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. 



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.


DAY 13: Designing Trustworthy Web Sites – Part 1

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion by persuasiveweb on June 13, 2009


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

bankPre-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 interfacebranding 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.

mercedes_logoIdentity. 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?

cologne-perfumeProducts 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.

VaultSecurity. 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.

confidentialPrivacy. As with security policies, people like seeing that a Web site has a privacy policy, although most of them hardly ever read it. For those folks who do venture into the finer details, it should be written in an easy-to-understand way and clearly state what personal information is collected, how that information will be used within the company, and whether it will be sold to other companies. Your site should feature a seal from a trusted third party that audits your organization’s privacy practices. And when it comes to registration and purchase forms, you should only request personal information that is absolutely necessary – and that matches the expectations of customers. Sensitive data such as social security and drivers’ license numbers require special treatment and assurances.

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 livechatcustomer 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.