Persuasive Web: Where Psychology Meets Conversion

Connecting Emotionally With Users Online Is NOT Just About the Emotional Benefits of Using Your Product

Posted in emotion by persuasiveweb on August 22, 2009


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. 

The nice, personal-feeling "Thanks for choosing Basecamp!" is more effectively rendered in a handwritten style.

The nice, personal-feeling "Thanks for choosing Basecamp!" is more effectively rendered in a handwritten style.


seomoz jots down a quick, personal note inviting site visitors to their conference.

seomoz jots down a quick, personal note inviting site visitors to their conference.

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. 


BatchBook CRM solutions for small businesses mix things up a bit with a variety of fonts, font sizes and font colours, replicating what you might see in an average joe's notebook.

BatchBook CRM solutions for small businesses mix things up a bit with a variety of fonts, font sizes and font colours, replicating what you might see in an average joe's notebook.

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. 



Interactivity – The Cure for the Common Cold and World Hunger?

Posted in Studies on Persuasion by persuasiveweb on August 6, 2009

interactive07What is interactivity, and how can it help you persuade users on your website? Well, scholars define it thus:


  • 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


Um… wha-?

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.

DAY 28: 30 Ways To Persuade (Part 1 of 2)

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion by persuasiveweb on June 28, 2009

It’s been an incredibly intense and rewarding 30-day journey into exploring and applying the power of persuasion on the Web. Of course, we’re not quite done yet (2 more sleeps!), so on Days 28 & 29, Joanna and I will summarize 30 of the 55 ‘persuasion opportunities’ we’ve discussed during the month. Why 30 of 55? It seems only fitting since this is the 30 Days of Persuasion! And following our final post on June 30th, we’ll be happy to give you the remaining 25 opportunities as part of our free e-book (100% free, no registration required, no sales calls or annoying follow-up, and in limited quantities!). 🙂

And with that tongue-in-cheek sales plug, here are 5 principles of persuasion and 15 ways for you to apply them to your own site:

I. Authority: We look to experts to show us the way.

time magazine1. Endorsements – Publications: Showcase endorsements from trusted publications to build credibility.
Example: Product review quote and logo from significant published authority (e.g., Time Magazine).

2. Endorsements – Experts: Showcase endorsements from trusted experts in a field to build credibility.
Example: Video testimonial from a well-known user (e.g., Seth Godin).

3. Endorsements – Influencers: Showcase endorsements from trusted influencers to build credibility.
Example: Preferred product selection or recommendation from authority figure (e.g., Rachel Zoe for PiperLime).

II. Commitment & Consistency: We want to act consistently with our commitments and values.

tell-a-friend4. Say-Do: You say you’re going to do something, and you do it.
Example: Specific call-to-action buttons that match exactly what you want the user to do (e.g., “Order the Swiffer Sweeper Now”).

5. Make “Free” Great: Give away items that are as high-quality as your paid items.
Example: Free webinars packed with useful content – not fluff.

6. Share with Friends: Visitors who would recommend a product to a friend are more likely to purchase that product.
Example: “Tell a friend” calls to action.

III. Contrast: We notice and decide by the differences between two things, not absolute measures.

comparisonchart7. Bang > Buck: Simplify product selection by telling users which product/service will give them the most for the least.
Example: A “best value” icon positioned on/near the product.

8. Line ‘Em Up: Position similar information across various products in a standard layout to help users easily scan and contrast features, pricing, etc. and, in turn, narrow their options.
Example: Price for products positioned in same proximity to each product and formatted identically.

9. Proximity in Lists: The items you place at the top of the list are the items that will create context for shopping (on your catalog page in particular).
Example: List the items your want users to choose from at the top of a list, with lesser items lower in the list.

IV. Engagement & Emotion: We want to interact with things that make us feel.

FamCarnival1510. Play: Make your site or the tasks on it feel more like a game to activate an emotional response in users and limit the amount of executive thinking (the bane of persuasion efforts) required.
Example: Car-builder tools on auto sites.

11. Interaction: Use interactive tools to help people find the information they’re looking for (rather than sorting through lines of text).
Example: Product recommendation quizzes.

12. Affect Recruitment Heuristic: Use images & messages that help your users picture themselves doing something with a purchased item, feeling a certain way (i.e., experiencing affect) about that image, and using that feeling to make a purchasing decision.
Example: Imagery of a melting slushy drink on a cabana (on a travel site).

V. Likeability: The more we like people (and companies), the more we want to say yes to them.

shaving-man13. Be Transparent. No, Really.: Be completely honest about your company’s motivations.
Example: Tell users that you’re giving them your product for free in the hopes that they’ll love it, share it and be willing to pay for it later.

14. Cause Marketing: Support a relevant-to-your-brand cause to help users relate better to your brand.
Example: Tide’s Loads of Hope campaign.

15. Win Healthy Debates: Encourage users to find flaws in your product – flaws you know you do not have. In seeking out a flaw but not finding it, users will be more likely to believe in you than had they been indifferent to flaws.
Example: Money-back guarantee if your product doesn’t save users at least 5 hours each month.


Part 2 to follow…

We look to experts to show us the way.

DAY 9: 10 Characteristics of Playful, Engaging… and Persuasive Websites

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion by persuasiveweb on June 10, 2009

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?

Alamo Basement

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?)

If you could make a task feel like playtime, wouldn't you be more interested in doing that task?

If you could make a task feel like playtime, wouldn't you be more interested in doing that task?

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:

  1. Stimulates or challenges the mind/imagination
  2. Is totally easy to use, with big bold targets and larger fonts in a range of styles
  3. You can navigate it without any triangulation techniques 😉 
  4. Makes the user feel like they’re in full control
  5. Includes novel elements — cool features users didn’t expect and maybe haven’t seen before
  6. Has great aesthetic appeal, whether it’s an uber-clean interface or something reminiscent of the Ringling Brothers
  7. Creates a feedback loop with the user
  8. Lives and breathes variety
  9. Offers a high level of interactivity
  10. 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.

QuickBooks and Porsche - Play

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. 


Read More About the Power of Play Here (PsychologyToday)