Conversion Rate Optimisation - How a bit of psychology helps

By Aran Reeks
5 Mar 2014

Using human psychology to improve sales is probably as old as the practice of buying and selling. If you’ve ever seen a skilled market trader warm up an audience with a couple of unbelievable bargains that disappear who knows where into a crowd of shoppers you’ll know what I mean.

Understanding the psychology of buying: what convinces us to buy and what makes us wary, lies at the heart of conversion rate optimisation.  But, if you’re hoping for a list of tricks and tactics that will dupe unsuspecting customers into buying things they don’t really want, then I’m going to disappoint you.

Fundamentally, there’s no way in eCommerce to convince somebody to buy something they don’t want or need. So where does psychology come in? 

At its most basic level the job of eCommerce is to help people see that your product is desirable, meets their needs, represents good value, and that the purchase is free of risk. This is much harder than it might sound and you have to know what’s going on in somebody’s mind to do it effectively. 

Unlike the crafty market trader you have a very limited opportunity to induce panic or impulse buying: ‘If I don’t buy something now I’m going to miss out on these great bargains.’  Most online purchase decisions will be considered and measured, more on this shortly.

But you can use psychology to persuade people that it’s in their interests to make a purchase now rather than later.  

The power of emotion

In B2C eCommerce the buying journey will almost always start with an emotional desire to own something. If you don’t create that initial desire the buying journey never gets started. But creating a desire doesn’t mean you’ve created a sale - there are plenty of rational filters that people use before completing. 

In B2B, the journey is more likely to start with a functional need. In most cases decisions will be driven much more by price and service than by emotion.

The use of psychology in conversion rate optimisation arguably breaks down into 4 areas:

  • Creating the desire
  • Rational justification
  • Creating urgency
  • Removing roadblocks


Creating desire

Logically, the more you make somebody desire something, the less likely they are to talk themselves out of that decision. As they steer towards their eventual purchase they are much less likely to be blown off course by doubts or distractions.

The reality is that we all make an emotional decision first and then validate and justify it with logic. Do we start by thinking we need the latest iPhone or do we just want it; and then justify that by convincing ourselves that it’s going to let us do so many things that we couldn’t do with our existing phone?


Historically, desire was created by our senses. People needed to see, touch, hear or even smell something before they wanted it. Unfortunately, eCommerce can’t satisfy all of these senses so you have to work extra hard with what’s available.

Highly converting product pages first and foremost do a great job of creating the desire to own something. Big online brands don’t spend a fortune on photography because they feel sorry for underemployed photographers. They know that the images they publish will be the first step in creating desire. Fail to create a desire at this point and everything else is a waste.


360° product views and 3D images usually generate higher conversion rates than flat 2D images for this reason.

The need to belong

People also want to feel that they are in the right place and that they belong.  This has everything to do with branding and design.  If, for example, your eCommerce store is selling upmarket outdoor clothing, then the branding and design have to reinforce the fact that the site is exclusively for people who are serious about these things.

Self-selective identification with your brand is powerful and it pays to encourage it. I’m offering this to YOU because I know you are sufficiently knowledgeable and discerning to understand the difference between this and cheaper alternatives.

Numerous psychological studies show that group identity is a powerful factor in successful selling. It also helps with creating brand loyalty. BUT at the root of all of this has to be a deep understanding of your target customers - what motivates, interests and inspires them? What sort of gang do they want to belong to and what does that look and feel like as a brand?


Rational justification

Once we’ve decided we want something, we have to justify that decision to ourselves. Time to focus on product descriptions.  Despite what you might think the main purpose of a product description isn’t to persuade somebody to buy something.  Primarily you are looking to validate and reinforce a decision they have already made.  That’s why over the top sales copy is likely to backfire.

Your customer wants reassurance that they are doing the right thing; that they’ve made a good decision that they won’t regret. Explain why the features are beneficial and anticipate the practical questions and concerns people are likely to have. Aim to provide the facts people need to confirm their choice before moving on to the checkout.

If you have a bricks and mortar store as well as an eCommerce presence, think about the questions you’re asked by customers looking to purchase your products. Now be honest, do your product description adequately answer theses? Could you do a better job if the customer was in front of you? If not then it’s time to start working on your product descriptions to change this for the better. You’ll be amazed how much of a difference it can make.

Live chat

Statistics show that live chat facilities help close sales and increase conversion rates.  They work best when they are unobtrusive and seen by customers as offering genuine help when they decide they want it. Like your product descriptions your aim should be to answer any outstanding questions and address any lingering doubts.


There are some good case studies, including one startling example where a furniture retailer added $50,000 per month to their sales, on the Crazy Egg blog here:

Customer reviews

Product reviews offer a powerful validation mechanism: ‘Real reviews from real people seem to confirm what you’re telling me.’  Deep down, most people want to feel part of the pack and to minimise their risk when spending money.  This is possibly the most rational validation of all. Why not take a look at this article by Darren Hunt If you want to understand more about the power of product reviews.