Persuasive Web: Where Psychology Meets Conversion

DAY 26: Applying Persuasion Principles – 37signals

Posted in Uncategorized by persuasiveweb on June 26, 2009


37signals is a small, Chicago-based company which prides itself on simplicity and offers a well-honed suite of Web-based productivity and collaboration software. In their words, “Our products do less than the competition — intentionally.”

Their founders have made a few waves in the business and developer communities because they’ve been vocal about how:

  1. Companies shouldn’t always listen to their customers (especially when it comes to new feature requests);
  2. Businesses should focus on generating revenue with products that offer real value (versus trying to monetize ‘free’) and;
  3. Venture capital isn’t the optimal method of financing a new venture. 🙂

Several months ago I read their popular publication, “Getting Real” — which is about building a successful Web-based application and business — and thoroughly enjoyed the author’s honesty and openness about what has worked and hasn’t worked for 37signals, as well as his view on business and quality of life.

In addition to focusing on simplicity, it’s apparent that the folks at 37signals know a thing or two about persuasion, and specifically around the principles of social proof and contrast. In today’s post I’ll again use screenshots to highlight how this company is converting visitors into customers:








So there you have it.

37signals’ design team offers up some great examples of how to effectively weave social proof, authority, contrast, and credibility messaging throughout your site. While I question their choice to pack so much content into their home page, it wouldn’t hurt (even a little!) to emulate the company’s overall approach to persuasive design.



DAY 24: Applying Persuasion Principles –

Posted in Uncategorized by persuasiveweb on June 24, 2009


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, 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 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,, Lands’ End, and The second thing I noticed was how right Andrew was to point out 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 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 approaches this effective style of selling with integrity and a sincere focus on the customer.


DAY 22: Persuasion Before Usability?

Posted in Uncategorized by persuasiveweb on June 22, 2009


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.

lamborghiniIn 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_levelFunctional 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.

usability_levelUsable 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.

persuasive_levelOnce 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?


DAY 20: What’s the Magic Word? “Because…”

Posted in Uncategorized by persuasiveweb on June 20, 2009

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.

cialdiniOver 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.

waiting in line

Langer's study illustrates the persuasive power of 'because'

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.


DAY 16: Bloggers Persuade With Authority

Posted in Uncategorized by persuasiveweb on June 16, 2009


If a police officer stopped you in the street and told you to move because there was a parade about to begin, would you comply? What if a policeman said you matched the description of someone who was wanted for burglary, and that you should go with him to clear it up… would you go?

Most people in these situations obey without questioning. We see the uniform and never think to question the possibility that the policeman may not, in fact, be a policeman.

Then there is the story of the doctor who prescribed eardrops for a patient with an earache, but in his haste to attend to a more pressing emergency wrote on his pad, “Place in R ear” instead of “Place in right ear.” Guess where the patient received his eardrops? Obviously rectal treatment of an earache makes no sense at all, yet neither the patient nor the administering nurse questioned it. The fact that a legitimate authority gave the instructions completely clouded the common sense of another highly capable professional.

The dual effect of authority is that not only are we compelled to obey it, but we are not permitted to challenge it! This makes authority a very powerful persuasion principle.

How did that happen? It turns out that from a very young age we are trained to obey authority figures: first our parents, then teachers, policemen, managers and so on. Eventually our need to comply extends to anyone who seems to be our superior. We effectively divide the world into those who are superior to us (and who should be obeyed) and those who are inferior (and who should obey us!). We then make the critical error of equating superiority with authority.

Indicators of authority

What are the cues that tell us when someone else is in a position of authority?


Uniforms are overt symbols of authority. They show membership in and allegiance to specific groups. We typically associate uniforms with police and military forces, but we extend our belief to water inspectors, security guards, postmen, and more. Of course, less-than-honest individuals can take advantage of trusting folks by simply donning a uniform.


We assume that if someone is wealthy, then they must be successful. And if they are more successful than us, then they must somehow be superior to us. We hurry to help and obey those who seem richer than us, perhaps also in the hope that they will share some of their wealth or impart some wisdom that will help us attain what they have. Just like with uniforms, this is not the most difficult form of authority to ‘fake’.

Physical attributesschwarzenegger

Evolutionary programming tells us that, in general, a taller, stronger person could hurt us – so we tend to associate authority with taller men and women. It is also a fact that more executive positions are held by taller people. Interestingly, there is also a reciprocal effect at work here: we actually perceive people in positions of authority to be taller than they really are. Although it is an expression not often used today, ‘Walking tall’ is a reference to this aspect of authority.

Knowledge & experienceeinstein

With age come knowledge, experience, and wisdom (hopefully!), and although it’s not necessarily true of all cultures, authority is extended to people of more advanced years – especially in Asian societies. But age is not a pre-requisite for knowledge and experience; in fact, everyone has the ability to develop themselves as an authority by demonstrating their abilities to the people they wish to influence. Even the youngest player on a professional hockey team can still be team captain if he demonstrates the ability to lead and play to a consistently high level. Experts (i.e., people with significant experience) are typically authorities in their domains.

How can the authority principle be applied online?

It has become clear over the last few years that a very effective way to establish oneself as an authority on the Web is through blogging. And to be successful at blogging, one does not need a uniform, wealth, size, strength, or membership in the AARP. Blogging gives everyone an opportunity to establish their authority – by demonstrating expertise – on a topic, process, product, service, etc.

If you also happen to be in the business of selling online, blogging can pay off even more. Your ability to persuade site visitors increases with authority, so becoming a trusted authority through blogging can actually help you sell to your target audience.

Here are a few examples of bloggers who have established themselves as authorities in their respective areas – and who have translated blogging success into business success:

Danny Sullivan (Search engine expert)

Avinash Kaushik (Web analytics expert)

Bryan Eisenberg (Site conversion expert)

Mike Arrington (Silicon Valley start-up expert)

  • Blog: TechCrunch
  • Company: TechCrunch
  • Products or services: Research and reports about Internet companies and products

Lance Jones & Joanna Wiebe (Online persuasion experts)

If you want to set yourself apart as an expert and gain the authority needed to persuade people online, blogging is low-risk, high-reward endeavour – but it requires passion and a tremendous commitment in order to be truly effective. Just ask Joanna and me… writing the ’30 Days of Persuasion’ is turning into one of the most intense – and rewarding – periods in my life. My hat goes off to all the people who have made the commitment and continue to deliver week after week, month after month, and year after year.


DAY 14: Building Trustworthy Web Sites – Part 2

Posted in Uncategorized by persuasiveweb on June 14, 2009


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,, 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 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.