Psychological Hacks in Online Advertising: A comprehensive guide to leveraging human biases to sell more

When discussing online psychology most SEO books focus on understanding the way people search, and on their intent as users. For example, in their landmark book The Art of SEO, Eric Enge and his associates discuss at length the types of search people perform, how visitors perform their searches, and how websites must be designed so that they are able to answer the queries they are intended to answer. (Enge, Spencer, Stricchiola, & Fishkin, 2013) Other books seem to convey the message that conversion optimization actions equate to psychology. Indeed, heat map studies and live behavior studies have been performed and have found that people spend more time in certain areas of the screen, click more on buttons of particular colors, and respond better to a “Buy Now” call to action than to “Learn More.”

The problem is that this kind of finding focuses on the effect rather than on the cause of that behavior, which provides little information on how successful the digital marketing strategies used really are. Sure, we know that red “Buy Now” buttons deliver more conversions, and that clean to-the-point landing pages perform better than “busy” pages. However, the right question to be asked is: “Could these pages perform even better?” The point is that, at the time of my investigations, I was less interested in the effects of human psychology and wanted to understand more about the reasons for these online behaviors—what was their cause? In a nutshell, these books were telling me that “X% of people click on the middle-size red button because….”— and the reason was missing.

The Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman is one of the most often quoted psychologists alive. Kahneman has described the workings of the brain using the metaphor of two systems: a slower but more accurate one (System2), and a faster thinking but less accurate one (System 1). System 1 is in charge of automatic thinking and feelings, responses to various situations, such as unexpected emergencies, and is also responsible for the thing we call intuition. System 1 responses are based on familiarity with the situation at hand. The more familiar the situation the more System 1 one takes over, in preference to System 2, and responds in line with previous experience. In popular terms, System 1 is in charge of “jumping to conclusions,” and is prone to many biases and errors that Kahneman refers to as heuristics. System 2 by contrast is the slower, more analytical and conscious part of the brain. System 2 is in charge of “conscious thoughts,” monitoring our behavior and self-control, paying attention to our actions, and answering questions that cannot be answered by System 1.

We all believe ourselves to be masters of our own decisions and actions, indeed that System 2 is in the driving seat of our behavior. We believe that we can access our consciousness at any time, make unbiased decisions and understand the reasoning behind those decisions. The truth is that most of the time our mental processes are operating outside of our consciousness, well beyond our awareness and deep in unconscious. The mistaken belief that we can access our conscious mind, understand how it works, and make decisions freely has been referred to as an “introspection illusion” by psychologist Tali Sharot. (Sharot, 2012) In fact, within the psychology field there is almost unanimous agreement that un-consciousness is in fact in the driving seat of our behavior. In a nutshell, the idea that we can access the processes that underlie our decisions, and the idea of conscious decision-making are mainly illusions. If in disbelief, or looking for proof, then read on. Throughout this article I will present a variety of studies, concepts, and psychology experiments revealing the multitude of biases and unconscious processes at work throughout our decision making activity. And, after a life of research in the field Kahneman explains that automatic decision making (System 1) can not be turned off at will, and biases are difficult if not impossible to prevent. Kahneman concludes that “…disbelief is not an option…you have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true…Priming phenomena arise in system 1, and you have no conscious access to them” (Kahneman, 2011, p. 57). Psychologist Claude M Steele also points out that: “One of the first things one learns as a social psychologist is that everyone is capable of bias. We simply are not, and cannot be…completely objective.” (Steele, 2011, p. 13). Furthermore, Benjamin Franklin, quoted by Chabris & Simons, states in a very emphatic manner that, “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” (Chabris & Simons, p. Intro).

But my favorite statement is provided by Noah Yuval Harari who concludes that, “attributing free will to humans is not an ethical judgment.” (Harari, 2015, p. 283)


2.1 First impressions matter

…one of the most misused Internet marketing techniques is promotion through special offers, free products, or various types of webpage content. Tools like Hello Bar or AddThis provide marketers with the ability to create pop-ups, sticky bars, and exit pop-ups, featuring various lead magnets offering something in exchange for giving contact details, sharing, liking, following, and other similar actions. Unfortunately, far too often webmasters offer stuff of no value to the user, ending up with sign-up rates below their expectations, a result easy to foresee. These disappointing results are often caused by a lack of understanding of the psychological principles that these tools are trying to leverage and build on. In fact, most marketers do not think of digital marketing tools as a way of leveraging human biases, but rather think of them in a simple transactional way: I give you this, but you need to give me that in return.

So, without any further introduction, let us have a look at some well-founded psychology findings that digital marketers need to be aware of and to leverage online.

First things first: the offer. I am afraid there is nothing new or exciting here, you must offer something of exceptional value to your website visitors. In simple terms, if you want to make an impression on your website visitors then your product or offer must stand out from the crowd. Psychologists refer to the human bias toward noticing and remembering the unusual as the Von Restorff effect.  And marketer Seth Godin branded exceptional products as “Purple cows” when noticing that “services that are worth talking about get talked about…the lesson is simple—boring always leads to failure. Boring is always the most risky strategy.” (Godin, 2005, p. 33, p. 50). The reality is that in a market that is well oversupplied, many marketers find it hard to come to terms with the situation: they create an OK product and focus most of their efforts on promoting it. Of course, this works less and less well, as most market leaders well understand. For example, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder pointed out that old models of companies spending 30 percent of their time on building a product and the remaining time on marketing is redundant, and points out the fact that those percentages have in fact inverted. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google has described Google’s intense focus on user experience, acknowledging that this focus has resulted in a significantly higher user base, which has naturally attracted more advertisers and increased revenue. (Schmidt & Rosenberg, 2014, p. 13:15)

The moral of the story?

Stop offering basic digital marketing guides to professional marketers! The same goes for your 10 percent off the first purchase, a free guide with every sign-up, and many other similar offers. One company I know, which offers high-cost services, went as far as dedicating an entire banner which said: “ Free Gift with your First order. Fox’s Fabulously Biscuit Selection (300 g)—Your gift will be added automatically to your first order”. I looked up the cost of the Free Gift at my local supermarket—it was £3. Your visitors are being hit with these offers every day. In fact, a study carried out by the McKinsey Institute found that a typical American hears or reads in excess of one hundred thousand words a day, including emails, text, tweets, blog posts, and videos. (Pink, 2013, p. 159) This being so, it is easy to see that you must put real effort into ensuring that your offer is exceptional and of high value to your audience. To sum up, purple cows and purple cows alone will best leverage the unconscious biases and heuristics discussed throughout this chapter.

We all know that first impressions count, though we neither reflect on nor understand the real meaning and implications of the statement. Take an experiment conducted at Harvard.  Students were presented with a two-second silent clip of a teacher they’d never seen before, and were asked to rate his effectiveness. The ratings were compared with the ratings provided by students who actually studied with the teacher for one semester. Findings? The ratings were identical. Yes, by simply looking at a two-second silent video students were able to correctly infer the level of professionalism of the teacher. (Cabane, 2012) In brief, within a split second we unconsciously apply a label to an experience, thing, performance or, yes, a website, page, product, or piece of content. Indeed, a very suggestive experiment concluded: “Attention web designers: You have 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression.” (Krug, 2014, p. 90) And once we make up our mind, we filter out information that contradicts the opinion we now hold. It is what psychologists call a confirmation bias. In Kruger’s experiment, the opinion formed within 50 milliseconds agreed with the judgements of the website made by people who spent more time on a website.

Another way of making a good first impression is by providing audiences with indicators of the legitimacy of your business. Eye-tracking studies have shown that while navigating your website people look for phone numbers at the top right hand side of the page, or scroll down the page and spend some time in the footer area where they would most often expect to find an email address. (Jones, 2014) Tools such as virtual numbers track both the number of calls generated by your website and inspire confidence in the legitimacy of your business. Google Reviews plugins and the availability of live chat are also tools that provide a sense of legitimacy.

2.2 …but what you remember first matters as well

So, first impressions of your website matter. However, the most readily available impression, whatever that may be, is equally powerful. Psychologists labeled this effect the availability bias. A myriad of experiments confirm that people make decisions based on the most readily available information to hand, as opposed to the more logical approach of reviewing all available information. For example, various studies have found that 80 percent of us think accidental death is more likely than dying from a stroke, but strokes cause twice as many deaths as all accidents. Similarly, death by accident is perceived to be 300 times as likely as death by diabetes even though diabetes kills four times as many people as accidents do. (Kahneman, 2011) Moreover, after an aviation accident, the number of people traveling by plane decreases, even though statistics show that significantly more people die in car accidents. Ok, but why does a plane crash remain so strongly available in our memory? The answer is simple: it is mostly down to the media, which in turn are being influenced by the freshness of the news. There is no hiding from the fact that, just like Google, the news media also shape our thoughts and perceptions. Take the announcement of the engagement of Prince Harry of the UK to Meghan Markle, which was discussed in literally every UK media publication I laid my eyes on. In spite of finding the publicity of the event somewhat overdone, the wedding saga is probably one of the most available memories I have, far more available than starving children or human rights abuses in many underdeveloped countries.

That being said, attributing the state of things to the media alone is far too convenient; after all, newspapers write about what is of interest to their audiences. In effect, we feed the media machine that molds our most recent perceptions. Imagine for a moment that some top newspapers had decided not to publish the Harry and Meghan story. How many people would have switched to a competitor in search of news about the royal engagement? The conclusion must be that the availability bias with respect to our memory of, and interest in an event grows in direct proportion to the amount of media coverage given to that event.

But what does this have to do with digital marketing?

Well, quite a lot actually. SEOs have known for a long time that Google prioritizes fresh, popular, and current affairs. If you are an SEO person you will remember one of Rand Fishkin’s interesting experiments. In the middle of a conference, Rand asked participants to click on a certain search result that was ranking on the first page in Google. Google algorithms assumed that there was a sudden interest in the content and moved it up the website through the rankings. Similarly, popular news such as the royal engagement will rate higher in the rankings than other content. In fact, it seems that in the end both the news media and Google are shaped by what users want and like. The point is that as an SEO, content writer or business owner looking to engage audiences with your brand, product, or content, while also improving your SEO rankings, you must consider your audience’s most available experience or piece of information, and build your strategy around it. Unfortunately, far too often content writers or bloggers write about stuff they like, as opposed to considering the likes and passions of their audience. This is a shame, as there are many tools that monitor current trends or hot subjects on social media, BuzzSumo being one that comes to mind. And yet, in my experience many but not all writers and SEOs put very little effort into using these out-of-the-box tools.

2.3 …and don’t forget the last impressions, either

Negative or extreme events have a strong impact on what we feel, and how we act by being more available to us in our memories. But what happens when no extreme events exist? What if we fail to make a great first impression on the audience? According to our prior discussion we must be doomed, and condemned to a life of blogging in anonymity, as people will most likely never return to our website. Or they may label our website as “bad” or “OK” and filter out any future appearances of it in line with this perception. And, if we made only an OK first impression, the experience will most likely be anything but available in our audience’s mind. Availability to the rescue again, in the form of last impressions. In one study on perceptions of their holidays, the scores awarded by participants to their vacation experiences were determined by the final evaluation of their experiences. (Kahneman, 2011) A myriad of studies in various fields confirm that people use as their reference point, and attribute more value to, the last impressions held about a product or experience. Thus, if you have a great check-in into a hotel, receive great service throughout your stay but experience a bad check-out, you will most likely report the bad check-out disproportionately when reviewing the hotel. This in spite of the fact that your checkout experience represented only a very small percentage of the time you mostly enjoyed at the hotel.

In this context, Neil Patel’s advice on using exit pop-ups to boost conversion rates makes sense. Great “Thank you” pages or auto respondent Thank you emails served after the submitting of a contact form are yet another opportunity to keep in mind.

2.4 Relevant beats cool…

There are various reasons why your website’s identity, imagery, general look, and feel must match the expectations of your target audience. Unfortunately, we humans have this tendency of extending our judgement of prevalent characteristics of a person to all their characteristics, which is referred to as the “halo effect”. (Kahneman, 2011) For example, if I believe your website funnel or homepage to be bad, then I will most likely extend this perception to all other features of your website, products, and offers.

While online, people associate the look and feel of your website with prices they expect to pay, or with the quality of your products. To begin with, your brand identity dictates the prices people have been primed to pay. For example, while navigating the website of Poundland people expect to pay lower prices than while navigating the website of Apple. (Jones, 2014) Being aware of this distinction makes all the difference between a high and a low conversion rate on your website. You would be surprised how many Poundland-like businesses build upmarket-looking websites, violating people’s expectations of what “cheap” should look like. The same principle applies to products sold on your website, as well. Do you have a purple cow? Just don’t sell it on a cheap-looking website, it will only devalue your product and reduce your margins. Conversely, if you have an expensive-looking website, put some effort into packaging your purple cow to look expensive. Take an experiment carried out by Dan Ariely , which found that people felt more energetic and less tired after drinking the same energy drink when it was presented at a higher price vs. when it was presented as discounted. (Ariely, 2009) Or the classic experiment of Joshua Bell, a top violinist, who played his 3.5 million-dollar Stradivarius violin in a Washington, D.C., subway station, just like a regular street artist. Throughout this experiment, when people did not know who he was, Bell raised only $32 through donations. (Bloom, 2011) A classic example of a great product (Joshua Bell’s music) on the equivalent of a cheap-looking website (subway vs. concert hall).

Consider another implication of your website’s consistency, look, and feel. Take people who visit an expensive site. By doing so they reinforce an ideal image of themselves; the website and its products say something about them, and the type of person they are or aspire to be. This ideal-self idea is powerful as most people generally purchase on websites that reinforce this ideal self-image. Thus, your website must reinforce and acknowledge the identity of your audience. The first way of achieving this is by labeling your audience in line with behaviors that correspond with their goals and desires. On one side, we fall prey to what psychologist Richard Wiseman labeled “the flattery effect” (Wiseman, 2007): we most often choose to believe cues that show us in a good, positive light and make us feel good about ourselves and our skills. Take LinkedIn’s labeling of people as Influencers, which serves to generate more input from those contributors; or labeling your website visitor or forum member as a gold level contributor, which generates more contributions on their part, intended to maintain and improve their status. In the words of Dale Carnegie: “The deepest urge in human nature is the desire to be important.” (Carnegie, 2006, p. 18)

A second way of nurturing your audience’s identity is to acknowledge that we are generally aware of how our perceptions of other people, products, or experiences are influenced by stereotypes. But at the same time, we often fail to consider the impact of stereotyping in changing the behavior of people who are being stereotyped. The fact is that the way people think about us will often impact on how we behave, a concept often referred to as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. For example, in one experiment people were primed into thinking about a football hooligan, and answered correctly to 46 percent of the questions presented to them, well below the 60 percent achieved by people primed into thinking about a professor. (Wiseman, 2010) Similarly, a platinum member on your website will most likely behave differently than a gold member who will behave differently to a silver member.

In conclusion, designing your website with the audience in mind will significantly improve your chances of generating consistent conversions and engagement. Of course, this seems quite intuitive and simplistic; after all we all know that. Right? In my experience, this is not often true. Particularly in the case of small and medium-size businesses, website designers tend to build beautiful-looking websites with little thought being put into sales funnels, SEO, brand identity or the target market. In fact, very often web designers build cool websites that say something about themselves and their skills, rather than saying more about the intended audience of the website.

2.5 Why do reviews work?

Entrepreneur Daniel Priestley once stated: “Most great businesses grow because of what others are saying about them” (Priestley, 2014, p. 178). We all know that reviews work on the principle of social proof: the more people believe my product is good the more people try and like my product, which in turn leads to more people purchasing and liking it, and so forth. For example, if you are an online healthcare company selling meds for your beloved dogs, showing the numerous positive experience of other dog owners will encourage other people to like it, and subsequently buy it. Or, if you are a scaffolding company, and provide terrible service, well…you get the idea.

“Wait for a second,” you may say; “I agree that reviews improve visibility to my product, but the suggestion that people will also like it is far off the mark.” And you are right, up to a point. Yes, a bad product is a bad product and no reviews can change a person’s experience of that product. However, the situation can be quite different in the case of average or good products. In these cases, reviews can change someone’s perception of the product, make average products good, and good products great. Take an experiment in which students were questioned on the quality of two types of beer: a classic Budweiser beer and an MIT Brew that was contaminated with two drops of balsamic vinegar. When unaware about the vinegar, the MIT beer was most often chosen as the winner. Things changed when students were told in advance that the MIT beer contained two drops of vinegar. Now, after tasting the beers the Budweiser won. (Ariely, 2009, p. 157:159) What this ingenious experiment shows is that expectations have a direct influence on our perceptions. In simple terms, if we believe a product is good prior to trying it, we will be more likely to like it. (Ariely, 2009) Hence, prior to watching a movie you might increase people’s enjoyment of the movie by pointing to the fact that the movie has great reviews. (Ariely, 2009) Reviews can therefore make an average movie better, and a good movie great. In the same manner, reviews can influence our perceptions of OK products, content, authors or experiences.

For a finer understanding of how reviews work, let us now consider a classical sidewalk experiment conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram as long ago as 1968. Milgram monitored 1,424 pedestrians and their behavior while walking by various-size groups of Milgram’s accomplices, who were looking up to the sixth floor of a building for one minute. At the sixth floor nothing special was happening. Milgram wanted to find out the size of groups that provided sufficient social proof to persuade pedestrians to stop and copy the behavior of his accomplices, i.e., look up at the sixth floor. The experiment found that only 4 percent of pedestrians stopped when only one person was looking up. By contrast, when the group was formed of fifteen accomplices, 40 percent of people stopped and looked up. Moreover, an extraordinary 82 percent of the people imitated the behavior of the larger group by looking up at the sixth floor but not stopping. (Christakis & Fowler, 2011)  What can the reason be for this behavior? The answer is simple: people looked up under the assumption that as other people were looking up there must be a reason for it.

That insight explains many other riddles, such as why people are influenced by reviews, recommendations, social media, celebrity endorsement, and so forth. After all, if one book has lots of great reviews on Amazon or Google, or one article is the topic of many shares, there must be a reason for it. By the way, there are many creative ways in which sellers can manipulate the number and the quality of reviews. However, Taleb brilliantly argues that reviews from readers on websites such as Amazon are all about the persons themselves, in contrast to reviews by qualified people, when the reviews are all about the book. (Taleb, 2007) Yes, the logic says that we should take Amazon reviews with a pinch of salt, and yet our decisions are being shaped by these reviews. Of course, it does not stop here. Amazon then points out that “people who bought this also bought this”. Amazon does not even have to pitch the book to me—if other people, people like me, bought a book, then surely I should also have a look. The canned laughter during TV comedy shows provides yet another, finer insight into the workings of social proof. Psychology experiments have found that the audience laughs more and finds the shows funnier than when presented without the background laughter. (Cialdini, 2007) Social proof fuels reviews and recommendations: most of us are aware that the laughter is artificial, and yet we find the relevant moments funnier and more engaging. Somehow, the social proof provided by canned laughter is likened to a favorable review: the more people laugh, the better the show must be.

If you are anything like me, whenever you are looking around for a book on Amazon you will pay little attention to books with no reviews or a low number of reviews. My default assumption is that lack of reviews means that not many people have been buying the book, hence the book must be no good. In contrast, I always choose the books with the largest number of reviews and ratings. After all, if a lot of people have been reviewing the book, there must be a reason for it; it must be a good book. So, the more people review a product positively, the more we infer that the product is more popular and of better quality. This is particularly important in cases of uncertainty, such as when we are unsure of the quality of a product, or have no experience of it. In these cases, we most often observe what other people are doing or buying; we study the number of stars and the reviews received by, say, a book, and very often replicate the behavior of the people who also bought that book. After all, if people who purchased a book that I have read and liked also bought another book, it must be that the recommended book is also good. Of course, this is a fallacy, as at this point the only information I have about the recommended book is that people with similar reading behavior have purchased it and reviewed it. By comparison, you may have a purple cow product, but if no one tries it, and no one reviews it, you will struggle.

Back to my Amazon purchase of a book. After the number of reviews and the rating of a book have attracted my attention, I continue by reading some of the reviews. The reviews will most often confirm the overall ratings and my initial gut feeling about the book. And when a bad review comes up, I can easily explain it away: the guy who wrote it has no idea what he’s talking about, he is not experienced enough, or he is not open-minded enough. In brief, I interpret that review as being about the person rather than about the book, which is exactly the approach I should take with the remaining reviews. In fact, our tendency to explain away things that don’t fit in with our views has been widely documented and investigated in thousands of experiments. For example, during an experiment carried out at the University of Melbourne, subjects were provided with two sets of reviews of two fictional coffee brands, one negative and one positive. After they had read the reviews, the subjects were informed that a mistake was made and that in fact the negative reviews belonged to the company that was initially labeled as positive, and the positive reviews belonged to the company initially labeled as negative. Did the subjects change their minds? No, they still provided high ratings to the company that was erroneously labeled as positive. (Jones, 2014) In simple terms, people had made a decision about the company based on the initial reviews, and further information was made to match their first impressions. Reviews rule!

In another experiment, Salganik, Dodds, and Watts monitored people who were navigating a website where downloadable music was given away free.  The study found that, for many songs the first review of an item influenced the whole trajectory of subsequent ratings. (Christakis & Fowler, 2011) We recognize at work here a principle that has been labeled “the anchoring effect”: people evaluate things they are unsure about by attuning their judgement to evaluations already available. In the absence of other reviews, first reviews act as an anchor, set preconceptions about quality, and influence subsequent perceptions and reviews. Of course, the product plays a part and, as discussed earlier, no amount of favorable reviews can make a bad product seem good. To further understand how you can put the anchoring effect to work, reflect for a moment on your perception of what is the fair value of a product. If you think about it, your perception of a fair price is to some degree determined by the price the seller asks:  the higher the price, the higher the perceived value of the product, and the more willing you are to pay a price in the range set by the seller. By contrast, if the same product is positioned at a lower price point, the lower price provides a cue, indicating a lower value, a value that you now assign to the item. Now, you will perceive any subsequent increases in price as unfair. Notice that the same product’s value is being perceived differently based on the price point you have initially set as an anchor. Take a study carried out on people who were asked to contribute to an environmental cause. Initially, the team of researchers asked the participants an anchoring question: “Would you be willing to pay $5…” prior to asking them to contribute. When the request was served with no anchor, participants were willing to pay on average $64. However, when the $5 anchor was introduced participants were willing to pay on average only $20. And, when the anchor was set at $400 people were willing to pay on average $143. (Kahneman, 2011)  Same request, different anchor price, significantly improved conversion. This example sheds some light on the main use that marketers find for the anchoring principle.

Many marketers, though, miss the opportunity of leveraging the anchoring effect in the context of improving the reviews profile of their websites or products. In Salganik, Dodds and Watts’s experiment the first review—the anchor—determined the trajectory of all subsequent reviews. Unfortunately, marketers and business owners often fail to make Google or Yelp reviews part of their website’s core launch strategy. Of course, this may not present a problem when the first reviews are positive. However, when negative and allowed to stand, first reviews have the ability to kick-start a self-reinforcing spiral of negativity, damaging conversions, leads, sales, and ultimately your business. In fact, plenty of research indicates that negative emotions and bad feedback loom higher in people’s minds than positive emotions and feedback, are quicker to form, and are much harder to dislodge. (Kahneman, 2011) People pay more attention to negative reviews than to positive reviews, and negative reviews have a stronger impact on purchasing behavior. If you think about it, how many times have you bought a book rated 2.5 out of 5 on Amazon? Not very often, I bet. And yet 2.5 out of 5 represents a 50–50 ratio. In fact, if you are like me, you will most likely try to maximize the use of your time and purchase books with reviews within the range of 4.5 and 5 stars. A rating of 3, 3.5 or 4 has a considerably higher number of positive reviews than a 2.5, and yet it is the lower number of negative reviews that looms higher.

So, we have not been paying attention to our Google Reviews score, ended up with low scores, and all is lost. Is that it? Not quite; as always there are ways you can improve conversion rates on your website by putting to good use various psychological concepts. Take the primacy effect as an example. The primacy effect refers to people’s bias of interpreting later information based on earlier information about a product, event, person, content, and so forth. (Sutherland, 2007) Psychologist Solomon Ash conducted an experiment in which two groups of people were prompted to rate a person based on nothing more than a set of adjectives provided about the person. Both groups received the same adjectives, but for one of them the positive adjectives were presented before the negative words, while the other group received the negative words before the positives. For example, the first group was presented with adjectives such as intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious, while the second group was presented with the same adjectives in the following order: envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent. The group that received the positive adjectives first rated the person described as significantly more positive on attributes such as happiness or how sociable they were than the other group did. Hence, simply priming people with positive adjectives impacted their overall perception and rating of the person. (Sutherland, 2007)

But what does this have to do with reviews?

In Ash’s experiment people made up their mind based on the first adjectives presented within the list. Your reviews work on the same principle; people most often scan the most recent reviews of the product and very rarely navigate to page two of the reviews. The obvious follow-up is that you should work hard on consistently building positive reviews. In this way, your product or website will benefit from a constant pool of positive adjectives on page one, and your audience will have the most accurate and recent feedback on your business, as well. This is particularly important on high-traffic third-party review websites like TripAdvisor.  You can go a bit further by installing a Google Reviews plugin such as Rich Snippets, which provides the capability of displaying Google reviews on your website with a great deal of customization. For example, you can choose to display only reviews with higher ratings or only reviewers who have avatar images, you can change your business image or the number of characters to be displayed before the Read More button, and much more. In this way, you can screen out negative reviews by choosing to display only 4-star or higher reviews, and reviewers with avatar images—i.e., real people—and you can allow 155–200 characters before the Read More button, priming your audience with more-positive perceptions. You can also add a Write a Review button, encouraging more people to write reviews and hopefully improve your overall rating score.

Up to this point we have been discussing the effect of reviews. Yes, reviews work and they are powerful. But why are they working?  Let’s begin by briefly reviewing the process we go through when reading online reviews. We like to believe that we consciously read reviews, analyze the pros and cons they mention, and then make a conscious decision on whether to buy the product. Unfortunately, our assumption that we can compare reviews in an unbiased manner is an illusion. As the University of Melbourne experiment concerning the fictional coffee companies revealed, even after being informed about the reviews mix-up, people still rated higher the company that initially wrongly received the positive set of reviews. Thus, as we read reviews our brain makes its own decision about the product, well before our decision to “consciously” and “freely” assess the reviews. And, when we do make a decision, the decision is nothing but a confirmation of the decision our brain has already made beyond our awareness. It is a fact that our perceptions form outside our awareness well before we decide to consciously assess the reviews.

In the words of psychologist Dan Ariely: “We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driving seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make…but this perception has more to do with our desires, with how we want to view ourselves than with reality” (Ariely, 2009, p. 243). As an example, consider the simple act of moving one of your fingers. If I asked you to move your finger, you consciously decide to move your finger and believe that YOU have taken the decision. And yet, fMRI studies have found that while you are still assessing whether to move your finger or not, your brain has already started the action, well before you consciously reached the decision of moving your finger. (Hood, 2009) Similarly, neuroscientists have found that when you take a conscious decision of throwing a ball, the part of the brain involved in performing the action is being activated half a second before you actually decide to perform the action.

Not convinced yet?

Consider another example: if you are presented with a choice between two switches, simply by monitoring your neural activity scientists can accurately tell you the switch you will eventually press, before you consciously decided to press it. (Harari, 2015) And in another 2008 fMRI study, researchers found the unaware to aware time gap to be as long as 10 seconds before participants formed a conscious intent of performing an action. (Trivers, 2011) We like to believe that when making a decision we follow a logical and conscious process; we read reviews about the product, analyze the reviews, weigh up the reviews in an unbiased manner, and after a conscious and unbiased deliberation finally make up our mind. However, as we have seen, these “free will” decisions are illusions of control, being preceded by decisions taken well beyond awareness, and thus are simply manifestations of those unconscious decisions. That being so, reading one review, or no more than a couple, is all it takes for our website audiences, like us, to infer the quality of a product. An overly negative recent review will be hard to overturn with positive reviews. Similarly, a lot of positive reviews will be easily overturned by one negative comment. In fact, prior to reading any reviews the brain has already inferred the quality of a product based on the number of reviews and the overall rating. After this, reading reviews or assessing the quality of a product is a simple matter of fitting in the information at hand to the perceptions we have formed beyond awareness.

2.6 Reviews + Recommendations = Growth

Often, marketers miss the opportunity to grow their business because they focus too much on core products, centering their recommended products system and their marketing strategy entirely on those products. In fact, I often have to fight my clients’ stubbornness and persistence in focusing on particular products that generally deliver higher margins in individual sales. The online competition for these products is often so high and the search volume so low that the results are just not there. I generally win by convincing them that often “the biggest money is in the smallest sales”. (Laws quoted by Anderson, 2009, p. 23) The former Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, has written at length on this subject in his thought provoking book The Long Tail.  Anderson provides a myriad of examples of online businesses such as Amazon, Jukebox, and Netflix to support his claim that large chunks of sales come not from the well-known products but rather from long tail products which are rarely sold. In brief, your business might be more profitable by recommending 1,000 rarely sold products than by pushing your main products, which in total sell less.

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix:” About 30 percent of what we rent is new releases and about 70 percent is back catalogue…because we create demand for content and we help you find great movies that you’ll really like. And we do it algorithmically with recommendations and ratings.” (Anderson, 2009, p. 110) Of course, what is not being mentioned is the low cost associated with selling the 70 percent of the movies in the back catalogue vs. the 30 percent releases. The truth is that in reality the strategy is different for every business; your recommendation and ratings tools and filters need to be set to match your strategy.

It’s all about the feelings

3.1 Introduction

Marketers have known for a long time that audiences are most vulnerable to their messages when they “feel”. Thus, any marketing strategy must be construed around a thoroughly researched palette of emotions, emotions that are most likely to trigger the desired action.

But how powerful are emotions really?

We often consider the impact of emotions in relation to decisions made at an individual level: if a person feels a connection with us, then he or she is more likely to take act in the way we want. However, psychologists have been teaching us, and it has been confirmed through thousands of experiments, that we greatly miscalculate the reach and potential of emotions. Specifically, emotions, like things on social media, propagate to those around us in a process of emotional contagion in which “the emotions expressed by one individual are caught by another one.” (Cabane, 2012, p.145) In simple terms, our emotions and moods are being influenced by the emotions and feelings of people around us. When you make me feel some emotion, people around me have a tendency to feel the same way. And, as I argued in the introductory part of this chapter, how we feel impacts directly on how we act.

Take mood as an example. Numerous studies on athletes, nurses, and accountants have concluded that positive mood equals more-altruistic behavior. (Christakis & Fowler, 2011) Similarly, a negative mood increases the likelihood of people remembering negative events. (Wiseman, 2010) So what happens when people are in a good mood? They feel safe. And, as they feel safe they cede more responsibility for monitoring their environment to System 1, become more prone to biases and thus to influencing. Conversely, when in a bad mood, people put more effort into scrutinizing their environment, use System 2 more, and are less prone to external influences. (Christakis & Fowler, 2011) The “mood heuristic,” as referred to by Daniel Kahneman was demonstrated in an experiment in which people were asked to fill in a questionnaire rating the level of satisfaction with their lives. Before filing in the questionnaire though, the researcher asked a favor of each participant: make some copies on a nearby photocopier. In one situation, subjects found a coin on top of the photocopier. Compared with the control group that did not find a coin, the coin group reported a visibly higher satisfaction with life (Kahneman, 2011)

Or take another interesting concept best demonstrated in a classic experiment where subjects were being asked to hold a simple crayon between their teeth, forcing participants to adopt a smiley expression. After the exercise, people found a set of cartoons funnier then another group that was forced into a frown by asking them to hold the pen in a different position. Moreover, the frowning group reacted more strongly to emotional images such as children starving or people arguing. (Kahneman, 2011) On one hand these experiments reveal that how we feel and behave is influenced by external factors such as the weather or finding a coin. On the other hand, the last experiment teaches us that the process works in reverse, as well: how we behave impacts on how we feel. In the words of psychologist Daniel Gilbert , “Our brains are hell-bent on responding to current events, we mistakenly conclude that we will feel tomorrow as we feel today.” (Gilbert, 2007, p. 123)

Online, our feelings influence our perception of a website, the amount of attention we give it, and our attitude toward an offer, product, request, or call to action. Indeed, when life is good, we feel more altruistic; and sharing, liking, following or subscribing seems more natural. And when life is not so good, applying a strategy that makes people behave in a positive manner will most likely help them internalize the behavior, get them in a better mood, and bring you more leads or sales. For example, one clever strategy marketers leverage in improving the mood of their audience is the principle of associative activation. In this situation marketers promote ideas that are directly related to the feelings and emotions they are looking to trigger. (Kahneman, 2011) To see this principle in action you can review the myriad of commercials that teleport people back to their childhood, the smell of their mom’s pastas, the happy feeling of sharing a meal with the whole family, or sharing sweets and other good things.

3.2 Power of feelings: a case study in fear

To illustrate the power of feelings let’s consider one emotion that is often employed by marketers to trigger a particular behavior in the audience, such as buying the marketers’ products. We fear rank losses and Google updates, we fear airplane crashes, we fear for our security, health, and so forth. But we are lucky, because marketers are always on hand with a solution to alleviate our fears: employ an SEO consultant; he has inside information, a broker to provide us with life insurance, or a security company to install an alarm system. Even when the probability of our fears coming true is low, we simply cannot stop fearing the future. For example, we have seen that the probability of dying in a car crash is much higher than that of dying in an airplane crash and yet after an airplane accident we suddenly stop flying and rush to the closest car-rental center. Another telling example of this is revealed by some interesting studies at the University of Chicago. Researchers used physiological measures such as heart rate to conclude that the mere potential of getting an electric shock triggered the same degree of fear in subjects as actually receiving the shock. (Kahneman, 2011) Simply exposing people to fear of potential harm is sufficient to trigger the goal set by the marketer.  So, if I manage to instill in you the fear of being robbed, I will improve my chances of selling you a security alarm, insurance, a self-defense course, and even a pepper spray.

In the words of journalist Dan Gardner: “Fear sells. Fear makes money…The more fear, the better the sales. Fear is a fantastic marketing tool…We listen to iPods, read the newspaper, watch television, work on computers…The wonder is not that we sometimes make mistakes about risks. The wonder is that we sometimes get it right.” (Gardner, 2009, p. 15, p. 354) Fear operates directly on our emotions, bypassing awareness, and focuses System 1 on responding to the threat. It may sound cynical, but start by understanding the fears of your audience, develop your website around the targeted emotion, make the emotion available (more on this later), and trigger the target behavior. In a nutshell: make people feel fear and provide them with the remedy.

3.3 Power of feelings: a case study in reciprocity

What happens when we are being offered purple cows in some shape or form? When we are being offered something of value to us, we feel an unconscious need and urge to reciprocate. The words “need” and “urge” are particularly important in distinguishing the strength of reciprocity from a simple feeling of polite appreciation. Psychologists have known for a very long time about the powerful effect elicited by what seem to be spontaneous favors. In fact, the unconscious pressure to reciprocate is so strong that often we are drawn into granting larger favors in return in order to re-establish psychological balance, and remove the pressure of being in debt. (Cialdini, 2007) An interesting experiment by Dennis Reagan gives us a glimpse in how reciprocity works. Volunteers each visited a gallery, ostensibly to rate various paintings. While at the gallery they met another person, who, unknown to them, was an accomplice of the experimenters. During their visit, the accomplice pretended that he had suddenly become thirsty, and offered to bring back a free cola to the unaware volunteer, as well as one for himself. When the tour ended the accomplice presented the volunteer with the chance to buy raffle tickets.

The result?

The small favor of bringing back the coke generated twice as many sales of raffle tickets compared with sales to volunteers who were not offered a drink. (Wiseman, 2010) Similarly, if people seem to make concessions to us we feel the urge to reciprocate by making a concession in return. (Cialdini, 2007)

To further investigate the impact of concessions on decision-making, Robert Cialdini devised an experiment. Cialdini was looking to test college students on their willingness to accompany groups of young juveniles to the zoo, as volunteers. He initially asked the students for a larger favor, which was spending two hours a week as counselors to a juvenile delinquent for a minimum of two years. When this request was refused, as expected, he made a smaller request pitching the product he was actually intending to sell, the zoo trip. Now, given his perceived concession, three times as many students made a concession in return and agreed to volunteer for the zoo trip. (Cialdini, 2007) In this case the contrast principle was also employed, as the zoo trip was perceived as three times as acceptable as the larger request. Cialdini referred to the concession principle as “the door in the face” technique.

Now, consider a situation in which your audience perceives your product as being too expensive. The intention to leave the website is signaled when the website visitor moves the cursor toward the “Close window” button. At this point, an exit pop-up appears offering a concession from the seller, such as a discount, a different package, similar but lower-priced products, and so forth. Because of your making a concession, your audience is now ready to make a concession in return. This further explains Neil Patel’s advice on using exit pop-ups, and his findings that exit pop-ups have been greatly increasing his website conversions. OK, so to recap: reciprocity works by offering something of value to your audience. The principle works on us when we receive a gift we value. Now, without our being aware of the reason, a feeling of stress begins to form: we must reciprocate the gift. And how do we respond? One option is to sign up to the email database of the marketer who offers his gift in return for our details. Indeed, the Oxford Handbook of Internet Psychology explains that people are happy to share personal information if they perceive the benefits to be worth it. (Jones, 2014) Yes, the importance of your purple cow offer or product is being demonstrated yet again.

However, in my experience things are never that easy. On reflection, I have often passed on offers for signing up, even when the offers or products were compelling. Occasionally, my decision has been a simple matter of not having the time, although I have come to realize that often egotism clearly played a part, as well. We make decisions that are consistent with the kind of person we are or aim to be, a principle referred to as self-affirmation. In my case, I felt too smart to get “trapped” into offering my details, and in an almost automatic manner I was looking to re-affirm the type of person I felt I was.

And how do we go about that?

We begin by devaluing the offer. In my case, I thought something along the lines of, “Yet another piece of research on SEO with a great title,” or, “They give it for free, so it can’t be that great.” Furthermore, when the offer was highly compelling, and I could not refuse it, I’d been telling myself, “Ok, I’ll sign up, as I have no choice, but I will unsubscribe when the newsletter comes.” Have you ever been in this situation? And if you signed up, did you read the auto-responder emails that followed? If we are to go by MailChimp’s research, only 34 percent of the auto-responder emails sent by online marketers are being opened. Moreover, email automation was also found to create negative perceptions of the brand. (Jones, 2014) Hence, if your pop-up tool is to help you meet your goals, a great offer is paramount but insufficient on its own. Yes, you want people to sign up because they want to, not because they feel forced to, and a transactional mindset is, more often than not, insufficient.

An unexpected ramification of reciprocity has been dubbed “the Franklin effect” by psychologists; it is a strange behavior noticed by the polymathic politician Benjamin Franklin: you can increase the likelihood of someone liking you simply by asking them to do you a favor. Apparently, Franklin needed the support of one very difficult and apathetic member of the Pennsylvania state legislature. Rather than offering something to him (and triggering reciprocity), Franklin simply asked his target to do him a favor, namely lend him a rare and unusual book from the target’s private library. The person complied, and on subsequent visits he demonstrated an unusual willingness to help Franklin on various issues. A similar finding has since been demonstrated in various social psychology experiments. (Wiseman, 2010) So, next time you are looking to get people to take an action, i.e. share, like, follow, email, you may want to start by first asking for a favor. This will increase their willingness to help on your next request.

3.4 The world gets faster: a feeling of impatience

OK, so you perform a search, you are served with various results on the first page in Google, you click on a website link, and you wait. The very first impression you will get about this website is its speed. Research shows that improving your website’s speed can increase your sales by two-thirds and your conversion rates by 15 percent. Conversely, a one-second delay in accessing a webpage will reduce your conversions by up to seven percent. Moreover, 79 percent of people that have visited a slow website will never visit that website again. (Jones, 2104)

But what happens here? When did we become so impatient?

I don’t know about you, of course, but to me life seems to become faster by the day: news, updates, digital advancements, upgrades— they all happen so fast that I am barely able to keep up. Psychologist Robert Levine has studied the pace of life in 30 cities according to three measures: how fast people walk, how fast postal clerks work, and the accuracy of public clocks. The rankings are not important for our purpose, but the finding that most of the countries involved had experienced a significant increase in the pace of life over the last decade is. (Laham, 2012) Yes, we are busier than ever, and, by implication, our time is scarcer than ever, as well. We value scarce resources more highly, thus we place more value on our scarce time. Interestingly, several follow-ups to this study found that people in countries with a faster pace of life are less likely to help other people. (Laham, 2012)

Making a parallel, these findings suggest that demands for higher page speed may be greater in industrialized, fast-paced countries than in slower-paced countries, and that the acceptable level of page speed may differ from country to country, based on pace of life. And the higher the gap between the pace of life and expected page speed, the less likely people will be to put up with it. Another common mistake I notice when working on clients’ websites is accessibility. Examples include contact forms that are too long, complicated registration processes, complex sales funnels, and much more. Always remember, though, that your audience’s time is a scarce resource. Follow the advice from Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think: keep it simple, easy, and, above all, don’t waste my time. To sum up, obsess about speeding up your website and make it easy for people to access is, navigate it and get in touch.

3.5 Monkey see, monkey do

Emotional contagion is widely used by digital marketers, particularly with video content. Take the example of charities; often, horrific images are screened in an attempt to get people to sympathize, feel the pain of the victims, and take action.  This works, as research has shown that beyond their awareness humans have an ability to read facial expressions, even when no explicit expression is being displayed.

Moreover, as we read other people’s emotions, we internalize their feelings and are more inclined to take the action triggered by that sympathetic feeling. Indeed, neuroscientists know that without being aware of the reason, humans mimic emotions displayed by other people. Research at the University of Parma for example, uncovered the existence of so-called mirror neurons in primates. In his experiments Giacomo Rizzolatti placed electrodes in the parts of primate brains associated with empathy, and monitored the nerve cells that fired both when the animals performed an action themselves and while observing other animals performing the action. (Baron-Cohen, 2012) These findings led to further investigation, and subsequently to confirmation of the existence of mirror neurons in humans, as well. For example, Tania Singer and her colleagues monitored people using fMRI technology and found that as people received a painful stimulus on their hand, one area of the brain associated with empathy, the middle cingulate cortex (MCC), also got activated. Interestingly, the same area of the brain also became activated when the participants observed their partners receiving the stimulus.

Similarly, studies carried out by neuroscientist Jean Decety and his colleagues noticed that while watching someone’s hand being caught in a door the MCC gets activated.

The conclusion is that we are unconsciously placing ourselves in other people’s shoes and internalizing their emotional states and feelings.  In fact, rather than simply imagining the other person’s pain, we somehow feel other people’s sensations, as if they were our own. (Baron-Cohen, 2012) Furthermore, simply imagining ourselves performing an action, enjoying an experience, or using a product activates the parts of the brain that are engaged in actually performing that activity. For example, imagining yourself playing the piano, done alongside sufficient real practice, will most likely lead to an actual improvement in your performance. (Cabane, 2012) To conclude, our ability to empathize is often more of a liability than an asset, leaving us prey to expert marketers engineering their sales funnels to both trigger and cash in on our emotions. Conversely, as a marketer you can leverage these findings to improve your funnel and your conversions.

As an unrelated note, I cannot help smiling when I think of all the popular advice about leadership, psychology, and other disciplines that is placing so much emphasis on a leader’s ability to empathize. Indeed, the more the leader develops his ability to empathize, the more effective he becomes, so they say. And yet, stop for a second and look around your workplace. Who has made it through the ranks in your firm? And ask yourself…have they got there for their ability to feel for others, or is it something else?

3.6 Copy and feelings

I often meet copywriters who produce beautiful copy while paying little or no thought to the feelings or behavior that the copy is intended to trigger. However, in the right hands the copy of your website is a powerful tool, and can make all the difference between great success and mediocrity. Take a classic experiment by psychologist John Bargh and his team at New York University, who asked two groups to put together a set of four-word sentences from five available words. The first group was allocated words associated with the idea of “old”: Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, and wrinkle. The students left the classroom with no realization that the important part of the experiment was only just beginning. Bargh and his team measured the amount of time it took students to walk from the beginning to the end of the corridor, and found that students who were exposed to the concept of “old” walked down the corridor significantly more slowly than the second group did. (Kahneman, 2011)

Similarly, in an experiment that primed people with negative feelings such as sorrow, grief, and heartbreak, the people stated that they would pay less money for a box of chocolates than a control group were prepared to pay (Dolan, 2015).

And in yet another example, a wine described as expensive ($90 per bottle) was perceived to be a better wine than it was when it was presented as a $10 per bottle wine. (Bloom. 2011)

As psychologist Richard Wiseman concludes: “The ways in which we think and feel are frequently influenced by factors outside our awareness…Just reading a sentence can influence how old we feel and our recall of general knowledge. A simple smile or subtle touch can influence how much we tip in restaurants and bars. The music played in shops…influences the amount of money we spend.” (Wiseman, , 2007, p. 148)

Another common mistake made by many content writers is using complex vocabulary that looks good on paper. However, studies by Oppenheimer found that “couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility” (Kahneman, 2011, p. 63). The moral of the story is that if you are a Poundland-like business, a pawnbroker that deals in luxury goods, or a fork-lift truck company, simple does it. This is also true for the fonts you use for the copy, and every SEO audit must include a check of readability of your copy. For example, Oppenheimer also found that passages written in a font which was difficult to read impacted negatively on the perceived intelligence of the author. (Wiseman, 2010)

The conclusion: if your goal is to improve the perception of your website, easy to read copy really does make a difference. Readability, Grammar, and Yoast’s SEOs are just a few examples of tools that have inbuilt readability modules. At the risk of repeating myself let me say that these ideas seem obvious, but in my experience content writers and web designers are often delivering something that shows off their skills but makes their site more complicated than it needs to be; it is your role as business owner to rein them in and provide appropriate feedback.

The name of your website and names of your products are another factor that can have a strong impact on the performance of your website or product. For example, in one experiment participants were asked to evaluate reports from two companies named Artan and Taahhut. Subjects gave more credit to the company they could think of more easily (Artan), presumably because they unconsciously avoided the cognitive effort of thinking about the more complicated name. (Kahneman, 2011) Another study found that companies with names that are more easily pronounceable (Emmi, Swissfirst or Comet) did better than companies with more-difficult names (Geberit, Ypsomed) in the first week after their stock was issued. (Kahneman, 2011)

I experienced this first hand when, as a training project, I was building my first website for a translation agency I was looking to launch. After much deliberation I decided to go with “”. At first glance this seems sensible; however, at a closer look you will notice that the letter “t” is missing after “Best”. Every time I was trying to type the name of my company into Google I had to make a conscious effort to stop and think about the name, adding further cognitive pressure on myself to the point that I simply started to type “best translations” into Google. Of course, being newly built, my website was nowhere close to being on the first page in Google, which meant that any of my clients who typed “best translations” into Google were being served competitors’ websites.

Let’s conclude our discussion on copy with a review of the approach usually employed by content writers, SEO teams, or PPC consultants when writing copy. In a simplistic way the process goes something like this: a keyword research is carried out, groups of keywords are allocated to specific pages based on keyword themes, and content is created in line with the theme. Of course, very little thought is being paid to the finer conversion optimization actions as exhibited in the brilliant New York University experiment, where the words associated with being old affected the actions of the subjects. I only hope that you will now put plenty of thought into writing your copy.

3.7 Images and feelings

SEOs generally encourage website owners to include a variety of content on a page, with text, images, videos, and infographics often being mentioned. The idea behind this is that website visitors will find the page more interesting and relevant; thus time-on-site metrics will improve, which in turn will send signals to search engines regarding the relevance of your page.

Again, too often designers, SEOs, or business owners pick up generic or cool Shutterstock images without much thought about the feelings these images might trigger subconsciously in their website’s visitors.  As long as it looks cool, clean and is somehow in line with the perceived brand identity, the designer is happy, and the client is happy as well. Furthermore, most business owners will very rarely, if ever, change images on their website.  Of course, as you have probably already guessed, this is both a mistake and the loss of a significant lead generation opportunity. Take for example an experiment during which researchers served the participants with images of classrooms and school lockers, significantly increasing support rates for a school initiative; (Kahneman, 2011) or consider another experiment carried out in an office kitchen at a British University. For many years, staff members helped themselves to tea and coffee and paid by contributions to an honesty box, based on a list of suggested prices. Over a period of 10 weeks, researchers tested the changes in contributions when an image of a pair of watching eyes accompanied the honesty box vs. an image of flowers. Researchers found that during the “eyes” weeks contributions to the honesty box was three times as high as in the “flowers” weeks. In simple terms, researchers successfully triggered in the unsuspecting participants a feeling of being watched, which resulted in three times as many “conversions.” (Kahneman, 2011)

However, nowhere was the impact of images made clearer than in an experiment carried out by Gibson and Zillman. The researchers presented 135 people with two articles, a genuine one about wetlands and a fictitious one about Blowing Rock Disease, a non-existent disease supposedly spread by ticks, particularly to children. The articles were compiled in three variations: one with no image, a second one with a general image of ticks, and a third one had images of both ticks and of children that were believed to be infected. When presented with the child images, the article triggered a significantly higher emotional response, and the risk was considered higher than in the other two conditions. (Gardner, 2009) In essence, the perception of the article and the emotional response it triggered were down to the images used, rather than the text. And all it took was an understanding of the feelings to be triggered in the audience and employing the correct image to trigger them. This is the real power of imagery on your website.

In the online world, as a web designer, SEO, remarketing specialist, or business owner, you must remember that arousing feelings is always more important than being cool. Always start with the end goal in mind: what feelings will trigger the conversion, and what images, copy, or videos will trigger the feelings? Now, you can start designing your website; choose your images, copy, and other assets that will trigger the appropriate feelings.

3.8 Videos and feelings

Given the huge leaps in machine learning technology, including Google’s newly developed ability to “read” videos, SEOs have been increasingly encouraging webmasters and businesses to include videos in pages, and to repeat keywords and variations of them throughout the video. However, the power of videos impacts digital businesses well beyond the obvious SEO benefit. For a start, videos can get your message across and show off your products far better than any still image could ever do. I often come across websites where webmasters are posting generic, bland, and uninspiring videos with no other goal in mind than presenting a brand, service, or product. At times, webmasters go a step beyond that and mold the video around the optimizing guidelines provided by the SEO guy or his digital marketing agency. What a wasted opportunity to engage people with the product, service, or brand. I cannot re-emphasize enough the idea that it is not about being cool, but about the feelings you intend to trigger in the audience visiting your website.

My suggestion is: incorporate SEO within your video if possible, but mold your video around the feelings that will trigger conversions. Start with the audience in mind, understand the emotions you have to trigger with your video, and only then create the video. And remember that people do not make logical decisions, they buy what they want not what they need, what they feel, not what is right. In the words of psychologist Bruce Hood: “Feelings are the reasons humans do anything. Feelings motivate us to go to work, fall in love…enjoy life or not.” (Hood, 2009, p. 85) Similarly, what we feel about a website, product, or piece of content often determines what we do next within the funnel.

3.9 Sound and feelings

We have seen how images and videos impact the number of conversions on your website. There is one conversion ingredient whose role in converting audiences is even more often overlooked than images and video, and that is sound. Just as with images and videos, far too many websites display videos with no consideration to the feelings that the soundtrack needs to trigger. We all know that the right video and soundtrack on your website make us feel rapport with the seller, but don’t seem to fully appreciate the impact they have on our decisions. Take an experiment where a bland, peaceful soundtrack was played with the goal of calming people down in claustrophobic situations, such as when taking an elevator. The soundtrack generated a 14 percent increase in the production of an important immune chemical, whereas jazz music generated seven percent, and no increase occurred when no music was played.

In another experiment, people who were undertaking bronchial therapy recovered faster when listening to music by Bach. (Trivers, 2011) Yet another experiment found that in a supermarket, people purchased more French wine when the background music was French, but purchased more German wine when the music played was German. (Dolan, 2015) Trivers concluded that “the right kind of music can induce positive feelings,” (Trivers, 2011, p. 133) while Nolan concluded that “listening to music…most strongly affects the brain region associated with positive emotions and memory in a way that no other input to our happiness production process can.” (Dolan, 2015, p. 146) Of course, by now we know that when we experience positive feelings our perceptions change, we are more altruistic, rely more on the automatic and biased System 1, which in turn leaves us prey to external influences.

3.10 Familiarity and feelings

It seems that the more exposed we are to a product, the more we get to like the product; an idea which is referred to as the familiarity principle. The main reason for this positive predisposition to familiar products is the fact that “repetition induces cognitive ease and a comforting feeling.” (Kahneman, 2011, p. 66) This being so, familiarity pays, which is why marketers go to great lengths to induce in us comforting feelings of familiarity. Byron Sharp explains in his book How Brands Grow that “familiarity breeds liking. Usage also breeds familiarity and brand knowledge. This in turn breeds liking.” (Sharp, 2010, p. 91)

Indeed, research shows that prior usage of a brand, website, or product leads to a person being more favorable toward it. (Sharp, 2010) Familiarity is one reason why remarketing campaigns are so effective. For example a 2015 article published by Wordstream concludes: “We’ve found that conversion rates actually increase the more users see an ad within remarketing campaigns.” (Kim, 2018) In simple terms, the more people were exposed to ads, the better the conversion rates. Moreover, studies by psychologists such as Gary Klein have found that we are more likely to compare various options with our current choice when the option available to us is unfamiliar. (Klein, 1999)

Thus, we scrutinize more an unfamiliar product, and compare it against competing products. By contrast, when familiar with the product, System 1 takes over, decisions are then made on autopilot, and habit provides an excellent shortcut by instigating repeat behavior. Charles Duhigg defines habits as “choices that we make at some point deliberately and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.” (Duhigg, 2012, p. xvii)  As long as you continue to deliver what I expect, I will, from habit look forward to opening your emails. Two psychologists at the University of Southern California summed that up nicely: “Consumers sometimes act like creatures of habit, automatically repeating past behavior with little regard to current goals.” (Duhigg, 2012) Moreover, a study by Duke University has found that 40 percent of the actions people take daily are not decisions but habits. (Duhigg, p. 2012) Of course, always remember not to disappoint my expectations: less but with great quality is better than more with mediocre quality.

3.11 And remember…not everyone sees red

Most marketers and webmasters will be familiar with the recommendations to make call-to-action buttons visible, to split test colors, positions, and other elements on webpages. For example, Amazon displays prices in red, a color that is often recommended as being more “action oriented”. Browse around the web and have a look at some of your favorite websites. How many of these websites make use of colors to drive action and conversions? And yet research carried out at Oxford University indicates that red works more on men than on women. In fact, the study found that a red button made no difference to the purchasing behavior of women. (Jones, 2014)

Now consider a website whose target audience is mainly women. The conversion optimization or SEO person may have learned from many tests that red converts best, so they go for it. Of course, they may not be aware that red has little or no impact on women, and end up diminishing, or losing altogether, their chances of improving the conversion rate of their website. Many DIY webmasters are influenced by this conversion-optimization-by-color convention. It is beyond the scope of this book to review the effects of every single color, but you now know that you should do your research on colors to find those best aligned to your target audience.

3.12 So, what did we learn?

To begin with, refrain from offering content or products that will not arouse some feeling in people. Informative but emotionless text, and video or audio created for SEO alone are just two examples of what we have been discussing. A/B split testing is another example. Webmasters test colors or sizes of CTAs, such as Buy Now buttons, images, and headings, with no consideration for the feelings these CTAs might trigger. For example, two different countries, one blessed with wonderful weather, the other not so lucky, may need different images and perhaps different colors.

Most multinational companies translate and localize national versions of their website based on keyword research at local level. Keywords with higher search volumes and which enhance the theme of the website then dictate the content strategy for the page. The “right” user intent is often mentioned; after all, if I type, “buy sweater” into Google, I will mindlessly take the opportunity of clicking your large red “BUY NOW” button. You see this every day, even though research has shown that 90 percent of the time we will continue our search and your big red button will do nothing to convert it. Similarly, research tells us that if I am a woman the red color of your big button will have no influence on the likelihood of my  buying your product. Nevertheless, we know that people’s decision-making is prone to influence by many external factors, feelings, and emotions. Looking to increase conversions in a bad weather country? You may want to put extra effort into ensuring that your copy spreads some happiness first. Of course, if depression is what you’re targeting, then suggestive images and videos and bad weather will be just the right mix; but, you will need to work much harder to change the contagious and annoying positive mood in the warmer and sunnier country. Looking to trigger a feeling of fear, maybe to sell a new security system? Just talk about the number of houses that could have been affected by a potential security breach recently.

Make people feel happy and safe; they will reward you with more trust and be more inclined to help, i.e., share, like, buy, subscribe. Provide people with distinct experiences; they will remember you more, as the Von Restorff effect—people remember the unusual—has proved. Expose them to and build their familiarity with your products in a non-intrusive way (e.g. Remarketing, Native advertising, Organic and Paid social, encourage initial usage, free samples); they will feel more positive toward it.

Remember that when feelings of reciprocity occur, people may not be able to explain why they have those feelings or the reason for their actions. And sometimes simply asking for a favor rather than offering one works better at triggering benevolence—the Franklin effect. Above all, a “purple cow” mindset is paramount at all times. Obsess about user experience, whether it be in the name of your website, speed, or on-page funnels; people’s patience decreases as the pace of life increases.

To sum up, researching and understanding the feelings that will trigger conversions should always precede content creation and optimization, and that is of equal importance to, if not more important than, keyword research. After all, there is little value in bringing people to your website if 90 percent will continue their search in pastures new. In truth, it is likely that, regardless of your efforts, people will continue their search on other websites. Thus, it is also important that your website, page, or product be remembered when the actual purchase decision is made. First impressions matter, last impressions matter, and the choices and experiences you offer matter as well, but the feelings that those things trigger are what matters most.


4.1 Beware the large incentive trap…

One misconception marketers seem to have is that both large incentives and lead magnets will grow email lists and induce commitment. This misconception is mainly due to an assumption of reciprocity: the more I give you, the more you will give me. However, by offering high-value lead magnets or gifts you present your audience with the perfect way to explain away your gift: “It was the high value gift, rather than my appreciation of the website, that prompted me to download the gift and provide my email details.”

The negative impact of large rewards on people’s perception of a task is well documented. Specifically, when larger rewards are being provided, people engage less in the activity they have been incentivized to perform. (Sutherland, 2007) This is because those people now associate their behavior with the large incentive rather than with enjoyment in performing the activity. Hence, your offer, gift, or lead magnet must be of a low monetary value but high intrinsic value to your audience. In my experience, website owners or digital marketers pay very little attention to creating lead magnets that will engage audiences with their brand, product, or website beyond the transactional level.

In this context, business owners and marketers offer lead magnets with an “I give you this, you give me that in return” mindset. For example, some marketers provide discounts via sticky headers or various pop-ups as a mean of attracting new leads. You see pop-ups promoting discounts or special offers for new customers, brands running discount campaigns in supermarkets, and 50–70 percent reduction offers are being made by retailers throughout the year. The trouble is that, more often than not, discounts do not attract new customers, but rather reduce revenue. Indeed, research by Ehrenberg, Hammond, and Goodhardt revealed that most purchases during discounting campaigns came from people who had purchased the brand previously, hence from existing rather than new customers. (Sharp, 2010) And even when discounts attract new buyers, a large proportion of those buyers are driven purely by price and revert back to their previous buying behavior when the promotion ends.

Psychologists refer to this pattern as the “purchase reinforcement effect.” (Sharp, 2010, p.  157) The motivation for this behavior is easy to see: the large discount allows website visitors to explain away the reason for their purchases in terms of “I bought this product because of the large savings rather because I am committed to the website, brand, or product.” Of course, when promotional campaigns are aimed at increasing short-term sales vs. long-term loyalty acquisition, then price discounts will often meet your goals. In fact, research has shown that on average you can expect increases of around 25 percent from a 10 percent price cut. (Sharp, 2010) One classic example revealing how strong the impact of discounts is on people’s behavior is a phenomenon accidentally discovered by an automobile tire company. The company had printed in error some batches of discount coupons that in reality offered no discounts at all. The surprise came when the response rate to theses coupons was as high as the response rate to coupons that were actually offering discounts. Hence, simply packaging the deal as a special offer was worthwhile.

Another thing to keep in mind, though, is that before deciding on a discounting strategy you must consider yet another effect of price discounts, which is the decline in sales after the promotion. This could happen because people have purchased more than they would normally buy, or as mentioned above, because people revert to their earlier purchasing behavior. (Sharp, 2010) In the end, if commitment is what you are looking for, then large discounts will merely provide your audience with a way of explaining their purchasing behavior and the reasons for reading your article or for allowing you to add their details to your email list.

4.2 …but don’t be afraid of using Free

For all its popularity, it is surprising to see that many marketers dismiss “Free” as an outdated concept living its last days. The argument is that as people have gotten smarter they now see beyond “Free”. In reality, the belief is caused by the misuse of “Free,” with many businesses lacking understanding of why and how “Free” is supposed to work. Indeed, most businesses use “Free” more as a word than as a psychological principle. They offer “free this” and “free that,” and when it’s not working out as they wanted it to, they come to the conclusion that “Free” doesn’t work. It was set up to fail.

So when does “Free” work?

Firstly, the idea of a free gift employs the reciprocity rule. We have already discussed reciprocity earlier in the article. A reminder: on receiving an unexpected favor we feel a significant urge to offer a favor in return. Very often, in order to reduce the cognitive strain we return favors much larger than the favors we receive. However, as previously stated, the free gift you offer on your website must be perceived by your audience as a purple cow, there simply is no way around it. Too often, people are being met with pop-ups, emails, or other online growth hacking techniques, demanding that they provide their contact details and loyalty in exchange for a product, report, or some other lead magnet that is of little or no value to the them. Even when it works and people do sign up, you are simply allowing your hard-earned visitors to explain away your gift: “I have downloaded simply out of curiosity.” This, not surprisingly, results in an unsuccessful “Free” strategy.

“Free” also employs the reciprocity rule in a more unexpected way. As a digital marketer you often come across various tools offering free trials. Leadfeeder is one such tool that comes to mind. Most people think of free trials as a low risk opportunity offered by companies to showcase their product. Given that digital products are very cheap, if not free, to replicate, free-gift customers most often don’t cost you a thing. From the customer’s point of view, as well, if they like the product they can of course sign up, and if they don’t then no harm has been done. This perception is sound and makes sense at first glance. However, many experiments have shown that, in a cause-and-effect way, once you take the trial you feel an urge to reciprocate. (Cialdini, 2007)

Remember the name of Steve Krug’s book?  It was Don’t make me think. “Free” works in that sort of way, as revealed by another experiment by Dan Ariely.  Ariely found that, when offered a choice between a 1¢ candy and a 26¢ candy, most people took the 26¢ candy. But when offered a choice between a free candy and the 26¢ candy, most people went for the free option. (Caldwell, 2012) I think we can agree that the difference between 1¢ and free is insignificant, and yet it made such a difference.

4.3 The power of (wrong) associations

We have discussed briefly people’s tendency to presume associations between what may well be unrelated traits and characteristics. For example, confident or loud marketers are often associated with expert status; expensive products or great-looking websites are associated with great quality. This tendency is a powerful tool in the hands of marketers who leverage it for the purpose of triggering specific feelings in their audiences.

Take one study of men who were presented with an advertisement for a new car. In one version an attractive woman was included in the ad.

The result?

Men rated the car faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking, and better designed than did the control group, which was served the ad without the attractive woman. (Cialdini, 2007) But why did they rate the car faster? The answer is provided by a very similar experiment carried out by psychologist James Roney. Roney first presented groups of young boys with two pictures, one of an attractive young woman and one of an older woman. When asked to fill in surveys which measured their different attitudes, Roney found that the group that was presented with the image of an attractive woman valued ambition, material wealth, and status more than the control group did . (Laham, 2012)

And, when in a lustful mood men are more likely to cooperate if we go by the finding of an experiment where male skateboarders were asked to perform 10 tricks in a University of Queensland study. When the researcher was an attractive woman, the participants took more chances in performing more-difficult skateboarding tricks than they did when the researcher was a man. (Laham, 2012) It appears that when the attractive researcher conducted the study, men felt more adventurous and courageous, and adapted their behavior in line with their feelings. This is similar to why conversion optimization consultants encourage webmasters to add or increase the visibility of signs associating or linking their businesses with professional bodies, professional institutions and such like. By implication, these associations transfer credibility to the business and the website, acting in the same way that social proof acts. After all, if a company is a member of this well know professional body, then the company must have the same high values. Of course, if we look closer, there is nothing really indicating that that is true.

Which takes me to the next interesting aspect of associations, which is the tendency people have to look for associations and patterns, even where none exist. The famous award winning “Linda” experiment carried out by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverski provides a brilliant example of wrong associations at work. The two researchers provided a description of a person they called Linda, and asked the participants whether Linda was more likely to be a bank teller or a feminist bank teller. Based on the information provided, the logic was clearly pointing out that Linda was more likely to be a bank teller, and yet surprisingly 85 to 90 percent of the subjects thought that her concerns about discrimination and feminism made her more likely to be a feminist bank teller. (Kahneman, 2011)

Online, tools like Sniply use the principle of wrong associations brilliantly: the high authority source of a Sniped shared article or product lends its authority to your snip. With Sniply marketers overlay a message bar on a popular article and share it under the assumption that people will extend the authority of the article or website to the Snip. After all, an overlay message would not appear on a high-quality website unless the content were valuable, right?

Similarly, Birdsong enables you to share popular articles and display your own subscription pop-up, prompting people to subscribe to what they perceive to be the email list of the host website, the authority figure. Of course, both Sniply and Birdsong serve up a copy of the webpage rather than the original, but most people will not notice the difference. Do keep in mind though that, particularly in Birdsong, you are in fact tricking people into signing up to your list. This may work well in specific niches, though it most often would be inefficient in building engagement. On the other hand, a foot in the door may be better than nothing, and if the content or products you offer are consistently purple cows you may have a better chance than if you did nothing at all. You can leverage this principle in many other creative ways to improve conversion rates and the perceived authority of your page, product, or website. For example, sharing articles of influencers in your niche improves your being perceived as a knowledgeable person. Writing articles and quoting influencers and so forth can also transfer authority to your website.

4.4 Everything is relative

The relativity principle points to another strange behavior that we humans display, which is deriving enjoyment from comparing our achievements with the achievements of our friends and colleagues. (Sharot, 2012) One classic experiment by Kahneman found that people preferred to work for less money if their wages were higher than those of their colleagues. So, if you ask me to work for you for $30k, I will most often say yes if I know that other people working for you are being paid around $25k. But if you asked me to work for you for $35k and told me that those other people are on $45k, I would most likely see this as a loss. This is funny in a way, as research has also shown that after reaching a certain income level, we do not become happier with more money but become rather more stressed. To continue the financial example, we continue to push ourselves and sacrifice our time to earn more money than our colleagues, in spite of many studies showing that, beyond a threshold of $75,000, increases in earnings do not correlate with improvements in happiness and wellbeing. (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010)

Leaderboard tools leverage relativity by displaying real time updates on the progress and scores of game-players. This keeps people engaged; after all we don’t want to be beaten by the Joneses—a cliché, I know, but ever so true. The great flexibility the tools offer in terms of the purpose of the contest means that marketers can again tailor the contest to the audience, and induce particular feelings. I must say that I do find it mesmerizing to observe how people share more, like more, or take specified actions more, simply to come out on top with no other reward than the feeling associated with winning. A truly great growth-hacking category of tools that leverage the power of relativity in a brilliant way.

4.5 Probabilities suck…

Study after study confirms that intuitive System 1 deals better with numbers than with probabilities, an idea labeled as the denominator neglect principle. Consider an experiment that was carried out on two groups of people. The first group was told that a certain disease kills 1,286 out of every 10,000 people. The second group was informed that the disease kills 24.14 percent of people. The results? People in the first group judged the disease to be far more dangerous than the people in percentage group. (Kahneman, 2010) You may therefore find that “7 out of 10 people recommended us” works far better than “70 percent of customers recommended our product.”

Another aspect of framing is people’s tendency to pay attention to copy that evokes negative feelings. In one experiment a number of physicians were presented with two descriptions of risks associated with the treatment of lung cancer by surgery or radiation. When the stats for surgery were presented as, “The one month survival rate is 90 percent,” 84 percent of the physicians opted for surgery vs. radiation. But when the same stats were presented as “There is a 10 percent mortality rate in the first month,” 50 percent of the physicians proposed radiation. The simple act of framing surgery as something bad was sufficient to decrease “conversion” by 34 percent of the sample group. (Kahneman 2011) In yet another experiment, beef that was described as “75 percent lean” was rated much higher than when presented as “25 percent fat.” (Gardner, 2009,p. 94) Similarly, a 75-percent-fat-free burger is perceived as different from the same burger framed as a 25-percent-fat burger. (Taleb, 2007)

4.6 Give people a reason…any reason

One surprising concept I have come across while reading Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The science of persuasion, is that of providing people with a reason to take the action you require. We seem to be wired to always seek an explanation for anything that happens; as the old saying goes, “Everything happens for a reason.” And, when no reason exists we find one, weird though it they may be. Take an experiment carried out by Ellen Langer of Harvard, when 94 percent of the people queuing to use a Xerox machine allowed her to skip the queue when she provided a reason for having to do so. Must have been a very compelling reason, right? In fact, no. Langer simply added to her request, “because I am in a rush.” Her request became, “May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” By contrast only 60 percent of the people allowed her to use the machine when she provided no reason for it: “May I use the Xerox machine?” Things got even more interesting when Langer provided another reason: “May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make some copies?” Of course, everyone was queuing to make some copies, and yet simply providing people with a reason delivered a “conversion” of 93 percent. (Cialdini, 2007)

So, next time you write and promote your offer via a pop-up, email, social locker, or similar growth hacking tool, you may want to split test, giving people a reason for performing the action you require, e.g., “I have worked n days to write this article”; “Buy this product because…”

4.7 The tick that makes the difference…

After all that I’ve been saying about getting people committed to your brand, content, or product, you may be puzzled by this assertion: sometimes, getting people to subscribe is simply a matter of the way you frame your request. Consider a 2003 study of organ donor rates, which found that people’s decisions to sign up were down to the manner in which the question was being asked. In countries with high donor rates the question was being framed in an opt-out form, which meant that if you did not want to sign up you had to untick the box. Ok, you may think, but surely the difference for opt-in conversion rates cannot be that high; after all, if you don’t want to sign up it only takes a second to opt out. Well, organ donor rates in Austria were close to 100 percent vs. only 12 percent in Germany, while Sweden had a rate of 86 percent vs. 4 percent in Denmark due to that simple difference. (Kahneman, 2011)

In fact, I now pay more attention to how the “subscribe to our newsletter” forms are presented to me on websites. Try it yourself; you will be surprised how often you will have to untick the subscribe box. One word of caution, though: this opt in or opt out approach may work for organ donor recruitment and similar goals. However, if engagement is what you are looking for, then this approach will be very inefficient.  After all, why would I feel engaged with something I never signed up to in the first place?

4.8 And…ask them a question

People love questions, which seem to be far more effective than simple statements. For example, an experiment carried out by Robert Burnkrant and Daniel Howard found that people were more likely to support a policy when the arguments were presented as questions than when they were presented as statements. (Pink, 2013) But how do we apply this online? It is actually quite simple, and pop-up tools such as Hello Bar offer the option of preceding the core pop-up offer with a question. Neil Patel is one digital marketer who comes to mind for having used a Hello Bar with the preceding, “Do You Want More Traffic?” encouraging people to click on YES before continuing to its core lead magnet.

4.9 Money counts…just not in the way you may think

People expect online prices to be on average eight percent lower than High Street prices, under the assumption that online businesses incur lower costs. (Jones, 2014) Similarly, I don’t know about you, but for me, special offers somehow seem more “special” online. Thus, as a general rule of thumb, promoting the idea that people get better deals online is beneficial. And, creating the illusion of lower prices as opposed to actually offering lower prices can go a very long way. You can observe this principle at work both on the High Street and online. For example, slogans like “Sale now on” do not say much about the size of discounts, and yet we rush in, full of expectations of massive discounts that we will benefit from.

Let us turn our attention to some of the principles and concepts that marketers leverage, or should leverage, to further improve their conversions and margins.

One of the marketing tools most often used is the contrast principle, which plays to the tendency people have to perceive different products and assess them based on contrasts between the products. For example, if a second product is very different from a first, we perceive the second product as being more different than it actually is. (Cialdini, 2007) Online retailers leverage this principle by selling expensive products first, and follow up the sale with cheaper upselling products that will complement the purchase. Given the contrast to the high cost of the first purchase, the lower-cost product is now perceived as a bargain. By contrast, if your first purchase is of low cost, a higher-cost product will then seem excessively expensive.

Psychologist Robert Cialdini tells the story of a real estate salesperson who started his routine by taking potential customers to see rundown properties at inflated prices. Only after this process did the real estate seller present the house he actually intended to sell. This house was now perceived as a bargain when compared with the houses presented earlier. (Cialdini, 2007) So, when constructing your sales funnel, you may want to promote your most expensive product first, and follow up with less-expensive add-ons. You might also consider presenting two products side by side, offering one product with simple functionality at an inflated price, and the second full functionality product for only a slightly higher price. The goal is to reduce the appeal of the cheaper version, prompting the audience to purchase the product you really wanted to sell in the first place. Many of the tools I present in this book leverage this principle by showing side by side a product with limited features and a second full functionality product for a small increase in price.

Psychologist Dan Ariely also provides several examples of the contrast principle in practice. Take the restaurant owner introducing the highest-priced item so he can sell the second highest-priced item. Or the TV salesman who intends to sell his $850 Toshiba TV by displaying it on the same shelf with a $690 Panasonic and a $1480 Philips. (Ariely, 2009) A derivation of this principle is the practice of surrounding your object with dissimilar objects, in order to make your product stand out, or surrounding your product with similar products when you need your product to blend in and be associated with more-popular products. (Gilbert, 2007)

Another way to influence your audience is by displaying three products side by side. In this case you are trying to persuade website visitors to choose the middle option. This is a very common practice in the digital world. You reach the pricing page, which displays a basic low-priced package, a middle-priced pro package, and an expensive enterprise package. Most often the middle-priced package is clearly underlined and a “Most Popular” badge is visible as well. For example, you can observe this principle on the pricing page of the Moz Local tool. Also note how packages are being lined up, starting with the lowest value, followed by the middle package, and, on the right hand side, the enterprise package. Many other websites add an extra package, having Free, Basic, Pro, and Agency packages.

You may not consciously pay attention to the order of packages on the page; however, many studies have shown people to have a preference toward items on the right hand side of the display. In one experiment psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson set up a display table outside a bargain store and presented passers-by with four pairs of nylon pantyhose, displayed on a table. They labeled the items A to D from left to right. As they passed by, people were being asked to assess the quality of the items and, overall, pair A was preferred by 12 percent of people, pair B by 17 percent, pair C by 31 percent, and pair D by 40 percent. The catch is that all pairs were in fact identical and the only variation was in their position. (Wilson, 2002) This experiment and many other similar studies suggest that improving sales and conversion rates may at times have less to do with the product and more to do with positioning your core package as far to the right side as possible. An example would include displaying your packages from left to right as Free, Basic, Enterprise (most expensive) and Pro (advertised as most popular).

Let us now revisit a sales technique that we discussed a bit earlier in the book: the “door in the face” technique. Online marketers often employ this method when looking to sell lower-priced products by offering a more expensive product first. However, at times, “door in the face” may not be the most appropriate approach. This could be for a variety of reasons, including a price sensitive audience, new untested products, and first-time customers who are unwilling to splash out without testing a product. In these cases, Cialdini proposes the “foot in the door” technique and suggests that offering a lower-priced product will gain people’s commitment to a product or brand, making it easier to subsequently upsell other products. As always your lower cost product must be a purple cow, though it should not represent your core business. This is important, as offering a core product at a lower price first will only devalue it by setting up the wrong anchor price and associations of quality; i.e., cheap equals bad/OK quality.

But how does “foot in the door” actually look in practice?

To better understand the workings of this technique consider the following scenario: like many people, you agree to display on your car/house window a small sign promoting safe driving. This simple action makes you feel good about yourself, and reinforces your ideal self. Two weeks later you are approached again. This time you are being asked to place a large, ugly-looking sign in your garden displaying the message, “Drive Carefully.” This would change the look and feel of your garden, and there are problems of space limitations and flexibility. Having already accepted to place a small sign in your window, would you agree to it? Many of us are certain that we would resist and refuse. However, if we consider an experiment by Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser, 76 percent of us would in fact agree to displaying the large, ugly banner. (Ross & Nisbett, 2011) Of course, you may argue that given the nature of the good cause people would have accepted anyway, therefore no psychology mumbo-jumbo here. However, further findings of the study will contradict you: only 17 percent of people agreed to display the large, ugly sign when the “foot in the door” technique was not employed. Hence, getting people to commit to taking a small step initially resulted in a large majority of people subsequently agreeing to a larger concession.

Digital marketers often employ this principle for building momentum in selling their higher-priced products. Some examples include digital marketing tools offering free trials or lower-cost packages with limited functionality. Retailers also push lower-cost or discounted products followed by more-expensive products via recommendations such as, “People who bought this also bought this,” or by recommending discounted products which have higher prices or margins.

To complement the “foot in the door” technique you can use what is labeled as the “diminishing sensitivity” principle, which refers to the subjective difference between the way people evaluate products or offers. Specifically, the higher the prices of the products, the lower is perceived the price difference and the easier to upsell the more expensive product. As a practical example, the subjective difference between $900 and $1000 is much lower than the subjective difference between $100 and $200. (Kahneman, 2011) As a customer you experience this principle regularly. Take something as simple as buying a suit. You enter a shop having a set budget in mind; you look around, and find a suit within your budget. But then you notice another suit. You really love this suit and it only costs $50 more. You decide to buy the slightly more expensive suit even though the $50 gap took you over your maximum budget. I am guilty as charged for falling prey over and over again to this simple trick.

From another perspective, though, price levels may at times have little to do with intrinsic worth, and quite a bit to do with manipulating the expectations people hold. Many experiments have shown that people use prices as cues for assessing the quality of products. Take an experiment where a bottle of wine was presented with a $40 label and subsequently with a $7 label. People perceived the higher priced wine as being of better quality. Funnily enough, the fMRI studies carried out throughout the experiment found that the part of the brain associated with sensing pleasure experienced more intense activation when people believed the wine was more expensive. (Caldwell, 2012)

OK, so marketers do make more money out of the $40 bottle. But sometimes, price sensitivity can be an issue. How to get around it, you may ask.  Marketers use another brilliant trick in encouraging the purchase of more-expensive products. And the winner is…monthly rates. Monthly rates represent in my opinion one of the smartest and finest inventions marketing has ever seen. First, as a marketer, by deferring payment over a period of time, you reduce the perceived risk and cost. Second, you are increasing the overall price of the product. In one telling experiment people were willing to pay up to 50 percent more for a product when allowed to defer the payment, a principle labeled the “hyperbolic effect.” (Caldwell, 2012, p.106) Third, you can more easily offer upsells—available at a low monthly rate, of course. And fourth, the customer is primed to buy again or upgrade at the end of the agreement.

One mistake many online stores are prone to making is pursuing incremental price discounted strategies. Many online stores introduce discounts at a lower rate, let’s say 30 percent, and incrementally raise the discount rate because the product is not selling. For example, if I visited the clearance section of your website and purchased a product discounted by 30 percent, I might see the same product at a later stage with a 70-percent discount tag. You really don’t need to be a psychologist to deduce that I will feel cheated and experience a feeling of loss. In one study people found in a catalogue that a discounted product they had already purchased from that source was being offered at a greater discount. Those people promptly reduced their purchases from the company concerned by 15 percent, an average of $90 per customer. (Kahneman, 2011) I am hoping you have recognized loss aversion at work there, with the loss being perceived as real, in spite of the savings associated with the initial discount.

I have been employed in commercial environments for most of my working life, whether managing hotels as a General Manager, running digital marketing campaigns for both SMEs and iconic brands, or managing various language projects as part of the conference interpreting agency I have been running. I have liaised with a variety of teams in marketing, revenue management, sales, brand management, and digital. It always goes the same way: we talk about the company, its identity, its clients, the segmentation of the clients, and so forth. But at no point do any of these experienced professionals ever ask a very important question: who’s paying?

Allow me to explain. You and I both know that while purchasing for ourselves we conduct more research; we compare more and we scrutinize a greater variety of product features and price options. In contrast, when we purchase on behalf of someone else, be it a company, boss, or client, the “other people’s money’” effect applies; that is, we scrutinize less and are willing to pay more. The funny part is that we do not consciously act in this manner, we just do it. The “other people’s money” effect works by removing the emotional barrier of parting with our own money. (Caldwell, 2012) In simple terms, as we are not using our own money, we experience less emotion; i.e., we experience no feeling of loss when missing out on a better deal. In fact, we are happy to “satisfice” our decision-making when spending other people’s money, yet we are significantly more exacting when spending our own cash. A result of this is that by segmenting your audience into own money and company money can achieve some great benefits in terms of both sales and margins. Decision makers, such as purchase managers, marketing directors, and department managers are much quicker to part with the cash, and they scrutinize less.

Finally, let us briefly touch on the moral aspect of the so-called social values so proudly displayed by many brands and companies.  The past couple of years marked the rise of a new type of charity work: companies donating a portion of their profits to charity with every purchase people make.  And it works, for many studies show that simply by framing the product in this way leads to people’s purchasing more of it. For example, one company’s sales went up by 15 percent when the product was framed as giving away 5 pence with every purchase. In fact, when introducing a 5 pence donation you might as well raise your price by 10 pence! (Caldwell, 2012) Putting aside the moral aspect, in terms of influencing people the reason behind the success of the “5¢ to charity with every purchase” advert boils down once again to feelings: feelings about who we are, how we perceive ourselves, or how we want to be perceived by others. As always, marketers are quick to take advantage of our feelings, and the biases that come with them. And as a marketer charity is a great tool too.

4.10 Don’t invite them to get into the bed on your first date

In his book Entrepreneur Revolution, Daniel Priestley introduces the idea of an Ascending Transaction Model. The model points to the fact that at an initial stage customers are looking to try something out without too much risk, to spend a little money for a quick gain. (Priestley , 2014) If your product is a purple cow they will “ascend” toward buying complementary products that may well end up earning you more profit than your core product. In this situation, offering a guarantee will further reduce the perception of risk. (Caldwell, 78)

As another example consider one of the many tools presented in this book, SEM Rush, which offers free versions and incrementally priced packages. It may seem a simple idea, but many underlying principles are at work in your attempt to lower the perceived risk in trying your product. For example, by offering a free or lower-risk product you employ the “foot in the door” technique, described earlier. The “low risk” initial purchase works because humans are typically risk averse, as Daniel Kahneman’s experiments have shown.

4.11 But when you get them in your bed… don’t go and spoil it all

One common mistake a lot of marketers make after winning commitment from the audience is to fully automate their follow-up strategy.  Email marketing or push notifications are being used to deliver a myriad of products or content meant to cash in on the newly acquired asset. The truth is that people simply don’t have the time to read all your emails.

Take me; I’ve signed up for several industry-specific publications, only to find myself inundated with emails, sometimes three in one day from the same publication. Of course, I simply do not have time to read them, and a very interesting thing has happened: I stopped reading their emails altogether. Furthermore, my decision not to read some of that email made it easier for me to devalue it, and ultimately give up reading it altogether. By contrast, I look forward to SEOBook’s newsletter, which gets delivered to my inbox throughout the year, and which never disappoints in terms of quality of content.

Less is more. In fact, there is something very interesting about how I feel on receiving SEOBook’s newsletter, as I know I will receive great quality content. I began to reflect on that feeling, and I came across the famous experiments of Russian psychologist Pavlov, who was first to discover the principle of classical conditioning.  Classical conditioning describes the process of manipulating a stimulus in order to create an association with a new condition. In his experiments on dogs, Pavlov managed to condition the salivary glands of the animals to leak at the sound of a bell. He achieved this goal by training the dogs to associate the bell with food. (Slater, 2005) In effect, Pavlov managed to change the behavior of the dogs by introducing a stimulus they looked forward to—food. In a weird way I feel the same excitement when receiving the SEOBook’s newsletter; in my case the stimulus being the great content, hacks, and interesting opinions I have gotten accustomed to.

Of course, a stimulus can be a regular newsletter with great discounts, the newest products coming to market, the hottest trends, and so forth. As a user, I am conditioned to “salivate” at the receipt of your email. As long as you don’t disappoint my expectations, you can rest assured I will rush to read your email as soon as possible.


Because, like most people, I am curious, and if I do not satisfy my curiosity, deep down inside a pain emerges, a situation that economist George Loewenstein refers to as situational interest. (Heath & Heath, 2008) This being said, nowadays most content delivered automatically after my initial experience of your purple cow is of far lower quality, and is simply promotional, affiliated marketing offers, or is otherwise commercially focused. For me, it is far too easy to explain away the reason I subscribed in the first place, and also to explain my decision to unsubscribe from many of these blogs—what a wasted opportunity for webmasters or marketers. Bottom line, provide consistent value to your audience, and never forget why they signed up and committed themselves to giving you some of their scarce attention in the first place. Many websites are going a step further with these crazy methods and automatically signing you up to their databases and newsletters without asking; they scour the internet for email addresses, download emails lists from LinkedIn, buy email lists, and use many other devious approaches. Many tools I present in this book are available to perform these actions; however, using these strategies exclusively will most often deliver mixed results, for reasons we have been discussing already.

Another example of marketers making a move on their audiences too quickly is provided by the misuse of various email or social share tools meant to capture contact details of the audience.  We lure someone to a page, they start reading a great piece of content, and halfway through a social locker pop-up interrupts their flow by hiding the remaining content. They are given the choice of continuing to read by performing an action, such as sharing the article, liking it, following it, or emailing it.

What should they do?

Firstly, note that at this point we have already gained our audience’s commitment to reading the article. We now offer the reader the choice of taking an action, e.g., “Continue without sharing,” while giving them a reason to share the article, which might be, “I have worked two days, five hours and twenty-three minutes on this article.” Thus we eliminate their ability to falsely rationalize their reading of our article or for taking an action, e.g., sharing the article.  One observation, though: many marketers position the locker after the first couple of paragraphs. This is a mistake, as readers have not been given enough time to get into and commit to the content. In such cases, we will often observe increases in our bounce rates. To prevent this from happening, we should allow visitors to read at least 50 percent of our content before locking it. By this time, readers will have committed their time, and if they liked our article and we have followed the rules, they will most likely “freely” decide to take our targeted action, i.e., share, like, email, or follow. The loss aversion principle is at work here, as well, since most readers explain the time spent on reading the first part of the article in terms of “I must have liked the content; after all, why else would I read the article?” And, as we will see a little later, they now adapt their preference in line with their behavior: they love our content more, they share it more, and recommend it more.

4.12 Make them work for it…and time it well

Throughout this article I emphasize the importance of your offer, gift, or product, and the idea of allowing your audience to decide whether or not to provide their contact details. Providing this option, though, is not to be confused with making it easy for them. Offer your purple cow too easily and you may be devaluing your great product in your visitors’ eyes; after all, as you offer it so easily it must be because your product is not all that good, right?

In fact, many experiments have demonstrated that the more effort we put into achieving a task, the more we value it once we have completed it. Take a classic experiment where participants were subjected to different levels of pain or embarrassment prior to being accepted into a group. The more difficult the process was, the more interesting and exciting they judged a recorded discussion to be, and the greater the number of people within their new group they perceived as being attractive and sharp. These perceptions were interesting, given that researchers construed the discussion particularly boring and dull. By contrast, people who were easily accepted into the group more accurately rated the discussion as boring and uninteresting. (Trivers, 2011) The moral of the story is that if your purple cow is to be taken at its real value, you should think hard about ways to make your audience work for it. In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely captured this idea brilliantly with a passage from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer: “He had discovered a great law of human action…namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” (Ariely, 2009)

Of course, you must also ensure that the quest of obtaining the gift is engaging and of interest to your audience; simply making it hard will most often increase your bounce rates.

The principle works in a reciprocal manner, as well: the more effort we are perceived to put into our product or content, the more people will appreciate it. For example, in an experiment by psychologist Justin Kruger participants were asked to rate a piece of abstract art. One group was led to believe that the painting took four hours to create while the other group was told it took 26 hours to create. As you have probably guessed, people in the 26 hours group rated the piece of art significantly higher on attributes such as quality, value, and likeability. (Bloom, 2011) Hence, framing your pop-up offer, Social Locker share message, or similar growth-hacking tools, with something like “It took me three days, six hours and fifty-two minutes to create this content for you,” is likely to positively impact on the perception of quality attributed to your offer, product or content.

Getting people to perform some sort of mental activity such as doing a quiz or entering a competition, results in yet another benefit for online marketers, in addition to achieving more-committed audiences. Most people are confident of their ability to resist “noise,” and in their ability to “freely” decide to perform an action, whether purchasing, sharing, liking, tweeting or subscribing. Indeed, we believe we are quite good at evaluating choices and making conscious, unbiased decisions.

Of course, our confidence is nothing but an illusion. As we will see throughout this article, subconsciously we are all prone to many biases that influence any decisions we take. Moreover, psychologists like Roy Baumeister have demonstrated over and over again that willpower is not a fixed trait, but rather works like another muscle. Baumeister noticed that the more effort we put into performing mental tasks, the more tired we become, and the more control we delegate to the automatic but highly biased System 1. Labeled as ego depletion, this effect has two ramifications: first, our willpower is being diminished, and second, our cravings increase. Stress, in particular, depletes willpower, and with it our ability to control our emotions, behaviors, and cravings. (Baumeister & Tierney, 2012)

Indeed, when we have low reserves of willpower we become “cognition misers,” often making decisions without much deliberation; we compare less, “satisfice” more, and focus on one feature of products, e.g., the cheapest, the best, the most available, and so forth. (Baumeister & Tierney, 2012) Jonathan Levav beautifully demonstrated this effect in several experiments. In one instance he asked MBA students to choose a bespoke suit. In another experiment he studied the behavior of real customers purchasing accessories for their new cars. As expected, in the beginning people would carefully weigh up the choices and study a multitude of features. As they got tired, ego depletion set in, System 1 took over, and people settled for the default option. An even more interesting finding was that by manipulating the order in which various accessories were presented, customers purchased accessories that were on average $1.5K more than a control group did.

So, when defining your sales funnel, simply by presenting your target products earlier or later makes a big difference to your sales. (Baumeister & Tierney, 2012) As Baumeister concludes, “decision fatigue leaves us vulnerable to marketers who know how to time their sales.” (Baumeister & Tierney, 2012, p. 103)

Maybe we should take some time to reflect on this, if only for one minute during our daily routine. We start our morning full of energy and willpower. We go to work, work on a variety of tasks and goals, and deal with a variety of people, whether bosses, colleagues, supplier or clients. Our willpower is already being depleted. As we go through the day, the mental tiredness settles in, we have less and less willpower and we “automate” our behavior toward the evening when we have little or no willpower left. The “brain dead” feeling kicks in.

What now?

We enter a shop and purchase stuff we did not intend purchasing; we stop making price comparisons and go with whatever is easier, and may as well purchase the strategically placed bars of chocolate, gums, and other sugary stuff by the checkout counter. Incidentally, supermarkets also leverage the contrast principle in this case, as after gathering goods worth much more, 60¢ for a chocolate bar will seem a bargain. Supermarkets also know that with decreasing levels of willpower, people crave glucose and sugar. It is why your local supermarket welcomes you with products that are most likely already on your shopping list, such as fruits, vegetables, and salads. After a long day at work, and what seems like an even longer trip around the supermarket aisles, you reach the checkouts and find yourself in Candyland. And your brain shouts, “Sugar! Sugar! Sugar!” Lots of us do this, whether we have the Snickers bar, the Krispy Kreme doughnut, the sweet popcorn, jelly beans, or a sugary drink. Now ask yourself: was this purchase on my list? There is nothing innocent in the decisions of supermarkets in placing their products; in fact, just like digital marketers, supermarkets continually split test the position of the products throughout the shop, the sweets provided at the checkout, and the shelves they place the different products on.

The supermarket example shows that marketers are quick to take advantage of our “cognition shortfall”. But how far can it go?  One of the most celebrated experiments ever on willpower was carried out on eight parole judges in Israel. The judges were reviewing parole requests throughout the day, a very-high-stakes situation that required a high degree of integrity, lack of bias, and clear heads. The study found that 65 percent of the requests were granted after the judges had had a meal, and decreased during the two hours prior to the next meal. Researchers concluded that as judges were getting tired and hungry, they reverted back to their System 1 default position of denying requests. These findings are disturbing, as they imply that the release or otherwise of convicts was determined in large measure not by potential good deeds performed over the years, but rather by their appointment times and the state of the judges’ bellies. Judges were not at fault, either. After all, their intentions were good, and the intense mental effort allocated to the reviews reflected integrity, as well. They just haven’t considered that depletion in glucose levels and intense mental effort depleted willpower.

But what does this have to do with online marketing?

Quite a lot actually. Take the quiz or contest tools I have mentioned, and the effort spent by an audience in the process of completing the quizzes or contests. While engaged with the quiz or contest, the metal effort can be taxing. And, when a person completes the quiz or contest, they are provided with a score, and product recommendations for improving their skills. Assume you are a client; you achieve a quiz score of 68 percent, download your gift, and find yourself redirected to a Thank You page. The Thank You page displays a cleverly marketed purple cow product that could help you improve your competency score to 80 percent. The sugary products strategically placed at the supermarket checkouts have taught us that you are now more likely to take up the offer.

Or, consider the findings that most people engage more on social media in the evening. Most marketers attribute this behavior to work patterns. The popular view is that as people are at work during the day, they are less likely to interact on social media. However, marketers miss out on a much finer piece of information, which is that the evening is also the time when willpower levels are at their lowest, after a hard day at work. The result is that as people get closer to the evening they become more tired, cede more control of mental activity to System 1, scrutinize less, compare less, and are more prone to being influenced and to “satisficing.” Of course, you may now think, the later in the evening, the more vulnerable my audience is. You may decide to move your outreach efforts from your current schedule to later in the evening. However, this view would be inaccurate. As the parole judges experiment suggests, people are more susceptible to influence as they get tired, and between meals when glucose levels are lower.

This knowledge alone should help online marketers to better tailor sales funnels, email targeting, notifications, pop-ups, and paid advertising. In effect, your audience is more vulnerable when returning home after a long day at work and before having a glucose-rich evening meal. You may dismiss using quizzes or contests as an influencing tool, and you would be right up to a point. However, when timed well, quizzes or contests may be just what is needed to nudge people into the triggering of the action you want. Remember that players use more effortful System 2 when doing quizzes or contests. And many studies have found that people often put less effort into a subsequent task, cede more control to System 1, and are more prone to being influenced. I am sure you can think of many other creative ways to engage your audience in some sort of mental effort at the right time of the day, and of other tools to use, before creating your strategy.

Some other ideas that come to mind include: long articles are less likely to be read in the evenings; shorter posts do better. Instagram posts do better than LinkedIn articles in the evening; the latter will do better at the beginning of the day.

4.13…but keep it scarce

Calls to action come in many shapes and forms. For example, many of the growth hacking tools I present in the section on tools display countdowns emphasizing the limited time of the offer. This kind of offer leverages the principle of scarcity, that is, people value goods and services that are less available more than goods that are available in abundance. (Jones, 2014) Wording such as, “last 24 hours,” “Only 10 items left,” “limited to three per person,” or “Sale must offer on Sunday” often make people feel they will miss out on the offer unless they act promptly. The principle is powerful even in situations when price discounts are not necessarily significant, as the action bias is triggered by scarcity rather than price. For example, a supermarket ran a 10 percent-off promotion for Campbell’s Soup by running two different messages: “No limit per person” and “Limit of 12 per person.”  The supermarket found that customers purchased twice as many cans of soup in the “scarcity” condition. (Kahneman, 2011)

But why do we buy more than we need?

People erroneously attribute their decision to the opportunity of saving money; they feel that by saving money they are in fact gaining money. But saving money cannot explain why people buy less when the scarcity advert is removed; after all, the price remains the same. It is the mindset we adopt while purchasing the product that makes the difference. We assume that our decision is based on a perception of gaining/saving money and we rush into purchasing before the offer ends. In reality though, exposure to the offer raises a fear of losing something, of missing out on a saving. The “Limit of 12 per person” generates the mental image of hordes of people fighting for Campbell’s soup, taking up the entire stock available. And nothing will be left for us; we would have lost something, maybe the opportunity of saving money. Of course, this sounds like a perfect task for System 1, which, on detecting the imminent danger of missing out on the very last discounted cans of Campbell’s Soup in the universe, jumps into action and impulsively purchases the product. In brief, the opportunity of saving money ranks lower than the fear of losing out on the offer. Psychologists refer to this finding as “loss aversion”; the alternative of possibly losing out is cognitively more painful than is the laying out of money to make the purchase.

A simpler example of this principle is an experiment described by Daniel Kahneman in his exceptional book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. Participants were presented with the scenario of tossing a coin, with an opportunity of winning $150 if the coin showed heads but losing $100 if the coin showed tails. Surprisingly, in spite of the larger potential win, for most people the fear of losing $100 loomed larger than the opportunity of winning $150 and they would not accept the gamble. In fact, the average “loss aversion ratio,” calculated in several experiments, was between 1.5 and 2.5. (Kahneman, 2011)

Back to our Campbell’s Soup example: people purchased twice as many cans when fearing they would miss out on the promotion. The loss aversion ratio in this case was two to one. Furthermore, scarcity has an unexpected impact on perceptions of quality. The scarcer the product is, the more positive our attitudes toward the product, as one classic experiment by psychologist Stephen Worchel has confirmed. Worchel asked two groups of subjects to rate the quality of a cookie. One group received a jar of two cookies (scarcity condition), while the other group received a jar of 10 cookies (abundance condition). As you might have guessed, people in the scarcity condition rated the cookies far more positively than did the comparison group. (Cialdini, 2007) As Cialdini concludes, “not only do we want the same item more when it is scarce, we want it most when we are in competition for it.” (Cialdini, 2007, p. 262)

Finally, marketers leverage scarcity to induce a feeling of regret in their audiences. One example that comes to mind is the “When it’s gone, it’s gone” slogan, which implies that you will regret it if you don’t take the offer now. And it does work; many studies found that when people are reminded of the possibility of feeling regret for not taking an action, their behavior reflects an increased preference for conventional options, and a preference for leading brands over generic products. (Kahneman, 2011)

4.14 The myth of “less is more…”

In his book Don’t make me think, Steve Krug advises website developers to “get rid of half of the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left…it makes the useful content more prominent, it makes pages shorter.” (Krug, 2014, p. 49) This idea has become a widely accepted “law” of conversion and seems to be supported by findings in traditional psychology, as well. For example, in one famous experiment, when presented with more choice —24 types of jam—people were less likely to buy than when only 6 types of jam were being offered for sale. (Laham, 2012) So it makes sense that “less is more” was widely adopted by SEOs, PPC consultants, digital marketers and website designers.

To understand the extent of this idea you only need look at any conversion optimization tool like Unbounce where all templates inspire simplicity and very little text or distractions from the main calls to action. I personally find the obsession with simplicity too simple, even naïve. The “less is more” idea assumes that people reach your page—either via organic or paid search—and are already in a buying mindset, which implies that more text or information would act as a distraction from the main call to action. Indeed, the assumption is that people reach your splash page and happily take action with no more information than a couple of paragraphs on the main product features that you have provided.  Moreover, in addition to the “noise free” approach, let us not forget the prominent “Buy now” button, so clearly displayed on many of these landing pages.

However, there is plenty of research indicating that most people are in anything but a buying mindset when reaching your website. For example, a report by Interbrand shows that customers spend increasing amounts of time on researching various websites before making a decision. (Jones, 2014) And, despite all the talk about mobile overtaking desktop, you may be surprised to learn that about 97 percent of shopping carts are abandoned when accessed via mobile. Similarly, research carried out at Pennsylvania State University found that as much as 90 percent of user searches on Google are informational or navigational, with only 10 percent of searchers being in a transactional mindset. (Jones, 2014)  Basically, these reports underline the fact that people are spending more time than ever in the research phase, seeking information, and comparing alternatives, features, prices, and so forth.

With this in mind, you should not really take the traditional “Buy now” button advice too seriously; after all, most people are visiting your website for research purposes, rather than to buy something. Think twice before accepting traditional advice from digital marketing agencies or web designers regarding the design of your website; they may in fact affect your business negatively.

There is, however, a catch. We cannot simply generalize and assume that a whole 90 percent of the visitors who are in a research mindset will necessarily need or want to read more text. An important distinction must be made when considering the amount of text targeting the 90 percent “research phase” visitors to your website. Research by Gary Klein, reported in his book Sources of Power, suggests that experts make decisions in a different manner to less-experienced people. Specifically, Klein observes that experts generally make intuitive decisions that are grounded in their extensive practice and experience in their work. By contrast, less-experienced people scrutinize more, compare more, and pay more attention. Applying this idea to online shoppers, we can see how experienced buyers know instinctively what to look for in a product or offer. In their case, simplicity is key; not much info is required, and less really is more. By contrast, less-experienced shoppers tend to seek more information, more text, and more resources on the page. Thus, in their case less is definitely not more.

The fact is that we scrutinize unfamiliar websites, products, or brands more, an operation that initially is in the remit of System 2. However, as we become more experienced in performing a task, our cognitive input reduces, performing the task becomes easier and more intuitive, and ultimately System 1 smoothly takes over from System 2, performing what has now become a familiar task. The level of expertise or familiarity your audience has with your product is important, as it will dictate your content and conversion optimization strategy. For example, if your audience has plenty of experience of your product or category of products, then “less is more” may apply, as your audience already knows what to look for, and more text or resources will prove of little interest to them. By contrast, when your audience is less experienced, then more information is often needed. We are simply talking about user intent: experienced users will generally seek no information and prefer action-oriented pages. In contrast, less-experienced users, who are not familiar with your product, will want more information and will carry out more research as well. In this case, providing less information will prove detrimental, as you searchers will move on to another website that provides the information they need.

If you think about it, this is why Google varies the amount of text it ranks in various industries. Google simply acknowledges that different industries have different audiences, different user intent and different needs of volume and depth of information. It is also why you should not get overly stressed about the green color of your Yoast SEO plugin or similar tools that are using static benchmarks such keyword density, minimum of 300 words of copy per page, and so forth.  For example, a report by Searchmetrics found that in 2017 desktop content was one third longer than mobile content, and that the number of words per page of the top-ranked websites varied by industry. (Searchmetrics, 2017)

 4.15 Monkey do, Monkey believe…

Hundreds of experiments have shown that after taking a decision we are more committed to it, and even change our behavior in line with our decision. (Sharot, 2012) This principle has been branded, “the endowment effect.” (Ariely, 2009) For example, in one classic experiment race bettors were more optimistic and self-assured about their choice after having purchased the tickets. (Cialdini, 2007)

Hence, if you convince me to download your gift, to share, like, or follow your article, or simply to purchase a product, I will become more confident that I have made the right choice, and I will love your stuff more as well. And, as I cannot explain away my reason for subscribing to your email list, sharing your article, or buying your product, it must be that I really liked it. I now adjust my preference in line with my behavior, becoming more committed to your stuff.

This inference has been studied at length, and is the core idea of the self-perception theory: people infer their preferences by observing their choices. (Sharot, 2012) The principle was beautifully demonstrated in an experiment in which doctors were tricked into giving a short lecture about the benefits of a drug. Soon after the lecture, the doctors began believing their own words and started to prescribe the medicine more. (Ariely, 2012)

In another experiment, when people committed themselves to losing weight by tweeting about their efforts they lost an average of one pound for every 10 Tweets. (Dolan, 2015) Another interesting experiment found that students who nodded their head up and down, which is the equivalent of saying “yes” from a body language point of view, were far more impressed by an editorial arguing a policy that would increase tuition fees. (Gladwell, 2001) This suggests that incorporating some sort of vertical and repetitive movement of the visitor’s head would make ads, website copy, and conversion attempts more effective; the assumption here being that my behavior—nodding “Yes”—primes me into bringing my preferences in line with the behavior, thus becoming more favorable toward a product.

OK, so I adapt my preferences in line with my behavior, thus becoming more committed to your stuff. What next? Well, as I like your content, I am now happy with your sending me emails and high quality “gifts” via tools such as MailChimp or SendinBlue. Of course, please send me some push notifications via PushEngage, ensuring I do not miss out the content I have grown so fond of.  Next time I receive your newsletter, I will be more inclined to open it; after all I chose to receive it. And, since I shared your great article, promotion, or product, I will most likely continue to do so without having to be prompted again.

4.16 The white bear challenge…

Another mistake often made by many marketers is being too “in your face” with customers, talking too much about their own business and the advantages it offers; and doing too much prompting of people to keep the business’s products in mind next time they’re buying. Of course, reminding people about your product is one of the main goals of remarketing. People are being hit with product promotions and advertising messages all day long, and it is quite easy for them to forget about your product. In fact, Sharp concludes that the main purpose of advertising is to maintain market share by cancelling out the advertisements of competitors. Sharp: “If a brand’s advertising reaches them, if they notice it, if it refreshes, reinforces or builds the memory structures that make the brand more likely to be noticed or come to mind in a buying situation…then it nudges their propensity to buy the brand.” (Sharp, 2010, p. 141)

Thus, remarketing works by keeping your product fresh in the memory of your cognitively busy audience—if you didn’t do it, people would easily forget about their earlier interaction with you. This would present a problem, as we have seen that 90 percent of people browse the Internet in research mode, reviewing a myriad of options on every single feature of the product they are looking for. If you have ever completed a research online you will be familiar with the feeling that you simply can’t remember all the options, websites, or products you have seen during your research.

So why keep trying to get people to remember our product?  It may be time to think of alternative ways of getting people to remember us; after all, it is clear that the share of attention for each product is being reduced day by day; there is simply too much choice and too many products and services vying for our attention. I would like to invite a bit of controversy and encourage you to consider ways of asking your audience to forget the benefits of your products, forget the reasons why they should or shouldn’t choose your products, forget about your products altogether. This may sound counterintuitive; after all, why would I ask my audience to forget about my products? However, plenty of research indicates that trying to suppress thoughts has the exact opposite effect: thoughts keep reappearing in our minds. The classic illustration of this concept is the “White bear” challenge. If I specifically ask you to NOT think about a white bear, and re-emphasize that you must not think about the white bear, what do you suppose you will be thinking of? Of course, a white bear will come into your mind.

Stephen Hayes and his colleagues once again demonstrated the concept in several experiments. The researchers asked participants to not think about a yellow jeep for couple of minutes. What happened? Well, participants reported that the thought of yellow jeeps came into their minds for days and even weeks after the experiment. (Cabane, 2012) Of course, your approach as a marketer will need to be more subtle, though I am confident that you can think of many creative ways of incorporating this concept into the copy of your website and any other digital marketing devices you may have on the go. Actually, no….FORGET about it!

4.17 Launch to the Moon: the power of expectations

Up to this point we have discussed products that have already been launched and their promotion. But what happens with a purple cow you are just about to launch? There is no better example of the preparation for launching a product than the launching of Hollywood movies.  All the world tours, previews, trailers, advertisements, and interviews are intended to build both familiarity with the product (hence better attitudes toward the movie) and a sense of increased expectation: you look forward to the movie, and the closer the launch the more you look forward to it.

So, what happens?

Let’s start by explaining what dopamine is. In simple terms, dopamine is a chemical that fuels the reward network in the brain. The pleasure we feel after viewing a movie we have been expecting, at a new iPhone being launched, or a new online tool or product becoming available, is all down to dopamine being released inside our brain. (Robertson, 2012) Understanding the process that delivers pleasure is essential when launching your new product online. Unfortunately, many marketers launch purple cows with no prior preparation for building feelings of expectation and familiarity, and rely entirely on paid advertising or other types of publicity. All that potential flow of dopamine surging through their audience’s brains…wasted. If you are looking for a vivid image of the impact of anticipation, simply visit any Apple store on the morning of the launch of a new iPhone and be amazed at the hordes of people waiting outside the shop for a product they could get their hands on with much less hassle the very next day.

One great experiment carried out by economist George Lowenstein points out the impact of anticipation on the perception of the actual product or service. After learning who their favorite celebrities were, Lowenstein asked undergraduate students at the Carnegie Mellon University to state the price they would pay in return for a kiss from their favorite star. The price points were different, depending on the timing of when the kiss would be offered: in one hour, three hours, 24 hours, three days, a year or ten years. The study found that people would overall pay more for a kiss in one year than for receiving it immediately. (Sharot, 2012) The moral of the story is clear: anticipating a new product is as enjoyable, if not more enjoyable, than the actual experience of the product. I experienced this first hand when studying for my MBA. On the one hand, working very hard for it made me value the degree more. On the other hand, I significantly overestimated the level of happiness I would feel on receiving the degree.

4.18 There is hope for OK products too…

OK, so our decision to “freely” commit to an action such as downloading, sharing, buying, or liking will impact our perceptions of the product. Specifically, by performing an action we infer a perception and bring that perception into line with the action. For example, I signed up to your newsletter, and as I cannot explain it away it must be that I like your stuff. I am now more likely to become committed and like your stuff more. Of course, this was possible because I was not given an opportunity to explain away my downloading, sharing, or liking of your product. Thus, it pays off to stay true to your purple cow strategy and the principles we have been discussing throughout this book.

However, for all the talk about purple cow products, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised to learn that there is hope for building loyalty to “OK” products as well. This is achieved by leveraging the concept of cognitive dissonance, which refers to our difficulty in acknowledging that we have made a mistake or done something wrong, particularly when we have invested time, emotions, effort, or money. In fact, the more we’ve invested the harder we find it to acknowledge that we were wrong. Now, as we try to fix this state of dissonance, a state of mental discomfort arises, ranging from minor unpleasant feelings to more advanced anguish, relative of course on the resources we have invested. (Tavris and Aronson, 2008) Subconsciously, we are now looking for a way to remove our mental discomfort, this unpleasant feeling. But how do we go about it? The answer is simple: we justify our decision and become more committed to it. (Tavris and Aronson, 2008) An interesting insight into how the brain resolves this conflict has been provided by several fMRI studies, which have found that upon receiving information that disagree with our opinions, the reasoning areas of the brain simply shut off. In brief, people rejected immediately any evidence that increased their mental discomfort. (Tavris and Aronson,2008) Remember the students who rated a boring lecture as interesting when they had to work hard to be accepted into the group? This is a prime example of how people become more committed to an OK product, or even bad one, when they have worked harder to obtain it.

Yet another principle that marketers can leverage from time to time for promoting OK pieces of content or products is the sunk-cost fallacy. The sunk-cost fallacy concerns people’s tendency to invest resources in products that are not as good as they would like, instead of investing fresh resources in something better. This occurs simply because people have already invested time in the less good product and are reluctant to experience and acknowledge the feeling of loss that would come with abandoning it. (Kahneman, 2011) So, when reading your article I expend some of my scarce time and attention. When the Social Locker comes up halfway through the article, I am presented with a choice: admit I was wrong or explain my actions in terms of, “I enjoyed your piece of content, product or offer.” Then, since I have convinced myself that I enjoyed your article, I become more committed to it: I am now more willing to share, like, follow, or email. Of course, I also ignore the niggling little voice in my head; otherwise I would be forced to consider the possibility that all my effort up to that point has been a waste of time. This is cognitive dissonance and sunk cost at their best.

I have experienced this principle many times myself, bad movies being one example; I have continued to watch a boring movie because I have already invested 30 minutes of my time in it. Of course, I could have spent the remaining hour of the movie in a more productive way, and yet I would go along with it and waste more of my time. There is also another principle at work here, which psychologists have labeled the “Zeigarnik effect,” after the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. Zeigarnik found that uncompleted tasks or goals often pop up in our minds, and once completed they simply stop doing that. (Baumeister & Tierney, 2012) So, when I read your article and get interrupted by your Social Locker, I feel an unconscious urge to finish the task.

In the end, psychologists Tavris and Aronson  concluded that “the more costly a decision in terms of time, money, effort or inconvenience…the greater the dissonance and the greater the need to reduce it by overemphasizing the good things about the choice made.” (Tavris & Aronson, 2008) One word of advice though: sunk-cost works when used occasionally, and when you have been building a large amount of goodwill with your audience. However, the principle can act as a double-edged sword: my time is scarce, so I have strong feelings about spending it on reading your bad or OK article. As a result, I may not visit you website again, or I may end up being guilty of confirmation bias by concluding that all your content, products, and offers are poor. Again, I experience this with many of the publications I sign up to when great articles are followed by average or overly commercial pieces of content, which leads me to unsubscribe from those email lists.

4.19 Further thoughts….

So what have we learned?

To begin with, we learned that our end goal is a website visitor signing up to an email list or taking up our offer because he likes our stuff. And as he likes our stuff he is more likely to genuinely engage with us at later stages, e.g., in email campaigns, receiving push notifications, and when making subsequent purchases.  It all starts with a purple cow lead magnet, which is being promoted via pop-up tools, email marketing, social sharing lockers, push notifications, and other growth hacking tools. We then engineer our sales funnels to eliminate any possibility of our audience explaining away their action, whether that be signing up, sharing, liking, following, or buying. Specifically, we must ensure that people cannot rationalize their action by saying, “I had no choice but to provide my details,” or to devalue your lead magnet by telling themselves that It’s free/cheap, thus it cannot be any good.

Furthermore, to increase the likelihood of gaining genuine commitment and engagement from our audiences, we must provide them with some sort of control, or an illusion of control, over deciding whether or not to offer contact details, to share, like, follow, or email our content or product. This is important, as in the words of psychologist Timothy Wilson, “The more people feel like they are forced into something, the less likely they are to enjoy it and want to keep at it.” (Wilson, 2011, p. 132) Trivers  has also confirmed that people need to feel that they have control over their behavior, that they act out of choice, even if the feeling is an illusion. (Trivers, 2011)  A simple scenario could be a pop-up that allows website visitors to download a lead magnet free of charge if they choose to, while also incorporating an optional sign-up feature. You can be creative with your copy, e.g., I have worked x days, y hours to provide you with this article and would love to send you any fresh information. I am no copywriter; however, in this simple scenario people have control over providing their details, they imagine or “feel” your efforts, which triggers feelings of empathy and ultimately increases your chances of gaining commitment and leads. Some people will sign up to your updates and some will not, which is perfectly fine. After all, the ones who don’t sign up would not have opened your emails anyway. By contrast, people who do sign up have done so freely, of their own accord, and cannot explain away your gift. And once they take an action, people adapt their perceptions to their behavior: after all, “If I took this option freely, I must like your stuff.” In fact, if I think about it, I now like your stuff even more than before, in the way that the study of race bettors revealed.

Entrepreneur Daniel Priestley takes the idea further, encouraging businesses to offer gifts and expect nothing in return. His line of thought is that free gifts are a token of your business’s greatness and should prompt people to want to learn more about it. (Priestley, 2014) Priestley provides examples of free events organized regularly by Rolex, Qantas, Kia, and Red Bull. I almost bought into the idea until he gave a last example, which was the free browsers, calendars, maps, and apps that Google provides. In the chapter on Future I will explain that there is no such thing as a free lunch with Google. In fact, as I will discuss in the section on the future, Google is far from disinterested and has at heart its own self-interest, which involves gaining access to ever more data. That being said, products offered by Google are a great example of purple cows that we use every day, and we happily reciprocate by conceding access to some of our data.

In the end, the fact is that our lead magnet must generate some sort of action, whether giving personal details, sharing, following, liking, or purchasing. At the same time, the path to achieving these goals is important, particularly when our goal is to engage followers who are optimistically anticipating our offers, emails, products and content. Any offer, product, piece of content, or sales funnel we create must be preceded by meticulous research on the feelings and emotions that will trigger our desired action. For example, if fear or reciprocity is likely to increase conversion rates, then copy, images, videos, and audio must all work together in a funnel that both generates and provides solutions to alleviate those feelings, reducing cognitive pressure. Take time to nurture your target feelings and do not ask the audience to get into bed with you on the first date. Why would they? Remember Daniel Priestley’s Ascending Transaction Model? Priestley points out that people are looking for low risk and guarantees when first trying your product. You need to work hard to get a committed audience, but when you do achieve your goal do not revert to default content, products or experiences; remember why people signed up with you in the first place and do not fail their expectations.

We have also been discussing several other psychological tricks you can use to further improve both conversion rates and commitment. For example, simply providing people with a reason can be powerful, as Ellen Langer’s Xerox experiment revealed. Framing your request will boost conversion rates when automatically ticking the subscription box, as we have seen in the organ donors example. Leveraging the denominator neglect principle can greatly help to increase your conversion rates. We have also learned that by building anticipation we can improve the actual experience of our product, as suggested by the Carnegie Mellon study of students postponing the pleasure of getting a kiss from their favorite celebrity. Don’t sell yourself too easily though. Make people work for your purple cow lead magnet, and point out to its scarcity; they will value it more. And, as we have seen in studies on willpower, timing your offer well can make the whole difference with regards to the level of receptivity of your offer. Finally, remember that less is not always more, and the level of experience with a category of products will dictate the amount of information and website copy people need.

That’s it.

Growing a Social Media Follower base

Let’s consider for a moment why brands, influencers and businesses are so keen on increasing their social media base of followers. One obvious reason is social proof. The reality is that without a large enough follower base acting as a cue to the greatness of your product, content, brand, or website, most people will not even give you a try. For a practical manifestation of the importance of social proof, you only need to think of Stanley Milgram’s pedestrian experiments. In these experiments people did not look up when one person alone looked up; they looked up when several people looked up.

Or consider the discussion we had in the reviews section: you will not purchase a book with no reviews. The book could be a great work, but given the lack of social proof, nobody will read it—sad but so true. It is why many top-end restaurants pay people to queue up, providing social proof that the restaurant or club is busy and popular. (Ariely, 2009) By doing that, restaurant and club owners leverage the principle of “herding behavior,” which describes our propensity to assume that something is good or bad based on other people’s behavior. (Ariely, 2009) Indeed, how many times have you entered an empty restaurant? The restaurant must be empty for a reason, right? As in the case of restaurant owners, marketers and webmasters acknowledge that great products will not sell without some help from the herd.

And, in an attempt to grow their social following, marketers sometimes take advantage of social media automation tools, which work on principles such as follow/no-follow, like, share, or by spinning comments. Moreover, many companies go as far as buying fake followers, a simple action if you consider that all you need do is enter “buy fake followers” in Google Search. I have experienced this first hand with clients who initially purchased fake followers and likes, and subsequently increased their follower base by a combination of great content, natural and machine-generated comments and likes, and by using follow/no-follow tools. Many white hat SEOs, social media consultants, and the like dismiss the practice, and will strongly advise you against it. I believe this is more down to ego and self-perception than to common sense. The truth is that the rich get richer, and more reviews attract more purchases, more people willing to connect with you and more business. “OK,” the white-hat professional will say, “but people check your social profile and identify your connections as fake.” Let me just ask that person a question: how often do you go on LinkedIn, filter people by keywords, and then start an investigation into the type of contacts they have? In reality, the process you will follow is more likely to include a search based on your targeted keywords, an assessment of the legitimacy of the profile information—i.e., the image information—and sometimes the number of connections. You then send or accept the invite. So, it is the actual number of connections that provide the cue, and trigger your action.

One major benefit of growing our social media followers base is that the followers become part of a group of people with some sort of similar traits or backgrounds. The membership to various groups represents a perfect opportunity to exploit and leverage principles of similarity. Psychology professor Richard Wiseman points out that, “Regardless of whether the similarity is in dress, speech, background, age, religion, politics, drinking and smoking habits, food preferences, opinions, personality, or body language, we like people who are like us, and find them far more persuasive than others.” (Wiseman , 2010, p. 62)

And countless psychology studies document the tendency of people to conform and to internalize a group’s beliefs, often at the expense of personal beliefs. A classic example is provided by an experiment carried by Solomon Ash, a psychologist who asked participants to identify a line, out of several lines of different lengths, that matched a standard line. At the start, participants were told that they were taking part in an exercise in visual perception. Within the group all the members were accomplices of the experimenters, apart from the unaware subject. The subject was scheduled to answer the question on the correct line last, after all the other members of the group had provided their answers. Throughout the experiment, the stooges were often pointing to the wrong line, in spite of the correct answer being obvious. Of course, as a rational person you would predict that subjects contradicted the group and pointed to the correct line. After all it was so obvious, right? As you have probably guessed, the body language of the participants showed disbelief to the group’s choice, and yet 50 to 80 percent of the people went along with the group. (Ross & Nisbett, 2011) What this experiment also demonstrated was the principle of polarization, which is the tendency of a group of people to become more extreme in their beliefs.

Let’s look more closely at how this works in practice by looking at recommendations as an example. In our section on the future, we will discuss the important role of recommendations in filtering information and helping us choose. Tools like Amazon’s “People who bought this also bought this” help us avoid the decision paralysis triggered by almost unlimited choice.  But why do we trust recommendations? Why do we actually trust Amazon’s algorithms and other people’s preferences? Consider books. Every time I buy a book on growth hacking, psychology, or the future, I associate myself with the type of person that reads book like these: innovative, open-minded, a bit on the cool side, and so forth. Of course, the group of people purchasing the same book must also be innovative, open-minded and cool too. Thus, I infer the traits of the group from their purchasing behavior. Also, given the research on similarity, I know that I trust people who are like me more than I trust others; hence I trust their recommendations more too. Unintentionally, I am now a member of a group of people with similar reading interests and purchases. Now, when the group purchases a new book, I have to purchase that book, as well; after all, it is what innovative, open-minded, and cool people do.  And when I buy a new book, another member of the group will be influenced by my purchasing behavior, too. This process is captured well by psychologist Robert Trivers , who concludes “Within each group, individuals are misoriented in the same direction, easily reinforcing each other.” (Trivers, 2011, p. 252) This is polarization. One interesting point to make is that people in general do not actually influence my purchasing behavior. It is rather the stereotype associated with the reading behavior of the group that makes the whole difference. But how powerful is the impact of the stereotype I associate myself with? Several studies testing this effect have found that, when reminded about their membership or perceived membership of a group (e.g., race, gender or—why not?—book preferences), people are three times as likely to be influenced by the stereotype associated with that group. (Sharot, 2012) Thus, I am three times as likely to purchase a book when people similar to me “bought this” and “also bought this.” Social media networks are prone to conformity and polarization, too. Of course, as we will see later, the type of social group you are part of makes all the difference.

What other reasons may we have for growing our social media follower base?

Increasing the reach of our content or products, of course; no surprise there. Indeed, we think about the number of people who follow us on social media as the potential number of people we can reach. I have 1,000 followers, hence I can market to 1,000 people, right? This is an oversimplification, as we will see in the section on the future that with social media giants the reach of your organic posts is significantly reduced. For example, we will see that Facebook posts only reach around 16 percent of your friends organically. However, for simplicity purposes, let us assume the equation expected be reach equals the number of followers/friends.  The interesting thing, though, is that plenty of research indicates that in reality your product reaches far more people than your 1,000 social media friends.

Let’s have a closer look at how social connections work. The power of connections was initially popularized by psychologist Stanley Milgram who conducted his famous “Six degrees of separation” experiment in the 1960s. Several hundred people from Nebraska received a letter for a businessman in Boston. The people did not know and had never heard of the businessman before. Also, note that Nebraska is more than a thousand miles from Boston (Thank you, Google). The subjects were asked to send the letter to a person they knew personally, a “connection,” who they thought would be more likely to know the businessman. The result was amazing, even by the standards of today: the letters changed hands only six times before they reached the businessman. (Christakis & Fowler, 2011) Nowadays, given the advancement in technology, digital progress, and the presence of social media, the six steps of separation have reduced considerably. In fact, psychologists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler carried out numerous experiments, laying down their findings in their brilliant book suggestively named Connected. What they found was that “if your friend’s friend’s friend gained weight, you gained weight…if your friend’s friend’s friend stopped smoking, you stopped smoking….if your friend’s friend’s friend became happy, you became happy.” They “packaged” their findings into a principle called the three degrees of Influence, to conclude that everything we do influences people at our first, second and even third connection level. In terms of social media, LinkedIn for example considers that we influence people at up to two degrees of separation (first degree and second degree connections).

Consider one of the main services offered by LinkedIn: job advertising. We all receive LinkedIn messages from recruiters who promote various job vacancies. If you think a bit about it, you have not actually met or known these people, and yet it is often these second-degree connections that will get us our next job. This is exactly what Stanford psychologist Mark Granovetter found when studying people who changed jobs. Granovetter wanted to understand how often people have seen the person that helped them in obtaining their job. The assumption was that the more times you saw the person, the closer you are connected. Granovetter was surprised to find that only 17 percent had met their connection “often,” 55 percent “occasionally,” and 28 percent had “rarely” met the person. (Christakis & Fowler, 2011) This study clearly points out the real power of second and third degrees connections. Christakis and Fowler carried out another great study, which further exemplified the influence of second and third degree connections. They looked at three piano teachers and how they were acquiring clients in Tempe, Arizona, and found that the teachers mostly acquired customers by word of mouth. But most importantly, 38 percent of the recommendations came from people who were three connections away from the teachers. That is 38 percent of the business leads coming from the teacher’s friend’s friend’s friend! Returning to our conversation on social media, you should now understand the extent of your influence on your 1,000 connections, their friends and the friends of their friends. This is powerful indeed.

Another great observation Christakis & Fowler make is that as your family and friends become better connected, you also become better connected. (Christakis & Fowler, 2011) What this means is that the type of followers you have really does matter. Earlier in this chapter I discussed buying fake followers for social proof purposes. While I encourage this strategy as an initial growth hacking step, I have to admit that at times I have had to rein in some clients from purchasing further fake followers. Once they got the taste for easy gains, some of my clients wanted more and more. Back to Milgram’s pedestrian experiment: another brilliant find was that when the accomplice group consisted of five people, almost as many people looked up as when the group consisted of 15 people. Thus, 500 social media followers could provide the same social proof as one million fake followers. It makes no sense to further purchase fake followers and the like after reaching your goal of social proof, as more fake followers will add no further value to your business.

Another great piece of research found a probability of 52 percent that you will be lonely if a person you are directly connected to at one degree of separation is lonely, and a 25 percent chance if a person at two degrees of separation is lonely. (Christakis & Fowler, 2011) Which leads me to the point that 100 well-connected influencers will reach more people than 10,000 poorly connected people, and will definitely reach more people than one million fake followers. Christakis and Fowler explain this point best when discussing their studies on obesity, smoking, drinking, or even the impact of being widowed. (Christakis & Fowler, 2011) They found that if one of our friends becomes obese it nearly triples the likelihood of our becoming obese as well. Similarly, when people quit smoking, their friends, their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends’ friends are influenced to mimic that action. (Christakis & Fowler, 2011)

And, a Harvard study found that when 10 percent of their friends got a flu shot, subjects were 8.3 percent more likely to get a flu shot themselves. (Christakis & Fowler, 2011) This makes sense, as friends cluster together and perform the same activities together. So, if James is friends with Nicholas, Nicholas will most likely have an influence on James. The study also found that if James does not consider Nicholas to be a friend, then Nicholas will have no influence on James. In other words, you may increase your social network artificially using various tools such as follow/no follow, likes and mentions, shares, or comments, but this will have very little influence in a large social network where people do not consider you a friend. Furthermore, the more relevant, qualified, or influential your LinkedIn or Facebook friends are, the more people will associate you with their traits, in line with the “principle of association” we discussed earlier. (Cialdini, 2007)

To sum up, having quality connections matters. You may use automation and fake followers to build an initial base of followers for social proof purposes. Then the really hard work begins, as you must now grow your connections—the right type of connections. Seth Godin has made this point eloquently when stating that marketers cannot afford to reach the masses anymore. Instead, Godin advises marketers to reach out to sneezers, the people who both share and have influence online. (Godin, 2005)

Of course, we don’t want just any sneezers; the more like you they are, the greater the chance of reaching the influencer. As a simple example, a digital marketing consultant is more likely to share a great digital marketing article or tool than an accountant is. Or consider the more practical example of the well-known blogger Matthew Woodward. Matthew has launched his Private Blogs Network course mainly targeted at beginner to mid-level SEO professionals.  The launch was preceded by four free introductory videos in which Woodward recalled several occasions early in his career in SEO when he had little information and had often learned what to do by trying things out and making mistakes. This is a prime example of how the blogger was using the principle of similarity to instill into his audience the idea that “I am like you; I’ve been there as well; we have the same background; I understand you and I am here to support you.” Triggering a feeling of empathy with his audience was an important goal of the videos.  After all, as Chabris and Simons rightly point out the more we empathize with someone the less critical we become of their message. (Chabris and Simons, 2010) Every experienced SEO knows that Private Blog networks are a “no go” SEO strategy, and yet in Woodward’s case the empathy we feel toward the blogger and his being associated with expertise lead us to hold a more positive perception of private blog networks. By pointing to his earlier mistakes, Woodward was also leveraging the pratfall effect, meaning that occasional slip-ups can enhance your likability, and make you seem more human. (Wiseman, 2010) And, by emphasizing the common goal of beating Google, the blogger was leveraging the shared adversity principle, which refers to the fact that sharing adversity brings people together. In fact, the more adverse the experience the more intense the bond. (Brafman & Brafman, 2011) Thus, the more intense that SEOs perceived the battle with Google, the bigger the bond between the blogger and his prospective students.

Now, assume for a moment that the course was proposed by an unknown John Doe digital marketing guy, rather than a respected influencer like Matthew Woodward. Would your perception of the proposition change? I suspect, you would laugh off the idea of private blog networks, while also seriously questioning the level of expertise of the John Doe marketer.

Every marketer knows that people perceive more positively and trust more a message or product when respected influencers have endorsed it. Which is why tools like BuzzSumo offer Influencer outreach modules, and digital marketing agencies allocate large resources to reaching influencers.

But why are influencers so important? Why do we still let ourselves be influenced by people whom we perceive as authorities in their field? How much influence do these influencers actually have on the followers we long to getting access to? And is paying influencers to sneeze about our brand or product worth it?

We consider ourselves to be the masters of our own minds, and we are sure of our ability to decide the quality of a product solely on its merits. Indeed, we tell ourselves that we are too smart to let ourselves be unduly influenced by biased people’s recommendation of a product. Unfortunately, this perception is yet another lie we tell ourselves. Of course, we are influenced by celebrities endorsing products, and by online influencers sharing or liking articles or products or promoting products on social media sites. In fact, psychologists and marketers have been aware for a very long time that “arguments produce more attitude change in the people who read them when they are attributed to well regarded (that is, attractive, trustworthy, or expert) communication sources than when they are attributed to poorly regarded sources.” (Ross & Nisbett, 2011, p. 71)

But how much effect do influencers actually have on our decisions? How far can the influencer go before we decide that enough is enough? And can we prevent ourselves from being influenced?

Stanley Milgram to the rescue again, with his most famous experiment on “obedience to authority”. Milgram was looking to understand the extent to which authority figures impacted the behavior of people.  Via newspaper ads and direct mail he recruited hundreds of people from diverse backgrounds. The cover story was that people would be taking part in some fictitious studies regarding the impact of punishment in the learning process. The first experiments were carried out at Yale University. Milgram devised a scenario where unsuspecting subjects were being asked to gradually increase the electric shocks they were applying to a “learner”. Unknown to the participant the learner/victim was an accomplice of the experimenters. Several conditions were tested, including a remote condition with the accomplice placed in a separate room, but allowing the participant to hear his kicks on the wall, presumably caused by the pain inflicted on the victim. In another condition—voice feedback—the victim was still located in another room but this time vocal protests were introduced, that is, the subject could hear the protests of the victim. Other conditions tested were proximity and touch-proximity, where the victim was in the same room, close to the subject and even touching the participant. The subject was acting at the commands of a laboratory technician who was wearing a grey technician coat. The technician’s clothing, attitude and association with the University conferred on the technician a perceived status of authority. Of course, both the victim and the technician were accomplices of the experimenters, and they both played their roles in a very realistic manner. The victim in particular was well trained, and managed to mimic brilliantly the pain and anguish associated with the different levels of shock received. Participants were being told that the researchers were looking to understand the impact of punishment on the learning process. The participant was supposed to teach the victim a paired-associate learning task. Every time the victim gave a wrong answer, the technician would ask the subject to increase the level of the shock applied to the victim. The aim of the game was to assess how far the subject would go in obeying the technician, despite the screams, apparent pain, and the requests the victim made that the experiment be stopped. Many factors were tested. It is beyond the purpose of this book to detail the experiment, though you can of course read all about it in Milgram’s book Obedience to Authority.

So how far did the participants actually go with the shocks? For how long did they obey the technician’s commands to increase the level of shock?

Well, in the remote condition 65 percent of the people obeyed the authority and went up to the highest available level of shock. In the voice-feedback condition 62.5 percent went along with the experimenter. In the proximity and touch-proximity conditions 40 percent and 30 percent respectively went along with the experimenter. (Milgram, 2010) It is easy to see that the greater the distance between the victim and the subject, the more the subject obeyed the technician. Of course, keep in mind that it was not authority per se that drove the subject in his obedience but rather the perception of authority provided by cues such as the University of Yale setting, the technician’s coat, the technician’s control of the experiment, and the confidence displayed by the technician.

How does this transfer to the online world?

Well, online marketers encourage business owners and marketers to build presence online on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Reddit, to answer questions on Quora, and to contribute on Blog4U or on similar platforms. The premise for this action is that it both drives traffic to the website and builds the website’s authority profile. During my career I have met many mediocre self-made “experts” in various industries, and I know of many more. These “experts” are perceived as authorities based on their significant online presence, even when the content presented is well below the quality I would expect at their particular level.

In the section I will introduce you to the case of a mediocre SEO expert that has provided my team with an expensive but subpar lecture on SEO. Throughout his lecture he showed little to no understanding of current principles, SEO issues and tools, advancements in machine learning, or the impact of Rankbrain on SEO. Only after the lecture did I understand the reason behind his insistence on being paid in advance. I can only assume he had received lots of similar negative feedback in the past. And what do you know? Yes, you guessed it—he’s a LinkedIn influencer. He talks at conferences and he is very active on Facebook and Twitter, as well. He certainly generates quite a bit of noise. In a nutshell, as shown in the Milgram experiments, the appearance of authority or expertise is sufficient for confident behavior to be wrongly associated with actual expertise.

Take another experiment described by Chabris & Simons. Groups of four people who had never met before were asked to solve several math problems. Every participant was first asked to take a personality test measuring how dominant they tended to be. Researchers then recorded and closely analyzed the solving sessions. They found that people whose personality was more dominant had most often taken leadership of the group, even though they proved no more expert or competent than the other group members. So, how did they end up being leaders or influencers? In the words of Chabris & Simons, “ the answer is almost absurdly simple…They [the dominant influencers] spoke first…people with dominant personalities just tend to speak first and most forcefully…If you offer your opinion early and often, people will take your confidence as an indicator of ability, even though you are actually no better than your peers. (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 98)

You experience this contradiction throughout life: incompetent bosses who talk their way into a job, group brainstorming sessions hijacked by mediocre “leaders,” confident influencers and professionals who are forever “everywhere” online with nothing much to say. Of course, this is one powerful lesson you can leverage as a marketer looking to leapfrog more experienced influencers in your market: the mere appearance of being an influencer can be as strong as actual expertise. Like that seasoned but mediocre SEO consultant, you can talk your way into it. Fortunately, confidence is often associated with expertise, a helpful bit of knowledge to leverage when competing against more-established influencers.

Milgram’s studies, while shocking, give us a glimpse into why we go along with what influencers or perceived authorities say or do. We trust and believe recommendations provided by influencers. And when a John Doe provides the same recommendations we most often dismiss them. In the words of psychologist Paul Bloom: “Other people’s actions are driven not by how the world really is, but by how they think the world is.” (Bloom, 2011 p. 161) Thus, focusing on growing your network with quality connections, rather than quantity, is paramount for leveraging social media as a growth strategy. Using automated follow/no-follow tools exclusively is therefore not indicated.

Many people fall prey to the promises of fast growth, particularly given the granularity of filtering offered by these tools: you can follow or invite only people who have profile images, who posted a given number of posts within a given amount of time, who posted comments, or have a certain number of followers or friends; or you can choose them based on a keyword, and so forth. This level of granularity is one reason why I often encourage a balanced approach in using both automation and organic growth. However, automation alone will never deliver the engagement you are looking for. While people may accept your automated invitation or follow you in return, they will do so not because they love your product or content, but rather as a polite gesture, returning the favor, getting access to your first- or second-degree connections or for other such reasons. In conclusion, more is not always better. This is particularly important on social media platforms like LinkedIn, which is limiting the number of invitations you can send. So, use you invitations wisely, go for quality and well-connected people, gain access to their first- and second-level networks and see the reach of your product or content skyrocket.

Christakis and Fowler also explain that if influencers are to be successful, one more ingredient is needed: influenceable people. (Christakis and Fowler, 2011) While it may seem obvious, many marketers forget this aspect when choosing audiences, whether organic or paid for on Facebook, LinkedIn or other social media networks. If you are looking for proof, take a look at your email inbox or monitor your search experience; how many automated emails or remarketing ads do you receive from websites you’ve visited without engaging with them? And how many times have you reached a website and been welcomed by a pop-up offering basic information or lead magnets you don’t really need? One way of keeping people engaged, though, is the traditional old school special offer. Yes, it does work, as a study by Nielsen has shown. The study found that special offers were the main reason why people followed brands on social media, a finding backed up by another study by the Marketing magazine. (Jones, 2014)

To sum up our conversation on growing social media networks: remember that people have the tendency to associate themselves with people who share some degree of similarity with them, such as background, history, experiences, or education; before devising your social media growth strategy, you must ask yourself several questions:

– Who is your target audience? Is your audience relevant? If it isn’t, the size of your network will be irrelevant as well. Do you exclusively automate your social media growth? You should be aware that influencers most often will not follow you back and do not interact with automated comments or likes, either. Moreover, by growing your network solely on automation you will find yourself at the periphery of the network, perceived as a follower rather than an authority, and your pitches, whether articles, posts or promotions, will go largely unnoticed. Conversely, choosing a relevant audience and building a perception of authority will improve the reach of your message throughout the network, up as high as your third degree of separation connections.

– How many connections do your friends or followers have? How about the friends their friends have? What type of connections are they? We have seen how 100 well-connected people reach more people than do thousands of poorly connected “friends.” A hundred influencers will connect you to thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of second- and third-degree connections. By contrast 1,000 poorly connected people will connect you to a far smaller number of people.


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