the rest of us? What can we do to use the principle of likeability to achieve positive results?
Sorry, but you won’t find the answer to that question in this post – since we’re focusing here on selling products or services on the Web. Charismatic is not really a term I’ve yet heard applied to a Web site. Anyway…
There are various elements of likeability, some of which you may have already heard. For example, we like people who are similar or have similar interests to us. Or the even more widely-known concept that people like genuine compliments. These two elements of likeability may be highly effective in face-to-face situations – such as sales calls or negotiations – but it’s difficult to translate them to a one-way medium such as the Web.
However, another element of likeability is transparency – or in the case of the companies I’m about to discuss – being completely open and honest with your customers about what your product won’t do, as well as what it will do. How many companies do you see marketing where their product falls short, or where their competition may offer more? The list is likely very short. But it is the potential risks of being completely transparent that end up endearing customers to the businesses that are courageous enough to use this approach.
First, let me give you a few examples of how this has worked offline over the years. These are all examples of companies who have embraced their weaknesses and turned them into brand- and business-building strengths.
The Volkswagen Beetle has arguably become one of the world’s most beloved automobiles. But the North American advertising campaign that vaulted the ‘quirky’, relatively fuel efficient novelty vehicle (back the late 1950s) into a popular status symbol did not focus on the Beetle’s strengths. No, the firm Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach touted the German car’s weaknesses. Surprisingly, “Ugly is only skin deep” and “It will stay uglier longer” were some of the slogans used in the campaign.
It turns out that arguing against your own self-interest, which can include a drawback of your product, creates the perception that you and your organization are honest and trustworthy. And this in turn puts you in a position to be more persuasive when promoting your product’s genuine strengths.
In Volkswagen’s case, the Beetle wouldn’t win any beauty contests – at least not relative to the more mainstream designs of the time by the Big Three US automakers – but its strengths were durability, fuel economy, and price, which are ultimately what helped sell the Beetle to Americans.
Avis took advantage of this same principle in its memorable motto: “Avis. We’re #2, but we try harder (When you’re not #1 you have to.)” Other examples include “Listerine: The taste you hate three times a day,” “L’Oreal: We’re more expensive, but you’re worth it,” and “Buckley’s: It tastes awful. And it works.” This approach has worked for more than just a few companies.
Applications of Transparency on the Web
Progressive was the first major insurance company in the world to launch a Web site in 1995. One year later, car owners could use the Progressive Web site not only to learn about Progressive’s rates, but also to learn about the rates offered by Progressive’s major competitors. And while Progressive may beat the competition in most cases, it is not always the case.
Has it worked? The company’s enormous growth since it implemented this innovation – an average of 17 percent a year, with annual premiums growing from $3.4 to more than $12 billion – suggest that it’s quite effective at turning potential customers from Web browsers into Web buyers.
A little more than a year ago, [very] shortly after the original launch of Kindle, Amazon sold out of product. Instead of letting site visitors spend time moving from home page to product page and through the cart and checkout before discovering what would surely be a frustrating out-of-stock notification, Jeff Bezos posted an explanation and apology on Amazon’s home page:
How many other online retailers post out-of-stock notifications for their most popular products on their most popular (i.e., home) pages? It’s uncommon because it’s likely viewed as a risky decision. After all, you may be able to get a visitor to ‘invest’ in filling out your checkout forms before notifying them of the fulfillment delay and still have them complete their order – despite the delay. On the flip side, however, how do you think the abandoners would feel about your organization after spending that time unnecessarily completing forms only to experience the let down of an unavailable product?
For something a little closer to home (for me)… here is an example of transparency that we (Intuit Global Business Division, my employer) experienced during the busy Canadian tax season.
The QuickTax.ca home design that was live between January and March attempted to channel site visitors into our online tax preparation products by providing multiple ‘Try it free’ buttons that led to QuickTax Online. We didn’t make it easy enough for visitors to locate our CD and downloadable tax products, and as a result, many visitors ended up in our online application (when what they really wanted was our desktop software):
While the business would love Web site visitors to adopt our online tax applications, this lack of transparency and clarity around the products we offer manifested itself as a lower-than-expected conversion rate for our desktop software customers. The solution involved a redesign that clearly laid out our two types of consumer tax software – giving equal weight and prominence to both CDs/downloads and the online application:
The revised home page enables visitors to make a well-informed decision instead of pushing them toward an online product that may or may not actually meet their needs. If anything, we should have used persuasion principles to compel people to try the online tax product – instead of ‘hiding’ the desktop option from site visitors.
So in your next series of A/B or multivariate tests, consider using the likeability principle and mention a weakness (or two) of your product – right up front – to help earn your site visitors’ trust. We believe it’ll be that much easier to convince them that the truly superior features of your product really do surpass the competition in those areas. Or at a minimum, be sure to reveal pertinent details such as dropped products, out-of-stock items, and price changes to your prospective and existing customers to show them that you have their best interests at heart. It’ll pay off in the long run.
Risk and ambiguity impact how and whether people make decisions. Research (e.g., Brand, Labudda, & Markowitsch, 2006; Qi, 2006) has shown that, in risky situations, people make decisions much differently than in ambiguous situations. Very interestingly, Qi has shown that when consumers are given the choice between making a decision based on risk or based on ambiguity of information, consumers will choose risk over ambiguity.
So here’s what we know and will look at today:
1. When faced with a risky decision or an ambiguous decision, consumers choose risk.
2. When coping with making a risky decision, consumers require more proof about a product/service to help make a decision than in non-risky situations.
Ambiguity vs Risk: The “Ugly Mug” Principle on Dating Sites
So you’re on a dating site, and you’re sorting through a big ol’ result list of potential matches. That’s a lot of info to process when making a decision. And, of course, you want to make the right decision.
When in the presence of multiple stimuli and when you’ve got your romantic future on the line, which options do you immediately eliminate? …Did I hear “the ones without photos”?
Why do you eliminate the photo-less results? Because they’re ambiguous options. Because no photo means that the match is so unfortunate-looking (read: risky!) that they can’t even compare to the worst of the worst on a dating site. It is in the interest of avoiding ambiguity that most result lists on dating sites are chock full o’ photos today… even though it seems that a lot of online daters aren’t that photogenic.
What you’re witnessing is The Ugly Mug Principle. Even if you’re not the hottest guy, you’ll still have a better chance of a woman checking you out if you show a photo of your ‘ugly mug’ than no photo at all. Why? Because when faced with a risky decision or an ambiguous decision, consumers choose risk.
THE UGLY MUG PRINCIPLE :
Show your product’s flaws instead of glossing over the issue or pretending it’s not there.
So you’ve reduced ambiguity by showing your mug… but you’ve also increased risk by showing that you ain’t that pretty. Now what? How do you minimize risk to persuade users to click to learn more about you? How do you persuade a potential match that, okay, sure, you kinda look like Elvis Costello without the talent, but you really are a pediatric surgeon who spends the weekends taking his nieces to ballet class? The fact is that if you’ve heightened risk (i.e., risk in partnering with you), so you need to minimize or neutralize it in one of 2 ways:
1. Simple solution: You prove that, in spite of your shortcomings, you’re not a risk. With photos of you in the O.R. With photos of you watching your nieces dance in The Nutcracker.
2. Better solution: You get others to prove it for you. This is where sites like eHarmony, Match.com and PlentyOfFish have room to grow by adding in reputation management tools or links to recommendations on LinkedIn, Naymz, etc.
Why? Because when dealing with risk, consumers require more proof of the worth of a product than in non-risky situations.
The Less Obvious Ambiguity-vs-Risk Example: Shipping Costs
Okay, so we have yet to encounter an online shopper who isn’t interested in knowing shipping costs early on… yet only the big-time e-commerce sites seem to do this well. (Probably because the eStores most companies run have ridunculously high shipping costs.)
When you’re telling users about shipping costs, you need to place those messages strategically. The point in the conversion funnel at which you reduce ambiguity around shipping costs will impact how much further a user goes down the funnel.
So you can show on your home page that you charge $25 to ship. Or you can show it on a product detail page. Or you can show it in the cart. Or the catalog. It’s definitely worth a test on your site to see the impact of shipping messaging in various places in the conversion funnel.
Let’s look to some random examples quickly to see who’s doing what where.
Sites that remove ambiguity in shipping costs on the home page:
Sites that remove ambiguity in shipping costs on the product detail page:
Sites that remove ambiguity in shipping costs in the cart:
Sites that HIDE shipping costs (e.g., in lightboxes on product details or in carts):
We’ve seen that even the highest-converting sites position their shipping costs in differing places, and that those etailers with a better shipping story to tell (e.g., low-cost, flat-rate, free) tend to place those shipping messages earlier in the conversion funnel.
If you want to avoid putting your users in a situation where they have to choose between ordering on your ambiguous eStore or on the very unambiguous Amazon.com, it might not hurt to start by reconsidering where your shipping cost messaging is positioned. Even if it appears to present a risk for users. Just mitigate that risk with high-quality value prop messaging…
…and, as we always advocate, test it.
Have you heard? America’s obese. A search on NYTimes.com for “obesity” returns over 10,000 results of articles & multimedia distributed online in the past 30 days alone. Morgan Spurlock marketed the documentary Super Size Me on the back of popular media on obesity. Basically, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t have an opinion on weight gain in America — whether they’re overweight or not… or American or not.
Telling people that they’re overweight and that everyone around them is overweight is a great way to get people to believe that they’re overweight and that everyone around them is overweight. There’s a lot of persuasive power in repetition.
So how intimidating is it for consumers who are ready to diet to actually get started, with that prevailing rhetoric of obesity creating some seriously negative anticipation? And the bigger question, for these 30 Days of Persuasion: How does anticipation of an outcome affect consumer decision-making?
Anticipation: Shaping Fantasies for Consumers
Brian Knutson out of Stanford explores the concept of “anticipatory affect”, or the emotional states people experience when expecting big outcomes, in his work in the area of neuroeconomics and antecedents of decision-making. Using fMRIs, Knutson has shown that, seconds before
a consumer makes a choice, they experience changes in neural activity. His work is part of a growing body that suggests that consumer decision-making is not always based on information about a product that the consumer has previously encountered or that the consumer ascertains at the moment of first impression with a product. Sometimes, anticipation of a purchase (or, better, the exchange of money to gain an item of desire) plays a significant role in consumer decision-making.
Knutson tells us what happens before a consumer even approaches a decision-making environment.
Then there’s what happens when the consumer’s in the decision-making environment and begins to anticipate future use of the product or service under consideration. That’s where these ideas come in to play:
- Jackie Snell and Brian Gibbs have introduced the concept of intuitive hedonistics, or common-sense decision-making based on anticipation of pleasure
- Michel Tuan Pham referred to affect recruitment heuristic, or decision-making that involves picturing oneself doing something with a purchased item, feeling a certain way (i.e., experiencing affect) about that image, and using that affect to make a purchasing decision
- Diane Phillips, Jerry Olson, and Hans Baumgartner called the process of imaging oneself using a product a consumption vision
What can we take away from these researchers’ work? Well, that research today is clearly showing that consumers:
a) may start the decision-making process before arriving at your website
b) do have emotional responses that affect purchasing decisions… but there’s much more to the popular notion that emotion influences decisions than meets the eye
Making the Most of Anticipation: WeightWatchers.com
Dieters hate dieting and fall off the bandwagon ALL the time. So when a dieter considers really buckling down and learning how to have a healthy diet — that is, when a dieter’s ready to go to WeightWatchers.com — anticipation has not only set in but has likely taken over a good part of their experience with the site. And they haven’t even arrived on the site yet!
WeightWatchers.com needs to both overcome negative anticipation of the dieting experience and exaggerate the positive consumption visions for dieters moving towards their goal weights.
The good folks over at WeightWatchers.com address negative anticipation (a barrier) throughout their site. They use great messaging to break down barriers, especially in “How Weight Watchers Works”, the first tab in their global nav:
WeightWatchers.com also makes it easy for people who are crippled by previous failures in weight-loss or those who just don’t think they quite need to start a proper dieting regime with Weight Watchers to back out without feeling guilty about it.
Is it powerful to hear that you don’t have to lose all that weight quite yet? Is it reassuring to know that you might not be ready to start the diet yet… and that that’s okay?
When consumers have decided that they’re ready to start losing weight — that is, when they’re engaging in consumption visions — it’s the job of WeightWatchers.com to leverage that opportunity in order to persuade them to sign up.
What might consumption visions look like? I’m guessing here, but let’s say it begins at fitting into old favorite jeans and ends at Valerie Bertinelli in a bathing suit. A dieting consumer likely imagines herself turning a few heads. That’s the excitement. That’s the motivation to proceed.
Does WeightWatchers.com play into consumption visions to persuade users to become members? The “Success Stories” section seems to try by showing video-stories of Weight Watchers members who’ve lost weight and kept it off.
What’s interesting is that WeightWatchers.com has gone decidedly… neutral in their success stories. Sure, the stories are good… but are the people actually people that consumers envision themselves resembling after months of saying no to dessert?
It’s clear that WeightWatchers.com was going for a “real people” vibe here, likely to make their stories seem more credible. Gotcha. But, for us, WeightWatchers.com fails to balance the credibility element with persuasive consumption visions that conjure up actual affect. This is a point of opportunity for a site that otherwise does a great job with anticipation. Maybe it’s time to test it, WeightWatchers.com?
Remember: There’s Good Anticipation… and There’s Bad Anticipation
“Anticipation” doesn’t always mean “looking forward to” or “hoping for” something. Sometimes anticipation looks like dread (“I really don’t wanna stop eating fries and gravy!”) or impatience (“I know this is gonna hurt — let’s just get it over with”). Is dread or impatience a potential barrier to sign-up for your consumers? How is your site mitigating negative consumer anticipation?
One day sale!
Limited time offer!
These deals won’t last!
We’ve seen messages like these our entire lives. There is a well-known persuasion principle at work here and marketers have been using it to sell product and services forever. It’s the principle of scarcity.
What is scarcity?
According to Wikipedia, scarcity is “the problem of infinite human needs and wants, in a world of finite resources.” What a great definition!
How does it persuade?
In a nutshell: You want now what you may not be able to get in the future.
We find things that are scarce desirable. If something is difficult to obtain, then getting it demonstrates to ourselves and others that we are in control of our environment. If a person or company comes along and threatens to take away that which we desire or somehow limit its supply, it triggers our primal need to remain in control – and not be controlled.
If you can control supply, then you have a significant lever on demand – and you can artificially create scarcity. The De Beers Company buys huge quantities of diamonds on the world market, simply to keep them scarce so that their high price is maintained. OPEC works in a similar way.
A study conducted by Zhang, Ying, Fishbach, and Ayelet in 2005 supports this, concluding that “individuals evaluate losses more extremely than gains of similar size”.
Think about the gasoline shortage in the early 70s. Or consider what happens with dwindling water supplies during a drought or emergency. Gas and water are considered essential to survival (well, sadly, gas is considered essential in North America) so people line up at the mere mention of a shortage and can actually fuel a downward spiral. But the same principle holds true for ordinary, everyday items as well as for luxury items.
For example… people flock to see a heavily censored film. Music that is banned on radio stations typically shoots up the charts. ‘Bad boys’ are often desirable to young women if for no other reason than prior admonishment from trying-to-do-right parents; rebellion is definitely connected to scarcity (i.e., trying to have what you are told you cannot or should not have).
The same holds true for banned substances. When we realize that we do not have something, we desire it. But when someone or some agency bans that ‘something’, it only makes things worse. Interestingly, when ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was first published it was banned. Apparently many black market copies were sold and it made the author, D.H. Lawrence, famous.
And in the more recent past, do you remember the insanity surrounding these popular – and heavily advertised – Christmas gifts? The Pet Rock (1975), Star Wars toys (1978), Rubik’s Cube (1982), Cabbage Patch Dolls (1983), Tamagotchi (1996), Furby (1998) and the Nintendo Wii (2006) are all examples of scarcity being applied during the holiday season: People were actually injured in the stampedes to obtain commercial items in limited supply.
Now if something is not scarce, then it is not desired or valued as much. Praise from a teacher who seldom praises is valued more than praise from a teacher who is liberal with his or her praise. And if everything is scarce, then scarcity itself lacks value and people become too used to it. Studies of retail sales have shown that if more than about 30% of goods have ‘sale’ sticker on them, the effectiveness of this method decreases. How persuaded are you by furniture stores that advertise weekly blowout sales?
Scarcity on the Web
How are companies applying the scarcity principle on the Web?
Going once, going twice, sold! eBay is an entire business built on this principle, combining limited supply and a highest bidder pricing model to create a massive marketplace fuelled by scarcity – which ends up being highly persuasive (and addictive!). The study by Zhang, Ying, Fishbach, and Ayelet refers to this principle (as it applies to buyers and sellers) as the “endowment effect,” which is defined as “the gap between the price buyers are willing to pay in order to acquire an object and the price that sellers would demand in order to part with this object.”
Gone in a flash! Scarcity is also applied as a persuasion technique by online apparel and fashion retailers — using a concept called “flash sales” — where goods are offered at sizable discounts for a limited period. Take a look at the following examples from Outnet.com and GiltGroupe.com:
Deals are flying out the door! We’re also seeing the scarcity principle applied by travel aggregators and airline sites. What could be more persuasive than learning there are only 2 seats available at the sale price?
Here are some ideas and things to remember when you’re trying to generate the same persuasive effect on your own site:
Strictly limit the amount of product you’re selling in a promotion. Display the quantity right up front in the headline where every visitor can see it — and strictly adhere to your statement.
Create time-sensitive deadlines that actually expire. Set a date for the promotion to end and offer a special discount on the product if purchased before that time — and don’t be tempted to extend the closing date. Credibility is the key to generating scarcity.
Try providing special ‘insider access’ passes or memberships to the first X number of respondents — or if your visitors order before a deadline. You increase value and evoke quicker responses by limiting the number of memberships available.
Offer forward-dated discount vouchers for future product releases. For example, “Buy our amazing software this week at $199 and you’ll automatically receive our next release with 12 additional features at just $99.”
Display dramatic ‘visual countdowns’ to increase the sense of scarcity and amplify your visitors’ urge to purchase.
Hopefully this sprinkling of scarcity mechanisms will inspire you to employ them in your own headlines and throughout your Web copy. If you state simply and clearly that a genuinely scarce commodity is available to a hungry target market (who you know want what you have!), and you can make it disappear before their eyes, people won’t stop reading. In the end, if you’ve done it correctly, they’ll place the order.
When I buy shoes, I think about the outfits I’ll wear them with. When I buy an outfit, I think about what shoes will go with it. In fact, nearly every time I see an outfit I like on a mannequin, I look to see if they’ve paired it up with shoes… just to get an idea as to what I should buy.
(Bear with me, non-shoppers. I’m going somewhere here.)
Traditional print catalogues have been great for showing shoppers the whole ensemble. Sears comes to mind immediately. And even J. Crew, which sells shoes, accessories, and clothing, has recently started selling Timex watches in their print catalogues — assumedly because people like to buy coordinating pieces and feel confident that they’ll look stylish… even if style doesn’t come naturally.
Maybe that’s why Anthropologie.com has a “Buy This Outfit” function on their site. Because there are a lot of moving pieces to creating an outfit, and it can be hard for one person to determine which pieces go best with which others. Stimuli overload!
Welcome to the World of Recommender Agents
What happens to online shoppers when they’re faced with lots of information? Huang, Chung, and Chen (2003), referencing other studies and their own, argued that information overload online creates enormous challenges for customers during decision-making… and that intelligent recommender agents can help customers overcome those challenges.
Recommendation systems assess what a customer is currently viewing online or has purchased in the past and work a little behind-the-scenes magic to recommend additional purchases to them.
What exactly is that “magic”? Well, intelligent recommenders use knowledge engineering, collaborative filtering, content, or a hybrid of those approaches to make recommendations (Huang et al., 2003) and depend on “machine learning” as well. Most commonly, intelligent recommenders will use association data mining (Huang et al., 2003), or data from other customers, to recommend products/solutions, like Amazon does here:
Simpler recommenders may pull recommendations in from “neighborhoods” (Huang et al., 2003), which are basically pre-set categories of similar or complementary items to the one a user is viewing or has viewed. For example again, Amazon:
The goal of intelligent and simple recommenders is the same: To help users make more purchasing decisions more confidently on an e-commerce site.
Persuade them: People just like you buy products just like this
The beauty of recommenders is that they are one more tool to help time-harried shoppers, users overwhelmed by information, and users lacking the ability to judge the quality of a product make the decisions they want to make.
We know that, when abundant information hinders rational choice, the brain relies on social influence choice (Donadebian, 2006) to help us decide. Social influence choice or social proof, as we’ve seen already, is great for online decision-making. Recommenders are one more type of social proof… they’re just based on quantitative purchasing data rather than qualitative user assessments.
Who’s using recommenders to sell more product… and who’s not?
Well, Amazon’s obviously the king of recommenders, as shown in the screenshots above. But I’m not shopping on Amazon right now. No, right now, I want to buy a new pair of pumps… so I’m heading over to Piperlime.
For those who like to shop for clothes, Piperlime is great because it’s actually 5 sites in one: the Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Athleta and Piperlime. That means just one checkout process (one shipping fee, one account setup, one credit card entry) for a range of clothing shopping needs. We love it!
Given that there are so many outfit + shoe purchasing opportunities on Piperlime, we fully expected the site to have a recommender agent of some kind. Even a simple one. ‘Cos it’s a great cross-selling opportunity… and what marketer doesn’t love those words?
We arrived on the site. We found some great heels and, on the product detail page, all sorts of awesome social proof in the form of user ratings and reviews.
Then we added the shoes to our cart and expected to be met with “customers who bought these shoes also bought this bag” or “these shoes look great with this dress from Banana Republic”. …But we got nuthin’. No, we were sent directly into the cart to create an account… with nary a recommended cross-sell to bump up the average sale price.
This lack of recommender represents a persuasion opportunity for Piperlime, Gap, Old Navy, etc., which are already doing great things with social proof. User testing could help determine if recommenders would feel too salesy to users. And an A/B test could also help determine if recommenders on Piperlime lead to any sort of lift, especially today when some might argue that people lack the disposable income to even consider additional purchases.
Apparel etailers who ARE using recommenders, albeit very simple ones, include Bluefly…
and J Crew…
Those etailers — and others! — must hypothesize that recommenders help users… and the business. An A/B test could help reveal some insights there.
The truth is that recommenders do help users make more confident purchasing decisions. They also persuade users to buy items the might otherwise not have considered. All with the data you’ve probably already got. So use ‘em!
Donabedian, B. (2006, July). Optimization and its alternative in media choice: A model of reliance on social-influence processes. Information Society, 22(3), 121-135. Retrieved May 10, 2009, doi:10.1080/01972240600677771
Huang, Z., Wingyan Chung, B., & Chen, H. (2004, February). A Graph Model for E-Commerce Recommender Systems. Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 55(3), 259-274. Retrieved June 4, 2009, doi:10.1002/asi.10372
After writing countless blogs over the past seven years or so, we’ve finally decided to write one that is expressly dedicated to the topic that excites us most online: persuasion… specifically persuasion in e-commerce environments — primarily the Web but also emails/direct response, banner ads and even PPC ads & SEO metadata.
Thankfully, the Web seems to have made a real transition from the online brochures it used to be (not that long ago!) to sites that are increasingly concerned with users — their information needs, their engagement wants.
But there’s plenty of room to take e-commerce to the next level. Moving to persuasion. But remaining concerned with usability (yes, you’ll find some stuff on this blog about usability, too).
But let’s get right down to it. We’re kicking off this blog with what we’re oh-so-creatively calling the 30 Days of Persuasion. Here are some topics you can expect to read about on this very blog in this very month:
- How AbeBooks.com uses Chen’s (2007) social proof to help users narrow decisions
- The anticipation and endowment effects (Huang & Chen, 20066) on eBay
- Leveraging value to trigger dopamine on Zappos
- Your brain wants a bargain (Welberg, 2007)… and Bluefly knows it!
- Does an abundance of info on the iPhone App Store get in the way of online shoppers?
- Primacy in lists (Kim & Fesenmeier, 2008)! What Best Buy needs to know about sorting on their catalogs
- Time-harried shoppers: Designing websites for Satisficers vs. Maximizers
This is just a sample. We hope you’ll come back and check our posts our as we go….