Conversion Rate Optimisation - How a bit of psychology helps

Aran Reeks
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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.


Customer reviews of your service are powerful for the same reason - they neutralise any sense of risk.

Creating urgency

If you’ve done a good job of creating desire and managing rational justification, the good news is that psychology may now be working in your favour.  When people are convinced they want something, they want it immediately. That’s why delivery can have such an influence on conversion - more of that in a minute.

Urgency means encouraging people to take action now, in this visit, rather than saving to favourites or simply leaving the site.  One of the reasons that coupons were found to work effectively in magazine advertising was that they made people take an immediate action (cutting out the coupon) rather than remembering to do something at a later date. People are forgetful and get distracted.


Here are some of the ways that you can get people to complete a purchase now rather than later:

  • Stock counters such as ‘only 2 left in stock’ convey a sense of scarcity which is a powerful motivator. Hotel booking sites do this well by saying that that there are only 2 rooms left at that rate; also helpfully letting you know that 3 people are currently looking at this hotel. They’ll also tell you how many people booked the hotel in the past 24 hours.
  • Appealing to the desire to want things quickly. For example telling people that if they order within the next X hours/minutes they will be guaranteed delivery by Y date. A ticking timer can further add to this feeling of urgency when there’s little time remaining (e.g. < 1 hour).
  • Email marketing can create the sense of urgency from the start. ‘Last Chance to get 25% off’ or ‘Last Chance to Order for Christmas’ messages are usually very successful.  Be careful that the first of these is genuine, however. People get irritated if they see the same ‘unrepeatable’ offer available a week later.
  • Some retailers also tell people how much they’ve saved on special offers in the checkout page and urge them to check out before the deals disappear.  I’d be cautious with this approach, though, and I’d certainly split test it first. Generally people don’t like to feel they are being pressurised, there needs to be a healthy balance.
  • Incentives such as discount vouchers, free delivery or free gifts for ordering immediately can also tip the balance as there is a clear benefit to the customer if they act now.

Removing roadblocks

Once people have finished choosing what they want, you really don’t want to give them too much to think about. Just help them get through the checkout process as quickly and smoothly as possible. And try to avoid stimulating the frontal lobes of their brain.

The frontal lobes, among other things, control complex decision making. MRI scans have shown that the lobes become highly active when people are presented with a range of possibly unattractive delivery options, for example. 

The middle of the checkout process is not where you want people to carry out complex decision making. Delaying the process in this way will increase abandoned purchases. The science confirms what we observe in A/B split testing and session logging: choices that are difficult to understand or don’t meet the shopper’s need to get their goods as quickly as possible cause them to stop and think. And delay is the enemy of conversion.

…choices that are difficult to understand or don’t meet the shopper’s need to get their goods as quickly as possible cause them to stop and think. And delay is the enemy of conversion.

At this stage of the process people’s information needs are simple and basic: What are the delivery options? How much does it cost? What happens if I need to return the goods?  If they can’t find this information, can’t understand it or don’t trust it they are highly likely to leave.

The other critical factor, of course, is trust. People need a warm glow of confidence that their goods will show up on time and that you’ll treat their personal data with care. Graham Youd talked about trust building in eCommerce in this recent article. Suffice to say that successful eCommerce is to a large extent an exercise in trust building from beginning to end.

The registration roadblock

There are many reasons why you want customers to register or create an account when they make a purchase.  Some of these reasons are a benefit to your customer and some are for you.  Depending on how you present the process it can be anything from something that your customer barely notices to a significant chore that will put many of them off completing the purchase. We always recommend allowing people to check out as a guest if that’s what they choose to do. This has to be better than a lost sale.

Here are the main things to remember:

  • Never ask for more information than you need
  • If you need to know date of birth or gender, explain why
  • Never put customers in a position where they feel coerced or that creating an account is mandatory before they can buy something. We don’t like being forced to do things.
  • Focus on the customer benefits (eg one-click ordering, faster checkout), and offer easy ways to opt-out of ‘offers and promotions that we think will interest you.’ Better still, make this something they opt in to so they feel in control.

Here’s a neat example from Harridge Stoves which offers a simple guest checkout (without calling it that) for customers who prefer it.


Decision roadblocks

Once somebody is in the checkout process your objective is simple: make everything easy to find and easy to follow, and don’t distract them.

In solutions we’ve created we don’t try to upsell or cross-sell once people are in the checkout as we’ve found this harms conversion. Once people have decided that they are going to buy they don’t appreciate having additional decisions to make.

What was interesting in putting this together was just how much of eCommerce Conversion Rate Optimisation is influenced by psychology.  Understanding how the psychology works is probably what distinguishes effective eCommerce from just building an online catalogue or simple online shop.

If you want to find out how our eCommerce solutions can improve your eCommerce conversion rates, get in touch with us, the leading eCommerce web agency today!


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