Customer engagement - the psychology of keeping people on your site

18 Nov 2015

Goal conversions and sales are the ultimate objectives for just about any website or eCommerce store. But your customers need to be guided through your site to get to those objectives. 

Our average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015, one second less than that of a goldfish1. Studies show that this is due to ‘external stimulation’ which isn’t surprising due to the amount of times we are distracted by email, phones and the internet.

Faced with this reality, the critical questions are: how does your site actively encourage people to stay engaged? And how well do you understand what makes them disengage? At the heart of this challenge is human psychology - what attracts and what repels.

How are you creating a positive attractive force and avoiding anything that repels?

Picture it like magnetism. When you have opposite poles aligned there’s a force keeping things together (in this case your customer and your site). Remove the magnetic attraction and they drift apart. Get the poles the wrong way round by introducing an element that people really don’t like or understand and they bounce apart rapidly.

The effects of psychology on consumer behaviour have been widely studied and are well documented. Where we’re rapidly expanding our knowledge is with how this works in eCommerce and online marketing. And the rules seem to be subtly different.

Cognitive dissonance

One powerful psychological phenomenon that affects human behaviour and engagement with websites is cognitive dissonance. This describes the mental stress when our behaviour is inconsistent with our attitude. 

We like to feel that our actions are in tune with our beliefs, values and opinions. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling we get when we feel that actions and beliefs are inconsistent. We can use an understanding of cognitive dissonance to increase customer engagement.Cognitive-dissonance

In sales and marketing, dissonance occurs when people question whether a purchase or action they’re about to take is the right one for them. The dissonance (or discomfort) has to be resolved before the action can be completed. It also occurs after the sale when people doubt whether what they bought really was the right thing after all - we’ll look at this later.

Historically, cognitive dissonance in shopping was associated only with significant purchases. But research2 appears to show that in eCommerce it also applies to low value purchases. A team from the Gerlinde Streif Vienna University of Economics and Business studied this by comparing purchasing books from a shop compared to online. 

Reducing risk and building trust

Two critical factors that lead to cognitive dissonance are risk and trust. A low value purchase such as a book carries little risk in either a shop or an eCommerce store. If it turns out not to be very good you’ve only wasted a few pounds. The key factor for eCommerce seems to be trust.

In a shop, trust is a non-issue for a low value, low risk purchase. You can hold the product and see who you’re buying from. Trust in eCommerce is a different matter as we’ve discussed before. Numerous studies including ones reported by Baymard, Forbes and E-Consultancy, point to the fact that trust seals and other trust indicators make a significant difference to conversions - even on the sites of well-known brands.

Trust-building elements on your site reduce cognitive dissonance and remove barriers to engagement and conversion.

Choice can also create dissonance. Too many choices, illogical or unappealing choices; these all cause conflicts that have to be resolved. 

In eCommerce and online marketing there’s a very simple way to resolve the conflict - leave the site!

Other common ways that people deal with cognitive dissonance are these:

  • Seek more information. This is bad news if the place they look is a competitor’s site.
  • Reduce the importance of the conflict. ‘it’s only money’
  • Change their beliefs. This is the hardest one to achieve.

The point about changing beliefs is important to understand. The views or mindset of somebody visiting your site are unlikely to be changed during the visit. We all selectively filter evidence that supports our existing views and ignore or downplay anything that challenges it.

Conversion starts with attracting people onto your site who have a positive (or at worst neutral) view of your brand. You really want visitors who identify with your brand values because converting those who don’t is next to impossible. Branding, content marketing and social media should convey a strong sense of your values and help get convertable prospects onto your site.

Fears, uncertainties and doubts

FUDs, as they are referred to, are tactics used in sales and marketing, PR, politics and propaganda. The history of the term comes from actively triggering these feelings in order to benefit from the effects it has on the individual. However, we focus on removing these, rather than introducing them.questions

You have to understand what your customers’ sources of fears, uncertainties and doubts are, and deal with them. This could be a job for written content, better photography or even video. Impartial reviews from satisfied customers are invaluable for dissipating doubt.

Leading customers through your site with clear prominent CTAs, microcontent and teaser text can be really powerful because they avoid confusion. But you can’t hope to make this work unless you’ve clearly mapped out the user journey.

If you’re not clear what’s supposed to happen next you can’t really expect your customers to bother working it out!form_steps

And here we come back to choice. If you offer me three choices I will probably choose one. If you frame the options appropriately you can influence which choice that is. Offer me four CTAs and half a dozen hyperlinks on a short page of content and I’m very unlikely to select any of them. Navigation options and CTAs have to be carefully chosen as part of a mapped out journey. pricingtable

Don't overwhelm people with choice

Leading consumer behaviour consultant Philip Graves described an observational study of people buying washing machines in a large retail warehouse. Faced with forty options for products that did much the same thing nobody made a rational or scientific decision. 

Some gave up, some let sales staff guide their choice and some made emotional decisions such as ‘this is the brand my mother used to buy.’ 

Exiting an online store is easier than leaving a physical shop, particularly if you made a special journey to that shop. In other words, keeping people engaged is more challenging when you’re online.

To keep people engaged you have to think through how you can simplify their choices.

Fortunately, eCommerce offers opportunities to do this. Using the washing machine example customers could narrow the choice by load, energy rating or spin speed if these were the most important factors in their choice. They could also filter by brand.

Again, these options only help if they are relevant to customers’ decisions, easy to find, clearly presented and simple to use.

Don't underestimate the after sales communications

I mentioned above that consumers frequently experience cognitive dissonance after a purchase - so called ‘buyer’s remorse’. Did they really choose the best value or most suitable option? 

Communications after the sale that congratulate customers on their choice and reinforce the impression that they did the right thing are incredibly important. Exceptional customer service, exclusive offers and promotions, follow up content to help people get the best out of their product; these all help prevent buyer’s remorse.

Not only will these messages influence potential repeat purchases, they will also encourage referrals, recommendations and positive reviews. And all of these will help minimise and avoid any cognitive dissonance, and maximise engagement in future.

Are you ready to take your online business to the next level? Take the first step by arranging a call with one of our optimisation experts today.

  1. Source: Attention Span Statistics – Statistic Brain Research Institute
  2. Source: Cognitive Dissonance in Retail versus E-commerce – First Findings and Implications Monika Koller, Thomas Salzberger, Gerlinde Streif Vienna University of Economics and Business