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The Psychology of Conversions and How to Win at Sales

Conversion Rate Optimisation

What induces a business or a consumer to buy? A well designed product, solving a problem, or fulfilling a niche is essential but much of what compels a consumer to buy lies within the mind.

By delving into the psychology of conversions you can better understand how to engineer reactions that will compel potential customers to choose your product or service.

wordcloud over brain

Many factors go into creating the perfect environment to make a sale. Whether designing a physical or virtual selling space you can make use of psychological triggers to lead your customers to certain decisions.

We often think of conversions as a single moment when a potential sale steps over into a sale made. While there is a crucial moment that finalises the sales process there are a great many moments that lead up to it.

In this post we explore the psychology of conversions and how you can use these insights to increase sales on your website.

Loss Aversion Creates Urgency

Loss aversion theory says that if something is about to be taken away from us or the possibility of getting it is reduced our desire to have it increases. It’s an enduring marketing technique that proves to be effective time and time again.

"Losses loom lager than corresponding gains", Amos Tversky

Two methods of creating loss aversion are limited-time-only deals and free trials that give you a taster of a product before expiring.

Time’s Running Out

Research shows that we’re more likely to want something if we feel our ability to have it is under threat. You’ve undoubtedly seen marketing campaigns that operate under this premise using taglines such as “Sale must end soon”, “For a limited time only” or “First 100 customers only”.

Plus.net countdown ticker

Like Plus.net, you can tap into the fear of loss by running short promotions, advertising small availability and encouraging users to sign up now to gain further benefits later on.

Other sites, such as SecretEscapes.com, are entirely dedicated to promotions, continually using time urgency to drive conversions.

SecretEscapes offers

Free Trials

Loss aversion is also why free trials work so well. Once your customer has experienced the full value of your service over a period of time they’ll be loath to lose it.

McAfee hub

McAfee use loss aversion and fear to encourage users of their free trial to choose a paid subscription. They urge you to ‘stay protected’ and include a countdown to subscription expiry.

Low Cognitive Load Keeps Users Focussed

Cognitive load is the amount of mental processing power needed to learn something. Humans learn best when cognitive load is reduced and the route to learning follows human cognitive architecture.

How is this important for sales? We’re not teaching potential customers anything, are we?

In fact there are many things that a new visitor to your site has to learn. It’s up to you to make that learning process as natural and quick as possible. Page structure, button design and language are all important in ensuring new visitors master your site without the sense of having to learn something new.

In the video below Dr. Mike Baxter, founder of Sales Logiq, a conversion optimisation consultancy (also a consultant and trainer at Econsultancy) illustrates the cognitive load experienced while filling out a web form:

So how can you minimise cognitive load? Kathryn Whitenton is considered an expert on all things usability. She has conducted user research around the world and now works as a user experience specialist for Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g). NN/g provide UX consultation to companies such as Google, Deloitte and Live Nation.

Whitenton suggests following these three principles to reduce cognitive load:

  1. Avoid visual clutter- make the most important information and calls to actions stand out by leaving plenty of whitespace around them

  2. Build on existing mental models- this means using familiar designs and architecture so that new visitors feel confident that they know how the page works and can easily find their way around i.e. to find information or complete a task

  3. Offload tasks- this means reducing the amount of work the visitor has to put in e.g. form fields to complete, text to read. The psychology behind this is that you don’t deplete the mental resources of your potential customer, allowing them to focus on the signing up or buying.

Trust and Credibility Create a Safe Environment to Buy

Your website is your shop front. It should appear secure and help frame you as a trustworthy company. Building trust will drive sales from new customers who feel secure with you and will lead to customer loyalty.

What parts of your website influence trust?


Professional page design is the key to making a credible first impression. A quality product or service must be framed by quality shelf space aka your website.

Great web design immediately tells of a company who has taken the care and effort to present themselves well.

Apple Homepage

UXMag conducted a survey on trust in 2012 which revealed that Americans trusted doctors and Apple the most out of a range of industries, services, and platforms they were asked about. Apple never skimp on design, which could account for the level of professionalism and thus trustworthiness attributed to them.

Testimonials & Social Proof

Handwriting 'Thank you'

Seeing a great review helps your customer to imagine themselves having the same experience an ultimately encourages them to buy. The trust and credibility of testimonials relies on the credibility of the source. Testimonials from well known people or companies will transfer the trust that they’ve built up with the public to you.

Social proof has a similar effect to testimonials.

Lots of Facebook icons

Social proof is the use of sharing buttons that display the number of times the page has been shared. If we see that someone else has already given their approval we’re more likely to also feel positively about it.

Trust Badges

Norton Secured Seal

Source: symantec.com

The trust badge assures customers that your site is secure and that their sensitive information is safe. A survey by Toluna showed that 48% of respondents trusted a site more when it displayed a trust seal. This carried a greater mark of trustworthiness than professional design, personal recommendation, a fast loading site or the familiarity of the products carried on the site.

Real Photos

Lady wearing headscarf

Real photos of your customers work in much the same way as social proof. They prove to new customers that other people already like you. Photos of your staff help to garner trust, credibility and accountable.

It almost goes without saying that you should choose photos where the subject looks genuine and trustworthy.

Priming for Emotional and Logical Decision Making

Turtle and hare running in a man's head

Source: David Plunkett

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman says that humans either think quickly or slowly. He defines these as two different systems of thinking:

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious

  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

System 1 is the default mode that most people are engaged in and as such you should usually appeal to this. So in most cases you have to facilitate or maintain the thinking process i.e. allow thoughts to be formed fast, automatically, emotionally etc.

Reducing cognitive load is part of allowing your potential customers to keep thinking fast. To illicit an emotional response include emotive imagery, a relatable story or appeal to the needs and wants of your customer base. Prompting the right emotional response generates higher numbers of sales with higher average values.

However, engaging System 2 will be beneficial for selling tailored products and services, such as insurance or a bespoke website. It’s important that your customers feel you understand them and what they’re looking for.

System 2 is less frequently engaged and must be primed by asking your customers to think over specific questions which will trigger slow, effortful and conscious thinking.

By priming your customers to engage System 2 you will get more well thought out responses to your questions. This will give you the information you need to produce the right product.

Calls to Action Should Convince

Lady with megaphone

Calls to action are anything that seeks to prompt an action. These can be buttons or links such as Buy Now, Tweet, Contact Us or they can be suggestions in the content like ‘Leave a comment below’. The best calls to action are presented as a command.

Dan Zarrella (HubSpot) found that social media users are up to 4 times more likely to retweet when asked to. So although we might assume that people know what to do or will do it if they want to, it is far more effective to prompt them.

Remember that a call to action should be just that. Avoid asking a question such as “Would you like to start your free trial?”. Asking a question leaves you open to refusal whereby the user may answer the question with a ‘no’. The psychological effect of a gentle command is that the user is pushed toward action rather than asked to stop and consider a question

Sell Smart

So you see there’s no dark art at work, no puppetry to master to entice more customers. By understanding what influences the mind and in which state people are most likely to buy in, you can increase your revenue.

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