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There’s almost no single book that has changed marketing more than Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion. Even if you’ve never read it, you’re probably familiar with its principles—they’ve had decades to permeate throughout the profession, to the point where they’re just common wisdom. Today we’re breaking them down point-by-point, so you can better understand how people work, and how you can take advantage of the psychology of eCommerce to boost sales.

The Psychology of Sales is the Psychology of eCommerce

It’s hard to keep on top of marketing these days: everything changes so fast, trends come and go, there’s a new style every single year. One thing that never changes is that people are people, and understanding the human mind can be a powerful weapon in your sales arsenal. Cialdini’s book is hugely influential for just that reason: it provides insight into human psychology that has remained constant for over thirty years and looks to remain constant well into the future. His six principles of persuasion are: Reciprocity, Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority and Scarcity, and they translate well into the psychology of eCommerce. We’re going to break them down one-by-one. Ready? Let’s go.

The psychology of eCommerce

Reciprocity

Have you ever seen somebody in a supermarket giving out free samples? They’re working on the principle of reciprocity; if you give people something, they’re more likely to give you something back. They like you more (everybody likes free stuff) and they feel obligated to pay you back.

This is why you see so many websites offering a free ebook: they’re trying to leverage the principle of reciprocity to make you invest in their paid products, and give users a small taste of a bigger (paid!) pie.

There’s some debate as to whether discounts or coupons count. I tend to fall on the side that they count, but they count less. A coupon makes the customer feel like they’re being given something for nothing, but it’s also more obvious what your agenda is and it can dilute the effect a little. They’re still a very useful tool in engaging that reciprocity effect, just not as powerful as something fully free.

Consistency

People tend to act consistently: if they’ve done a thing in the past, they’re more likely to do something similar in future. Back to free supermarket samples, they’re hitting this principle too: a free taste of your product also gets your foot in the door—people are unwilling to risk money trying something they haven’t tried, but if they’ve had a small taste and like it, they’re significantly more likely to put money into getting the whole thing.

This often combines with reciprocity. The famous case study is the drive safety campaign used in Cialdini’s book. When the campaign went around and asked people if they’d host a billboard in their front yard, the results were mostly negative. However, when they first asked to put a small Drive Safe display in the window and later came back to ask around the billboards, the acceptance rate skyrocketed 400%.

Basically, once you’ve got them on the line, you’re much more likely to keep them on the line. This is another reason why it’s often good to invest in a loss leader.

Social Proof

People do things they see other people doing. This phenomenon is incredibly powerful; as a 1962 episode of Candid Camera proved, if a group of people stand backwards in an elevator, new people entering will also face backwards regardless of how strange and awkward it seems.

This is harder to leverage in eCommerce than brick and mortar—a cafe gets social proof by having people in it, and others walking by can look through the window. In eCommerce this means reviews, ratings, customer testimonials, discussion in forums and groupchats. There’s an epidemic of fake reviews, and some of these formats are harder to fake than others; users are rightfully suspicious of text reviews these days, particularly glowing ones. Video reviews are probably the best, especially if it’s a customer talking with their face visible on-camera. Especially if it’s willing to be a little critical—real people rarely just say all the things they like then drop a backlink.

The most effective way to leverage this is to encourage people to leave reviews. It’s a simple matter of letting users know you’d appreciate a review: you’d be amazed how much more engagement you get by just asking people to engage. Followup emails are great for this: you purchased product x, tell others what you thought. The critical part is that these are real people: it can be tempting to buy reviews, but they tend to be obvious and they’re more likely to turn users off.

Liking

If people like you, they’re more likely to buy from you. This means you need to be friendly, approachable, and personable. This principle is why so many corporate Instagram accounts have behind-the-scenes photos from the office, why friendly and prompt support is critical, and why ads that contain human faces have a higher conversion rate than ads that don’t. Humans aren’t built to click buttons and have drones deliver things to their door, and eCommerce can often feel sterile and inhuman. The specifics of your marketing and image are going to depend on your company, but coming across as people is a huge asset.

Shooting the moon for a second here, but your ideal case is for a customer to become your friend. Some of you may scoff, but it has proven positive effects on conversion rates. It’s one of those cases where the thing that feels good is also the thing that makes money: being nice is good business.

Don’t just take my word for it: Cialdini uses a case study of two groups of MBA students doing mock negotiations. They were split in half, and the first group was told “Time is money. Get straight down to business.”

Their success rate was 55%.

The second group were told “Before you begin negotiating, exchange some personal information with each other. Identify a similarity you share in common then begin negotiating.”

Their success rate? 90%, and the deals they made had an average value 18% higher than the first group.

Authority

Big surprise, people trust people who look like they know what they’re doing. Cialdini talks about a study of doctors who hung their degree on the wall and those who didn’t—even though basically all doctors have a medical degree in this day and age (it’s illegal in most places to practice medicine without one), having it visible significantly increased the rate at which patients took their advice.

There’s two prongs to this fork: formal and informal. Formal is easy: have you won any awards? Do you have any qualifications related to your field? Do you have any major clients or success stories? Let people know. Don’t be shy! Trumpet your accolades, and customers will respond in droves.

The other prong is about looking the part. I want you to picture two different companies: a design firm and a law firm. Imagine what the following look like:

  • Their website
  • Their social media presence
  • Their office
  • Their employees

What counts as a professional and authoritative look will change massively depending on your field (I’m not sure I’d hire a lawyer with visible tattoos and wearing a beat-up beanie, but I don’t think I’d trust a graphic designer with a tailored suit and a crocodile smile either). Whatever professional looks like in your business, make sure you’re projecting that image.

Scarcity

This one’s a little more squirrely, and I think the name can be misleading. First, though, there’s a very straightforward version of this: people want a thing more if there’s less of it. This is how we get Veblen Goods—rarity has a sort of value of its own that can flip standard economic models on their heads.

Leveraging this can be pretty easy: simply displaying stock numbers on your site (if they’re low) can be a huge driver of sales, because consumers 1) assume people have been buying it because it’s good and 2) don’t want to miss out. Limited-time deals or releases are another common way of doing this

If you want a great macro-example, consider streetwear company Supreme. They’re a simple New York skate shop, but they’re currently valued at $1BN USD, with lines around the corner at every single new release. Supreme launches have bigger lines than even Apple, because everything they make is limited-edition: they’ll make only 1000 copies of a particular hoodie or cap, announce the release only a day or two beforehand, and only sell items from that one particular shop. There’s a whole culture of young people who watch Supreme’s social media feeds eagle-eyed so they can snap up a limited-edition jacket and resell it on eBay for a 500% markup. Supreme has used this to go from a tiny skateboard shop to a massively wealthy and influential clothing company in only 20 years; their clothing is a huge status symbol among young people, and it’s almost entirely rooted in scarcity.

There’s a subtler side to this, though, which is why I think the name is misleading: scarcity is part of it, but the other part is exclusivity. People want to feel like they’re part of something, and scarcity interacts with Liking here. If it’s rare but anybody could get it, that’s one thing. If it’s rare and being offered specifically to you, that’s another thing entirely. This is why subscriber deals are great: you’re rewarding people for following you, and giving them access to something rare at the same time. It’s like you’re letting them in on a secret, and that takes you a step closer to securing their loyalty.

Okay, I understand the psychology of eCommerce, what now?

You’ve probably noticed a bit of cross-pollination between strands, and that’s with good reason: the human mind is rarely neat, orderly, nor prone to fitting itself into neat categories. Also though, these ideas work best when deployed together: a scarce product is one thing, a scarce product from somebody you like is another, a scare product from somebody you like that’s free is going to secure your loyalty through hell and high water. It’s up to you to figure out how best to weave these threads together. If you want to read more about the psychology of eCommerce, check out our guide to beating shopping cart abandonment. And hey, if you like what you’re reading (get it?), stick around and check out the rest of the blog. We have regular articles on eCommerce, marketing, SEO, app design, and dozens of other topics. Trust us: helping you sell things online is what we do.