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E-Commerce Conversion Psychology How-to Guide

How to Increase Conversion with Psychology

The mind is a terrible thing to waste – as a conversion rate expert. E-Commerce conversion psychology & buyer psychology guides everything that we do. You might even say that CROs and shrinks share the same goal: Both seek to understand the human mind to help them find solutions to their problems.

But, of course, we want more than that. We want them to pay for those solutions. And that presents a few psychological hurdles. The act of selling something requires the customer to give up something they value – whether that’s time, personal information, or actual money (which also means the time it takes to acquire it). That’s asking a lot.

You’ll encounter resistance.

And any little thing that makes it harder to purchase will lose you a sale, because they’re already resisting. This means that your job as CRO is both to remove friction, and appeal to your audience’s strongest motivators:

  • Pain
  • Anchoring (+ Placement Psychology)
  • Emotional & Cognitive Needs
  • Reciprocity
  • Commitment/Consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Authority
  • Liking
  • Scarcity (+ Loss Aversion)

If those last six look familiar, it’s because they’re Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Influence, and we’ll be discussing them as they relate to CRO in depth, with actionable takeaways.

All Pain is Emotional

Marketers understand pain points as they affect buyer behavior; but let’s look at pain from the perspective of neuroscience for a moment.

Pain isn’t actually a physical sensation. Yes, if you grab a hot cookie sheet straight from the oven, you will feel pain (and it will feel very physical), but that sensation of “HOT!” is processed in the limbic system – not your hand. The limbic system is also where we process emotions. If you were to remove the limbic system, you wouldn’t perceive feeling hurt, though you would register an injury.

What implications does this have for conversion rate optimization?

If the pain point isn’t emotional – and strongly so – people don’t have enough reason to act.

Fun fact: Focusing attention on pain actually makes that pain feel worse. Watching this Dove ad actually made me get up for a glass of water:

Takeaways: It’s the emotional component of pain that is the most compelling – that’s what gets people to act. Increasing the pain (or at least the perception of it) by bringing attention to it in your content will also encourage users to act.


Have you noticed that if you walk into a shop and see several things you like, the first item you saw is often the one you walk out with? I do this all the time, and you probably do too. In 1974, cognitive psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky gave this phenomenon a name: the “anchoring heuristic.” Human beings tend to place more importance on the first piece of information we receive than subsequent data when making a decision. It’s a cognitive bias, a mental shortcut, we use to make decisions faster and easier.

For CRO, this means that if your product (or ad) is the first your user encounters, that becomes the context for the rest of their decision. If you’re looking to buy a mattress, and the first recommendation you hear is for Tuft & Needle, that is the brand against which you will compare every other mattress (increasing the odds that you’ll ultimately decide on Tuft & Needle in the end).

You can even use this in your pricing on sales pages to make users feel they’re getting a better deal. Make the first price people see high – then discount it.

When Steve Jobs announced the price for the iPad, he used this technique in his presentation.

e-Commerce Conversion Psychology - Anchoring Heuristic
e-Commerce Conversion Psychology – Anchoring Heuristic

On a web page – home page, product page, or landing page – we can also use this idea to our advantage when we decide where to place our CTA buttons. A 2014 eye-tracking study using heat maps revealed that the eye is drawn to two places on a page: The upper left corner and the center of the page. You’ll see pop-up ads in the center of the page for that very reason; they’re impossible to miss. But also notice the placement of the CTA buttons.

e-Commerce Conversion Psychology CTA Buttons
e-Commerce Conversion Psychology CTA Buttons

If there is more than one option, the most important CTA (to the business) is placed on top and is the first option users will see. Many users won’t even glance at the second option if the first one will do the job, and even if they do, their idea of which CTA to choose is already anchored. Instagram, for example, gets more value from gaining access to users’ Facebook information than their email address, so that option is the first one they want users to see.

Takeaway: The first thing people see, whether it’s a product or price, is an anchor point for their decision-making process. You may not be able to control whether you’re the first solution that reaches your target audience, but once they’re on your page, you can control what they see – and in what order – from there. Use it!

Emotional & Cognitive Needs

Psychology, as applied to CRO, depends on one foundational action: Accurately identifying your target audience, and their primary, action-driving needs.

Conversion expert Talia Wolf increased one of her client’s revenues by 86%, just by correctly identifying the target audience and finding out what they wanted most – then designing the experience accordingly. Talia, incidentally, also teaches an online Masterclass titled “Emotion Sells.

“Using psychological principles and the emotional targeting methodology has helped me better understand who my client’s customers are, what motivates them, and what drives their decision making processes, so I can, in turn, create better customer experiences that generate 20X more engagements, sales and revenues.

While working on the fashion E-commerce site below, our research revealed we had two main target audiences, each with different emotional needs.

e-Commerce Conversion Psychology Emotional Targeting
e-Commerce Conversion Psychology Emotional Targeting

The first target audience was teenage girls shopping for their prom dresses, hoping to feel admired and more confident. The other audience was the mothers who were paying for these dresses. Our research showed they primarily wanted to feel safe shopping on the site and confident about the site being appropriate for their daughters.

Thanks to those insights we were able to create a completely new variation using images, color and content that reflected those emotions. Using color psychology, along with other changes based on our understanding of what the target audience was looking for, we increased their revenues by 86%.

The resulting website was a lot more…pink. A design choice made on purpose. Talia says “We introduced the color pink to project calm, hopeful and positive feelings towards shopping prom dresses online. The color pink was introduced to more than just the banner or background; the images on the page were given a pink hue” – to produce more positive emotions in mothers and daughters. Read more about color psychology.

e-Commerce Conversion Psychology - Colors
e-Commerce Conversion Psychology – Colors

As for cognitive needs, Shannelle Mullin, Content & Growth at ConversionXL, says “cognitive load” is a vitally important psychological factor to keep in mind (no pun intended).

“Cognitive load is, essentially, the amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. When that effort is excessive, you end up with cognitive overload.

Overload means our brains are unable to retain new information or draw connections from previous memories. As a result, ability to learn deteriorates and ability to understand plummets.

As an optimizer, it’s your responsibility to ensure UX serves to reduce or, at least, not add to cognitive load.

Even studies from 20 years ago showed that the amount of information the human brain is asked to process each day is high. Undoubtedly, that has increased significantly with the rise of smartphones, Internet connectivity, push notifications, etc.

Here’s how you can spare your visitors from an even higher cognitive load…

  1. Make your UX truly intuitive so that instructions aren’t necessary. If they are, at least reduce them as much as possible.

  2. Stick to deep-rooted design and UX prototypes.

  3. Provide what’s necessary and nothing more.

  4. Look for stylistic inconsistencies that could be confusing (e.g. visitors think something is clickable when it’s not).

  5. Avoid subtlety and ambiguity. Clarity is always better, especially when it comes to navigation, visual cues, etc.

  6. Audit your site to identify what’s adding to cognitive load.

When optimizing a site for conversion, it’s easy to try and do all the things – incorporate every strategy, implement every idea. But Shanelle Mullin reminds us to keep it simple, because simplicity is a very real psychological need too.

Takeaways: Knowing who your target audience is, isn’t enough. You have to understand what they need to get from the transaction, emotionally. But don’t clutter. Keep your site simple and clean, or risk overloading your viewer.

Cialdini’s Principle of Reciprocity

Do you make a beeline for the back of the store at Costco? I do. That’s where those delicious samples are. Free samples are delightful things, but stores don’t offer them out of sheer good will. When you get something for free, you feel obligated to reciprocate in some way. Often, that’s by buying the product.
Reciprocity is Robert Cialdini’s first principle of persuasion – human beings are hardwired to pay their debts.

In e-Commerce, a free sample can mean anything from free (valuable) content, like blogs or guides, or even how-to videos, to actual free samples. The principle is the same: Give something of value (and it must be of genuine value – you can’t waste peoples’ time or make them feel cheated), and you’ll get something of value: conversions.

Takeaway: Find something you can give away for free, whether that be valuable information (on your blog) or sample products. Try sending samples to brand promoters (your best customers, people who love you and say so on social media and review sites – often bloggers, or highly active reviewers). If you don’t want to give ‘freebies,’ then offer discounts. You’ll reap the rewards – good karma pays back.

Cialdini’s Principle of Commitment/Consistency

Did you know that you have a much higher chance of actually sticking with a New Year’s resolution if you share it publicly? People have a deep desire to appear to be consistent. If they say they’re going to do something, by golly, they’ll do it.

But this need to be consistent runs even deeper. People want their actions to be consistent with their beliefs and values, which means if they have a choice to buy from a store that espouses similar values versus a store that doesn’t (even if that store is cheaper), they’ll be drawn to the first one.

And, here’s the crazy thing about consistency. It can also be purely subconscious. If you can get a site visitor to say “yes” to doing something small, like downloading a free guide or signing up for your newsletter, they’ll be more inclined to keep saying “yes” to each additional thing you ask of them. The more “yesses” they accrue, the more likely they’ll continue to opt in – and to buy.

ConversionVoodoo put this to the test by including a “commitment checkbox” on the front page of a client’s website. All it said was “Yes! I am ready for a better rate today!” That checkbox alone resulted in an 11% increase in completed applications.

Takeaway: That first easy opt-in is the foundation of customer loyalty. Get them saying “yes” early and often with low-threshold, low friction requests that benefit them. You’re essentially training users that saying “yes” to you is a positive experience (which is why it’s important to always reward the “yes” response with high-quality, genuinely useful content).

Cialdini’s Principle of Social Proof

Why do Yelp! reviews have such impact? Why do e-commerce stores sell more when they post user reviews on the sales page? Why does a recommendation from a friend mean more than all of the above? Social Proof. When we see other people talking about a product – even if they’re not expressly praising it – we, as buyers, are put at ease. It’s a primal urge to follow the trail that has already been blazed.

That’s right – user reviews don’t even have to be positive to have a positive impact on your conversion rates. Though, of course, they shouldn’t be overwhelmingly negative.

Social Proof reduces purchase anxiety – the fear that a product won’t live up to expectations, or that the purchaser is going to be cheated in some way.

What you don’t want when leveraging social proof, is proof that people aren’t doing what you want them to do. If your copy reads something like, “98% of writers surveyed said they forgot a great idea before they could write it down – don’t miss your next great idea, buy our pocket-sized notebook!”

You’ve just said the vast majority of your target audience doesn’t have a notebook, as you’re trying to sell them a notebook. You assumed that by showing the missed opportunity, you’d leverage loss aversion. But it just doesn’t work that way with Social Proof. What the majority does, other people will follow.

In Yes! By psychologists Noah J. Goldstein and Steve J. Martin, they tested three signs asking people not to remove petrified wood from the Arizona Petrified Forest. One of the signs showed negative social proof:

“Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, destroying the natural state of the Petrified Forest.”

The result: It tripled theft.

Takeaway: Use social proof – user reviews, testimonials, user social media mentions and photographs, on product pages to reduce purchase anxiety. And don’t censor the negative ones (you’ll build more trust in your brand by leaving them there).

Cialdini’s Principle of Authority

Just like people follow other people (social proof), they also follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts. It’s why so many business owners aren’t just running their businesses, but working to become “thought leaders” in their fields.

Business owners can become authority figures, but they can also “outsource” it by leveraging people who are already authority figures. Not that you have to pay Kim Kardashian $700,000 to take selfies in front of your logo. But you can find authorities who, for the price of a sample product or a moderate sum, will share your product with their established audiences.

L’Oreal regularly endorses bloggers and vloggers to publicly use and talk about their products, like this Youtube video with Pin-up model and YouTube star Cherry Dollface.

Don’t have celebrity connections? No worries! Your current customers might be authorities already. Customer advocacy programs aim to leverage the people who already love a brand by incentivizing them to share it with their friends and colleagues.

Takeaway: Find people who have authority with your target audience and give them reasons to talk about your product. This can be expensive, cheap, or free, depending on who you ask, but it’s always worthwhile. Bonus points if the authority figure publishes a photo of them actually using your product.

Cialdini’s Principle of Liking

This one couldn’t be simpler or more intuitive:

People buy from people they like.

And, people tend to like people who are like them.

The challenge for conversion is to establish likeability in your brand, which you do primarily through design and the voice/tone used in your content, marketing and branding. Even the images you choose, the models on your product pages for example, should remind the target audience of themselves.

One excellent boutique clothing company nearly lost my business because they didn’t have a single picture of their clothing on a model above a size-zero. The brand wasn’t likeable or relatable, and I couldn’t picture myself in their clothing because no one looked like me. I still bought the dress though (purely because of social proof – they had great reviews from people of all sizes).

Takeaway: Build out your buyer persona so you really understand who they are, what they look like, and how they speak and relate to each other. Then, model your visual and written content around them. You’ll feel familiar and become more likeable, increasing conversions.

Cialdini’s Principle of Scarcity – and how this works with Loss Aversion

Cialdini’s Principle of Scarcity can be summed up with: “Now! For a limited time only!”

When something isn’t going to last, we jump at it – we don’t want to lose the opportunity. That instinct is embedded in us as Loss Aversion.

Loss Aversion works like this:

If you find $20 in an old coat pocket, you’re pretty pleased – for a moment. But it doesn’t light up your day, most likely. But lose $20 – and it might wreck your day. This is loss aversion. We react more strongly to loss (it feels worse) than we do to gains (they feel good, but not as good as losing feels bad).

Consequently, people will do more to avoid loss than they will for a gain.

An integral part of Loss is feeling ownership, so simply by making your customers feel like they already own an item, they’ll be less inclined to let it go. It’s one reason why Free Trials are so successful. But, if your product doesn’t work well with the free trial system, there’s another way to foster feelings of ownership – “Buy within the next 15 minutes for a Free Gift with Purchase.” That way, they’ve got the gift (at least in their minds) and will lose it if they don’t complete the purchase quickly.

Here are a few more ways to use scarcity and loss aversion in your e-commerce site:

  • Limited stock: Display stock availability on your product pages (and in your shopping cart) so customers realize there is a limited supply, and they’d better act fast.
  • Limited Time: Ticket purchasing sites are famous for requiring users to complete the purchase process within a very short time-frame (you’d better have that credit card in front of you, or you’ll lose out). It’s a powerful motivator.
  • Free shipping for orders above a certain price: No one wants to miss out on free shipping, and it’s one of the best tools e-commerce sites have to boost sales. Display free shipping information together with the minimum purchase amount required to get it.

Tiffany DaSilva, Growth Hacker and Digital Marketing Consultant, uses urgency along with dynamic product ads for retargeting and abandoned cart emails, for great results:

“There are two things that seem to always improve ecommerce conversion rates for companies I work with and myself personally: Dynamic Product Ads for Retargeting & Abandoned Cart Emails.

Using retargeting ads that show the product I’ve viewed or added to cart on a website on Facebook is the best reminder. It doesn’t feel pushy and it seems to break through the noise quite well. Adding psychological triggers on top of that, like asking me back before a sale ends, or even a “Hurry back” in the ad’s copy, always gives me that feeling of urgency, even if it’s subconscious.

The same urgency triggers can be used with abandoned cart emails. Offering 15% or $10 off to come back within a certain period (24 hours let’s say) and resume their shopping cart experience is a simple way to retain a potential customer. If you think they need a lot of coaxing, adding social proof to those abandoned cart emails in the form of testimonials and celebrity endorsements is a great way to continue to convince the user to convert.

The use of retargeting and abandoned cart emails are essential tactics in any ecommerce digital marketing strategy, but psychological triggers like urgency + social proof are really what makes them successful.”

Takeaways: Creating scarcity is as easy as offering coupons that expire, or offering limited-time deals. Modcloth is a master at this. They run a “12 Days of Deals & Delights” in December in which each day contains one deal, like a 30% discount on all outerwear. But they don’t stop there – they sweeten the deal with a “Free Exclusive Travel Set” (while supplies last). Scarcity + scarcity = big wins.

e-Commerce Conversion Psychology - Scarcity
e-Commerce Conversion Psychology – Scarcity

These psychological principles aren’t new; they’re as old as the human mind. But what is new, and what allows for a great deal of innovation, is how to apply them in fresh, pleasing ways to CRO in e-commerce. The fun begins when you use these psychological principles to inspire creative solutions to age-old problems.

Published by

SaaS Consultant & Customer Success Evangelist. Founder at Authentic Curation. Moderator at @ProductHunt & @GrowthHackers. Previously: Growth at @Inboundorg. INFJ.