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Psychology in Online Sales: 6 Shortcuts to Make Customers BUY

Ever wondered how you can use psychology in online sales?

Admit it.

You’ve caught yourself hypnotically staring at those late night infomercials thinking, “Yes, I actually do need a new set of couch pillow pluffies.”

You really don’t, and you know it.

Still, there’s just something so incredibly alluring about the way the commercial runs. Something so strong you almost reach out for your phone and dial in.

Dial in before the offer runs out!

What causes this compelling urge? Why does your brain want to buy the damn couch pillow pluffie so badly?

Truth is - your brain doesn't care about the pluffie. Your brain took an unexpected mental shortcut.

It's not broken, don't worry!

Let me show you how these mental shortcuts work, and why they lead to irrational behaviour.


Our Decision-Making Processes Aren't as Logical as We Think

We're incredibly good at tuning out noise. 

Just think of all the things vying for our attention at any given moment. If we weren't able to block out at least some of these distractions, we simply wouldn't be able to function. 

Through our evolution, the brain has created a host of shortcuts that keep us focused on what really matters - namely, surviving. But these shortcuts can also be hacked, and time and time again, marketers are more than happy to use this.

Let's try this experiment. 

Imagine driving a needle through your fingernail.


Did you flinch or cringe? Why? It seems like an unreasonably severe reaction, considering nothing really happened. 

That's just it: logic had nothing to do with it. The mere thought of stinging pain triggered an automated behaviour pattern, bypassing all of the reasoning faculties in your brain.

Most of the time, your brain does a grand job at shortcutting the non-essential choices you're faced with.

Yet on occasion, you catch yourself doing something that can't be justified rationally.

Like buying couch decorations from an infomercial at 2 AM.

So, you're used to others constantly using psychology against you. Isn't it time you started using psychology in your online sales?

6 Essential Triggers You Should Use in Online Sales

To get you started with psychology in online sales, we're going to look at 6 essential triggers and give you some examples of how they're used in sales.

To understand the influence patterns that cause your brain to skip a beat in your everyday life, we'll look at these classic psychological triggers, popularized by Robert Cialdini in his book "Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion."

1. Reciprocity - I Owe You!

You’re enjoying a lovely meal at your favourite restaurant. After the meal, as per usual, your waiter brings you your bill, accompanied by a small mint candy.

Oh, that’s nice, you think as you begin to read through the bill.

Much to your surprise though, the waiter turns around again to bring you another mint. “This one is especially for you.”

What excellent service, you think, and add another $5 to the tip. He earned it!

Or did he?

According to a study by Cornell University, giving one candy to the customer increases average tips from about 15% to 18%. Stopping to give another candy can bump it up to nearly 21%!

The Door in the Face Technique

A boy scout knocks on your door, selling tickets to a boy scout event on the weekend at $50 a piece. You cringe at the thought and politely decline. The boy quietly sighs and you get ready to close the door.

You feel slightly guilty for refusing the boy.

Before letting you return to your evening activities, the boy scout re-emerges with a new rapid line of sales dialogue “Sir! Would you rather buy a box of our boy scout cookies for $5?"

Five dollars? Surely you owe the kid that much. He’s doing hard work and you rudely declined his offer for event tickets.

You wouldn’t want to leave him empty handed.

Five dollars poorer, box of cookies fairer, you close the door.

Because of his retreat on his proposal, the boy made you feel in debt. Even though he physically gave you nothing!

This sales technique is known as the door-in-the-face technique. It involves making an outrageous request and then stepping down a notch to make the respondent more likely to comply with a simpler request.

Your Brain Feels Compelled to Return the Favor

We humans have a deep-seated urge to repay debts, to do something in return when something is done for us. Sociologist Alvin Gouldner points out that no society on Earth escapes the reciprocity principle.

Hammurabi's code (1850 B.C.) has the first written mentions of reciprocity, but Richard Leakey, a Kenyan paleoanthropologist, attributes it to the very core of humanity. (Leakey R.E. (1984): One Life: an autobiography)

Our societies are based on mutual trust and exchange of value. What better way to keep that value exchange going than returning the favour? Cultural anthropologists call this idea the "web of indebtedness", where reciprocity is viewed as an adaptive mechanism to enhance survival.

Our survival instinct leads us to feel a bit guilty if we don’t give something back to the boy scout who tried to do us a favour or give a bigger tip to the waiter who treated us so much better than other people.

How to Use Reciprocity to Increase Your Conversions

So what can you GIVE your audience so they will feel compelled to RETURN the favour?

Remind people of your valuable content.

Ramit Sethi makes a point to remind his subscribers that he gives away his best content for free. And he's the guy teaching you how to be rich! Here's a snippet from one of his emails:

I give away some of my best material for free — and have for 10+ years — and go one step further: We give you the entire length of the course, 8 full weeks, to try the entire program out. THEN you decide. We can afford to do this because we know Dream Job works!

When your content is truly valuable to people and you give it away for free, it triggers a need for reciprocity. Your audience will feel compelled to return the favor. But only if you remind them about it.

You can use these reminders in your sales copy, on your homepage, in your opt-in forms, in your emails or at the end of your blog posts.

Offer value first, then ask to subscribe!

You should always give first and ask second. You give great valuable content and your readers give your their time.

To get people to subscribe to your mailing list, you need to offer something tangible first. That's why the opt-in offer is so popular. It makes for an effective value exchange for the reader's email address.

Prepare an opt-in offer. Make sure it offers a tangible benefit that's easy and quick to apply. Then watch the subscriptions roll in!

Use a downsell as a "door-in-the-face" technique.

Offer a lower priced product after getting rejected.

Imagine at the end of a webinar your customer doesn't really want your expensive high end product. They're not ready for it yet, or don't really need it right now.

So after the webinar, send an email thanking everyone for their participation, but include a "thank you" offer for an ebook at a drastically reduced price.

2. Commitment - In for a Penny, in for a Pound!

You’re approached by a charity foundation outside the local supermarket. You get ready to say no, as you don’t really like to donate to random charities on the street. But they’re not after money - they’re simply asking you to wear a cancer awareness ribbon for a week. “Sure, what harm could that do,” you think as you clip on your pink ribbon.

Some time later, the charity foundation approaches you with a appeal to donate to their charity. You find it impossible to refuse. It almost feels like you’re fighting the same battle.

You donate a fair sum of money, and feel good about yourself.

The following year you donate again.

Your friend, curious about your new hobby, asks “What got you so interested in charities?”

Foot in the Door - Micro-Commit Today!

When you took that charity ribbon to wear, you rationalized a small commitment. It's just a week. No biggie. Even after only a week, this small commitment became part of your identity. This opened the path for a bigger commitment down the road.

A string of micro-commitments is a decision-expressway for our brain. Only the first commitment is something you need to consider and rationalize. The following ones take less and less effort because your brain has already processed the decision.

Make your mind up once and you never have to think about it again. Venturing outside this line of decisions will cause a huge mental strain because you're giving up part of your identity.

Incidentally, this is called the foot-in-the-door technique, derived from the door to door-salesmen of old. As long as they somehow slipped into the customer's home, 90% of their sales work was done.

Did you ever notice how sales pages make you answer yes multiple times before presenting you with the major CTA at the bottom of the page? That's micro-commitments at work.

How to Use Commitment to Increase Your Conversions

How can you form a string of MICRO-COMMITMENTS that will lead your audience to a beneficial action?

Provide small wins for your audience.

Keep people engaged with small actionable takeaways in the content you publish. When your audience gets used to acting on your simple valuable tips, they'll feel more relaxed in acting on a bigger instruction.

Good small wins come from:

  • Small how-to tips
  • Content upgrades
  • New information and discoveries

When you finally do ask them to purchase your product, or make a bigger commitment, make sure it's worth their time. Your audience will thank you by purchasing your products in the future as well.

Use your first autoresponder email to ask a question.

Autoresponders can be a powerful tool in your funnel arsenal, but they can vanish into the inbox-void as quickly as you send them.

To increase your email opening rate, the first email your visitor receives after subscribing or purchasing a product should include a question. Something quick, but enough to activate your reader. A classic one is:

"What is one thing holding you back on this topic right now?"

After replying, they will feel compelled to stay consistent in reading your emails. Remember to read and reply to any emails you receive in return!

Make your audience commitments public.

Open a dialogue with your audience. Listen to their input and feedback. You are creating content for your audience, and it should by done on their terms.

When your reader feels like they had a part in creating your awesome content, they will feel partly responsible for it. Your content and community will become a small part of their identity, which you can leverage for future offers.

Dunkin' Donuts once challenged their customers to decorate coffee cups for Halloween and upload their pictures to Instagram for a chance to win a gift card. Seeing their own creations on public display solidified their identity as Dunkin' Donuts-customers.

Get your foot in the door by selling something for a tiny sum of money.

Your biggest challenge is to get your reader to open their wallet and make their first payment. When you get your reader to commit to even a small purchase, it's much easier to introduce a bigger product later.

Instead of giving out your ebook for free, try selling it for a small sum of money. Then set up a follow-up email sequence to the people who purchased. Then offer those people more and more expensive products.

WARNING: Always provide value first! If you ask money for a product, it should be worth ten times the amount you ask for it. You're selling to your reader, not a credit card number.

3. Liking - Hey that's my favourite!

I’ve often wondered, how in a city the size of Barcelona, so many people are interested in where I’m from. Whether it be on the streets at night, on Las Ramblas during the day or even at the poker table at the casino.

"Hey where are you from?"

Being the naïve sort, I sometimes get excited and answer, hoping for an deep discussion about the obliquity of nightlife, but it always ends up with them wanting my money.

As if they’d be somehow entitled to part of my coin stash in exchange for granting me the chance to share something personal.

First I scoffed at this, but then started wondering. Why do we feel compelled to share something personal with a complete stranger?

Prove Yourself, Stranger!

The hustlers and panhandlers in a city like Barcelona are well aware of influence triggers, and use these types of questions to gain express access to your emotional brain.

According to Robert Cialdini, your brain automatically feels drawn toward physical attractiveness, similarity, praise, increased familiarity and association.

Hearing someone ask you about your home country, your brain thinks:

  • You have similar interests.
  • You might feel flattered that someone would take the time to ask you about your country.
  • The hustler made you think of your home, which feels familiar.
  • This person can be associated with positive things.
  • Clearly this person is attractive, I should comply with their requests!

Even if you're not really attracted to this person, your brain feels the need to act as if you were.

Before you have a chance to consider rationally, your brain is compelled to respond, or even worse - part with your pocket change!

How to Make Your Audience Like You

Let's make your audience LIKE YOU without turning you into a street hustler!

Empathize with your audience's frustrations.

Sociologist Georg Simmel argued that we look for a common goal to find a reason to unite. Your goal should be to find solutions to your audience's frustrations.

Every bit of content you make requires you to research your audience. Find out where they hang out. Listen to their discussions and understand their issues.

Always create content from your audience's point of view. Be on their TEAM.

Be personal and genuine.

In today's information environment, a phony salesman in a slimy suit won't last long. People are more likely to relate to and listen to a person with real flaws, providing real actionable guidance.

Don't be afraid to show your weaknesses! If your story is something full of defying odds and overcoming obstacles, it will be even more alluring than some made up tale. It shows you are human.

If your story is lacking magnificent discoveries, go make some! If you're lacking expert knowledge on a subject, go read a book!

Pat Flynn is honest about his job history and being laid off back in the day, which makes his success all the more noteworthy. He's not some corporate superhuman. He's just another guy, who overcame his obstacles. It makes his advice relatable and easy to follow.

Create content that looks good.

If your website looks like something made in 1994, your audience will hardly stick around. So make sure your website and content look presentable.

  • Use any of the available standard WordPress themes or Thrive Theme Builder.
  • Have a photo of yourself smiling somewhere on your site.
  • Use stock photos intelligently on your site.

4. Social Proof - Like This Page!

Imagine being back in high school math class. Your teacher starts off by asking individual students to solve a simple math problem: “What is 3 x 9?”

“28,” the first student replies confidently. You smile a bit at their silly mistake.

To your surprise, the teacher nods and moves on to the next student, who also replies “28.” Your smile fades and turns into a confused stare. One after one the other students give a confident reply of “28.”

You feel your head imploding. What happened to basic math? Are you remembering this wrong?

You find yourself counting fingers when the teacher finally reaches you. It’s your turn now. You feel the emotional burden of the whole room on your shoulders.

Do you repeat what everyone else said, or trust your own math and risk embarrassment in front of the group?

Social Pressure Makes the World Go Round...

During the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments, known as the Asch conformity experiments, that demonstrated the impact of social pressure on individual behavior.

A major part of our survival as a species is due to our ability to function as tribes and societies. Our brains have developed to instinctively favor the actions of the tribe over individual actions to ensure our place in the group and maximize chances of survival.

We're heavily influenced by validation and social proof because we're built to avoid being cast out from our peer groups.

That's why you struggle in front of the class trying to solve the math problem. Your brain needs you to answer incorrectly to avoid the risk of becoming an outcast.

How to Use Social Proof in Your Business

Here's how you make SOCIAL PROOF work for you.

Show how many fans you have.

Make it clear how many fans have already subscribed before your reader.

A simple text on your landing page, like "Join the 10000+ people who already receive this newsletter!" will ease the worry of your visitor. They're not the first, so they're not taking a risk.

Different social counter plugins can show the amount of social media fans you have. This can be an interesting statistic, but don't overcrowd your homepage. Social media should never be only about numbers, like Scott Stratten from Unmarketing says.

Ask your customers for testimonials.

Ask for testimonials from a satisfied customer and publish it on your website along with a quote and a picture. This creates a trustworthy image, and gives a sense that your website is run by real people who really use these products.

To get a good testimonial, a freelancer would ask two questions:

  1. When did you realize you made the right choice in hiring me?
  2. How would you characterize the experience of working with me in terms of communication, meeting deadlines, and my ability to adapt to changing situations?

You're looking for a testimonial of the value you brought the customer.

Be active in social media.

To become a household name, you need to consistently interact with your fans and influencers. Share your best content, share other people's best content and give your fans a reason to follow you. Answer questions and become the trusted expert!

The most important part of social media is to find your own audience and speak exactly them. Our own Dave Danzeiser can show you how to hack Facebook and find your perfect target audience.

5. Authority - Sir, yes sir!

Imagine waiting at the doctor's office.

A tall man in a white coat walks in, stethoscope around his neck. He asks you some questions and asks you to walk a bit.

Finally he writes you a bill for $240 on an official looking document.

"$240? I've paid all my bills already!" you exclaim, frustrated.

"You still need to pay this one," he sternly replies.

You sigh and write a cheque for the doctor. Not getting any cheaper, these medical treatments. You go find the information desk to reserve your next appointment.

"But sir, you haven't seen the doctor yet," the nurse at the desk says, bewildered.

"Oh I just came from there, paid the bill as well," you reply, rolling your eyes slightly.

"Sir, our doctor is stuck in traffic and will be here in 20 minutes. I'm sorry for the delay," the nurse replies and moves on to another customer.

But you just saw the doctor!

... or did you?

Your Brain Can Not Resist Authority

The Asch effect (see Asch experiment) makes people more likely to agree with high-status individuals, even if they clearly see that the conclusion is false. Authority figures and majority positions are known to create strong feelings toward conforming in humans.

Note that it doesn't matter whether or not the authority has any proven credibility.

We have good reason to respect instructions coming from a police officer, who have training and state-enforced authority. The very sight of a uniformed police officer might make you stiffen up, even if you've never broken a law in your life.

The funny thing is, we react the same way to other uniformed security personnel, like private security guards. They have very little legal authority, but we obey them anyway. 

Our tribal brain strongly urges us to listen to a leader. A claim or command gains unprecedented power when connected to an alleged authority.

That's why a false doctor cheated you out of $240.

You can get away with anything if you do it with enough authority.

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Using Authority to Increase Conversions

AUTHORITY is one of the more powerful triggers you can apply to your website. Here's how:

Show "featured in" logos on your site.

After you get published or featured on a major blog or news website, be sure to mention it on your site. A simple picture or logo will bring a completely new level of credibility to your business.

All of the logos might not mean much to your visitor, but if they recognize even one, you automatically become easier to identify as an authority.

Provide the most usable and most valuable information on a subject.

When you have enough unique content pieces that become the go-to information sources on a certain subject, you become the authority on that topic.

This will not happen immediately. To get there eventually, Julie Petersen from Problogger suggests you create unique content by...

  • Brainstorming your topic intensely to come up with new ideas.
  • Research your chosen idea thoroughly.
  • Proofread and edit your finished piece until it's ready for publication to your audience.
  • Rinse and repeat.
Use names your audience will respect.

Nomen est omen. Did you know that Woody Allen's real name is Allen Konigsberg? And Lewis Carroll was called Charles Lutwidge Dodgson at birth?

Actors and people performing in public often take on an alias to more suit their style or ease pronounciation. You also need to pay attention to your chosen website and business name so it creates the correct impression in your target audience's minds.

Red Bull is an energy drink, it can't be called Couch Fluid.

6. Scarcity - Get Them While They're Hot!

You line up at the electronics superstore, ready to barge in and seize any value-deal you can find. This chance comes up only once a year and you must make the best of it!

Yes, it’s Black Friday, the intensely popular once-a-year shopping extravaganza. You and millions of others are waiting to get your hands on consumer products because today they’re slightly cheaper than every other day of the year.

Battered and bruised, you finally make your way out of the shop with something you don’t really need. Not really what you were looking for, but at least you didn’t miss out on this great deal!

Your Brain Hates to Miss Out

Customers suffer injuries and store owners suffer property damage because of this insane shopping spree. Yet, every year sales shoot through the roof. Why this madness?

The core idea of Black Friday is rooted in the scarcity, or loss aversion principle. Us humans place a higher value on something that’s not readily available and a lower value on something that can be found in abundance.

Your brain, ever trying to save power, makes a mental shortcut to estimate an item’s value based on its perceived availability rather than quality or need. So the more difficult it is to obtain something, the more value your brain instantly grants that item. Without further detailed analysis, it’s easy to feel that a scarce item is irrationally important to acquire.

This bias is formed out of two social psychology principles, the first being social proof. If an item’s availability is severely limited, then everyone must want it. If everyone else wants it, it must be valuable. If it’s valuable, we must have it!

The second principle is commitment bias. If you feel even slightly interested in a product whose availability might not be everlasting, you feel a burning need to obtain it now while you still have the chance.

On a day like Black Friday, you don’t have to have any particular product you’re looking for. Your brain simply feels you need to take part to avoid missing out.

How to Use Scarcity to Drive Sales

You can use SCARCITY in a few simple ways to increase your audience's willingness to buy.

Use different timers and counters to show scarcity. has taken scarcity to a whole new level. Every time you view a product, you see a counter telling you how many items are left and how much time you have to order the product so it arrives by a certain time. creates a loss aversion trigger by showing exactly how many rooms are left and how many people are looking at those particular rooms.

You can also insert a timer on your page to illustrate how soon an offer will expire.

Offer a special price for a limited time.

The classic scarcity trigger is a time limited trigger, which Thrive Themes has used for a couple of its launches.

If you're on the fence about purchasing, you might as well go with the cheaper purchasing price.

Offer this special price to your subscribers before publishing your product to everyone. Or perhaps only to a selected few from a secret webinar.

Create exclusivity by limiting production amount.

You see a specific item, like a mobile phone case cover or perhaps a cool jacket. You don't really need it at the moment, but the salesman says it's one of the last ones and they don't know if and when they're getting more.

You buy it just to be safe. At least you won't regret it!

You can create limited production runs of your products with special features, bonus bundles, tutorial videos, free coaching, etc. You can even recreate these limited runs now and then. Just make sure you preserve a sense of exclusivity.

Use Thrive Ultimatum to create a scarcity campaign on your website.

The easiest way to implement a scarcity element on your WordPress website is to use Thrive Ultimatum, the most advanced scarcity marketing plugin.

From evergreen campaigns that start for every new visitor to bulletproof countdowns that absolutely can not be reset, this plugin has it all.

As with all Thrive Themes products, it's built to be intuitive and easy to use. Check it out by clicking below:

Your Turn to Influence People

Are we robots? Perhaps not. But one thing is for sure: our brains take some curious shortcuts!

Now you have at least some sort of idea about the ways you're being influenced every day without you noticing. So the next time you're watching that infomercial on TV, try to listen if you can spot these triggers.

When you're in town doing your daily business, look for these triggers in product placement, music, dress code.

Try to spot the triggers your favourite bloggers are intentionally or unintentionally using to influence you.

P.S. It took me about 42 hours to write this article and provide you with the best practical advice. It would mean the WORLD to me if you could share it with your friends. Thank you so much!

P.P.S. See what I did there?

About the Author Jay

Jay has an affinity for red wine, Monty Python-references and content marketing.

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