When it comes to persuading people online, the most effective tool is an understanding of human psychology.

There. I said it.

You can spend hours debating over the size of the call to action button, the color, the placement and font of the text and even the border of the wretched button. BUT it all boils down to this:

Do you understand what makes people tick?

Do you know how to get inside their brains?

Do you know how to invoke emotions in them?

No, I’m not claiming that this post will be the answer to all your online psychology questions. But it does offer 8 psychological hooks that you can use to invoke positive emotions in people visiting your website. These hooks – all scientifically proven to trigger emotional responses – have the potential to convert a casual visitor into a life-long enthusiast… and, even better, into a buyer.

1. Disrupt Then Reframe (DTR)

Researchers tested the DTR technique by selling note cards for a local charity. They positioned the offer for the cards in these two ways:

  1. $3 for 8 cards
  2. 300 pennies for 8 cards… which is a bargain!

Can you guess which sold better?

You’re right if you guessed it’s the second one. In fact, the second offer sold twice as many cards as the first. But why? Because of the disrupt then reframe technique…

Here’s how it works. First, disrupt your visitor’s routine thought process; in the case of this study, researchers disrupted dollars as pennies. Then, while your visitor’s brain is processing this disruption, out comes the reframe! Your visitor will have less resistance to the reframe because their brain is otherwise occupied by the initial disruption.

Harley Davidson uses the DTR technique really well for their pre-owned Harley messaging:

How Harley Davidson persuades

2. Prescribe the Symptom with Paradoxical Intervention

This isn’t anywhere near as complicated as its name suggests. It’s simply what we conversationally call “reverse psychology”, and it’s been an effective model to promote behavior-change for years. To use it, frame your message in such a way that resistance to the message promotes change, like LearnVest does here:

persuasion guide

3. Sell the Pain of Missing Out

We fear loss more than we value gain. Ten bucks says you’ve already heard about this technique, commonly known as loss aversion. It’s so well-known, it’s perhaps the most over-used technique in the online world – and it’s the concept behind gamey calls to action like “buy NOW, only 2 spots left” and banners that read “almost sold out” when, in fact, they’re nowhere near sold out.

Overused or not, loss aversion works – especially when your prospect thinks they might miss out on something by not acting fast…

Consider this copy from the long-form sales page for Ash Ambirge’s The Six Appeal Process:

Appeals and persuasion

Ash shows you what you will miss out on when someone comes to your website and you cannot hook them. She shows you in clear numbers the exact loss you will have to bear by not joining the program. She puts $10,000 in your hands, and then she takes $7000 away. And suddenly you don’t want that to happen. Suddenly you get it!

Here, it’s not about the benefits of the program; it’s not about how you’ll be the talk of the town when you take the course. It’s about 1) tapping into the pain your prospect wants to avoid, and 2) showing them how to avoid it…

4. Highlight the Most Desirable Behavior

On the heels of negative or loss framing, let’s talk about persuading people using an interesting human quirk: social proof.

When it comes to social proof, especially in the form of data, framing the proof in a positive way often works better than framing the negative. In this study at the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, researchers found that signs on messages were less effective when the wording highlighted the unwanted behavior rather than the desirable behavior.

Persuasion national park example signs

Further, messages like “80% of the people don’t recycle anything” and “6 out of 10 women are sexually harassed in the workplace” may be well-intentioned. But they have not been shown to lead to meaningful change simply because they make the unwanted behavior seem like the norm. They validate the behavior. They tell people, “So many people are doing X, it can’t be all that bad.” (See more about Herd Behavior below.) 

Even worse? They can lead to bystander effect: “The problem is so big, I cannot do anything to make a change, and nobody’s singled me out to help, so I won’t try.”

Take a look at this example from Too Young to Wed:

Persuasion and bystander effect

The headline and subhead beautifully highlight the most desirable behavior: protect girls’ rights, and end child marriage…

…But what about the line of copy below the subhead? Read it. It leads with “If we do nothing”, which one could argue is introducing the unwanted behavior of doing nothing. It then stacks on the daunting number of girls who will become child brides, further enforcing the difficulty of stopping the unwanted behavior. Rewritten to highlight the wanted behavior, it could instead go like so:

When you act to protect the rights of girls worldwide, you save children like 11 year-old Jessica Stone from being forced to marry a man two, three or even six times her age. Protecting child brides and giving them access to the education enjoyed by North American and Western European girls starts with your affordable donation today.

The negative behavior is stripped out, and the desired behavior is highlighted.

See how this works in a similar message, with positive framing, this time from Save the Children:

Save the Children positive framing of social data

Check your own messages. Are you highlighting the behavior you want people to have… or are you inadvertently telling your visitors not to choose or trust you?

5. Label ‘em Good

Labels turn into self-fulfilling prophecies for most people. Labelling someone as smart, dumb, good at math etc. can visibly impact the performance of the individual in that area…

Use labels – or the way you refer to your visitors and readers – for good. Use them to persuade. How? Assign a trait, attitude, belief, or other label to your visitor, and then make a request of that visitor that’s consistent with the label.

If you’ve ever read a sales page that begins “Dear Startup Founder in Search of an Idea” and then found yourself considering buying a system to help you find said idea, you’ve seen this principle at work… An example that Noah J. Goldstein gives in the excellent and fast-read Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive is this: Luke Skywalker says to Darth Vader, “I know there’s good in you.” And Darth Vader eventually saves Luke from the Emperor.

Another clever example is Ramit Sethi’s “Finisher’s Formula”, a course that must surely have the highest completion rates of all time:

Finisher's Formula persuasion

And for a clever online example of labeling, check out how Avon is labeling anyone who gives makeup recommendations as a potential Avon Sales Representative:

How Avon uses persuasion to recruit

6. Charge Up Your Story

Everyone and their mother talks about the importance of telling stories online, but I think this suggestion is only half-complete. Just telling a random story isn’t enough when you want to hook and convert your readers. You need the right story. But where you do you find it?

In their excellent book Made to Stick, the Heath brothers talk about 3 story plots that are stickiest and most memorable:

1. The Challenge Plot: A story of the underdog, rags to riches or sheer willpower triumphing over adversity

2. The Connection Plot: A story about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap, whether racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic or otherwise; think of the film The Blind Side

3. The Creativity Plot: A story that involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle or attacking a problem in an innovative way

Your brand story may follow one of these plots; many tech companies will find The Creativity Plot applies to them, though one might argue that the story of Apple – or at least of Steve Jobs – was, in many ways, in keeping with The Challenge Plot.

But we’re not just talking about brand stories. We’re talking about a story you can actually tell on your page – like Jen Darion and Omar Noor do here:

Persuasion and storytelling

Jen and Omar’s story is one of sheer creativity, with a hint of a challenge plot thrown in. The whole page is consistent with the plot, and the story doesn’t fail to motivate and persuade.

Would-be underdogs, Less Accounting consistently tells the story of “sucking less than other accounting software” (i.e., less than the big, bloated leaders)… and supports their story with those of their many users, who are likely to relate to the story of being The Little Guy:

Less Accounting and persuasion

Creative storytellers, Wistia also lives and breathes their story as a growing business focused 100% on the power of video:

Wistia's story

What’s your story? How can it come through on your home page? And is it likely to resonate with your prospects?

7. The Power of a Secret

Research shows that people who feel they share a secret feel much closer (even attracted) to the other person. People obsess over secrets way more than things that are well-known to others. They also value secrets as a binder that brings two human beings closer together. Consider the popularity of Post Secret, a highly addictive website that lets you take a peek into the minds of others:

Secrets and persuasion

Now I’m not suggesting that you create a website where your visitors can post their secrets. Obviously. But I am suggesting that you consider the power of the secret… and use it. Use it for your membership site: only members get to know X secrets behind Y businesses. Use it for your enewsletter signup to set yourself apart from yet another ecourse: I send out all my best business secrets to my subscribers – guaranteed a new secret every month. It’s up to you to test how a secret could better connect your prospects and customers to you….

8. Authority and the Herd Effect

Finally, the tied-together concepts of authority and herd behavior / the herd effect. These persuasion concepts tap into these truths:

  1. Humans believe a person of authority on a subject
  2. Humans are more likely to do as others do than to venture out on their own

You can go in-depth on these topics in the Copyhackers persuasion guide, available here.

In the meantime, here’s a quick example of these principles at use on Basecamp:

How 37signals persuades on Basecamp

In a single headline, the 37signals team turns themselves into an authority and leverages herd behavior. As far as a visitor to Basecamp’s home page could surmise, everyone seems to be using Basecamp… so why wouldn’t you?

There you have it! Eight ways you can use the knowledge of how humans behave to get your visitors to take action. Wanna add something to the list? Questions about a topic I glazed over (in the interest of not writing a book on the subject)? Add it to the comments, and we can chat there…

Bushra A.
Founder of The Persuasion Revolution