People are aware of cognitive biases but do we know what to do about them?

Decision making is part of our everyday lives. We ask ourselves, “Should I have a coffee or a tea? Should I take the bus or the tube today? How should I respond to this email?”

But are we really aware of just how many decisions the average human makes in just one day? Go on have a guess…

On average, we make a staggering 35,000 decisions per day! Taking into account the 8 or so hours we spend asleep, that works out to be over 2,100 decisions per hour. If we thought consciously about each decision, we would be faced with a debilitating challenge that would prevent us from living out our normal lives. Thankfully our brains have developed shortcuts, called heuristics, which allow us to make judgements quickly and efficiently, simplifying the decision making process.

Heuristics are extremely helpful in many situations, but they can result in errors in judgement when processing information – this is referred to as a cognitive bias.

How can cognitive biases impact our decisions?

Cognitive biases can lead us to false conclusions and as a consequence influence our future behaviour.

In order to illustrate this I am going to take you through a famous study conducted by Daniel Kahneman showing the impact of the anchoring bias. In Kahneman’s experiment, a group of judges with over 15 years’ experience each were asked to look at a case in which a woman had been caught shoplifting multiple times.

In between reviewing the case and suggesting a possible sentence, the judges were asked to roll a pair of dice. Unbeknown to the judges this was the “anchor”. The dice were rigged, and would either give a total of 3 or 9.

Astonishingly, the number rolled anchored the judges when making their sentencing recommendations. Those who rolled 3 sentenced the woman to an average of 5 months in prison; those who threw 9 sentenced her to 8 months.

If judges with 15 years’ experience can be influenced so easily by something so arbitrary about something so important – then what hope do the rest of us have?

Another example of biases impacting important decisions can be found in the Brexit campaigns. We can all remember the “£350 million a week” bus, which suggested that instead of sending that money to the EU we could use it to fund the NHS instead.

There were many other examples of false stories published in the British media. These shocking statements are influential because humans have a tendency to think that statements that come readily to mind are more concrete and valid. This is an example of the availability bias

But how is this relevant for experimentation?

With experimentation, we are tasked with changing the behaviours of users to achieve business goals. The user is presented with a situation and stimuli that impact their emotional responses and dictate which cognitive biases affect the user’s decision making.

When we run experiments without taking this into account we are superficially covering up problems and not looking at the root causes. In order to truly change behaviour we must change the thought process of the user. This is where our behavioural bias framework comes into play…

Step 1. Ensure you have established your goal. Without a goal you will not be able to determine the success of your experiments.

Step 2. Identify the target behaviours that need to occur in order to achieve your goal. At this point it is important to analyse the environment you have created for your users. What stimulus is there to engage them? What action does the user need to take to achieve the goal? Is there a loyal customer base that return and carry out the desired actions again and again?

Step 3. Identify how current customers behave. Is there a gap between current behaviours and target behaviours?

Step 4. Now start pairing current negative biases with counteracting biases. At this point research is imperative. Your customers will behave differently depending on their environment, social and individual contexts. Research methods you can use include surveys, moderated and unmoderated user testing, evidence from previous tests as well as scientific research. Both Google Scholar and Deep Dyve are excellent scientific research resources. 

Step 5. Which is the best solution to test? 

There are three important things to consider at this point. 

Value – What is the return for the business?  Volume – How many visitors will you be testing?  Evidence – Have you proven value in this area in previous tests?

Joining the dots.

To bring this framework to life I’m going to run through an example…

Let’s pretend I work for a luxury food brand. I have identified my target goal which is purchases and mapped out how my current users behave on the site. I find that users are exiting the site when they are browsing product pages. Product pages are one of our highest priority areas.

I have conducted a website review which flagged some negative customer reviews. This is not a big issue for us, after all we are reliant on individual taste and we have an abundance of positive reviews. Nevertheless, it seems to be a sticking point for users.

A potential bias at play causing users to exit is the negativity bias. This bias tells us that things of a negative nature have a greater impact than neutral or positive things.

Instead of removing the negative reviews we are going to maintain the brands openness to feedback and leave them onsite. Nevertheless, we still want to reduce exit rate so we are going to test a counteracting bias, the visual depiction effect.

The visual depiction bias states that people are more inclined to want to buy a product when it is shown in a way which helps them to visualise themselves using it. So in our product images we will now add in a fork (this study was actually conducted! Check it out).

The results from the experiment will determine whether our counteracting bias (visual depiction effect) overcame the current one (negativity bias).

So, to conclude…the behavioural bias framework should be used to understand the gap between your customers’ current behaviours and your intended goal. This will allow you to hypothesise potential biases at play and run experiments that bridge the gap between existing and aspirational behaviours.

To find out more about our approach to experimentation, get in touch today!

How to Build Meaningful User Segments

Understanding your customers is critical to a successful optimisation strategy. Knowing what motivates some users to purchase, and what prevents others from checking out, is a fundamental requirement to strategic experimentation.

But not all customers are the same, some are impulsive and others are considerate!

This blog sets out to help you find the different audiences that browse your website so you can optimise for them accordingly.

What is a user segment?

A user segment is a distinct set of users that act differently when compared to other users. “Act differently” is important, as there is no point identifying audiences for your website but not being able to act on this information as they all perform the same. Segmenting your users into two groups and targeting them with different experiments only to find out they exhibit the same behaviour all of the time, needlessly increases the length of time it takes to run an experiment.

You also need to ensure that you can identify these user segments online for them to be useful for experimentation. Common personas include data points around income, personality or lifestyle which are useful for adding content and understanding the motivations of a user but I can’t target a personality trait like introvert, or segment my experiment results by this.

Finally, sample sizing is important for experimentation, and my user segments need to be large enough to support analysis to a confident level. You might spot a really interesting trend for users in Bristol that use the first version of Internet Explorer, but if that is only 0.1% of your traffic and will require 500 days to reach a sample size that increases revenue by £50, is it worth your time?

Why do they matter?

By identifying the different types of users that browse your website you understand the different motivations behind conversions and behaviours that these users exhibit. This can then help you enhance the user experience and remove the barriers to conversion for each audience. 

For example, if you know that you have a large segment of browsing users that cycle between listing and product pages over and over again without ever purchasing, you might come to the conclusion that there is key information missing on the listing page. This is then an actionable insight that you can use to gather more information through experimentation.

Experimentation will help you to understand the key information your visitors require, in order to commit to a transaction. These learnings impact not only sales, but can increase the efficiency of your marketing efforts as you know which information to include and bring to your customers attention.

Additional insight can be unlocked from existing experiments when breaking down results by previously identified segments too. At its simplest level, splitting results by device can give insights into how user journeys differ from mobile to desktop and give you data on how to improve device specific experiences. When results differ consistently this can also be a clear indication that your on-site experimentation strategy is ready for personalisation.

Inversely, when you’re not seeing differing results through your user segments this can be a sign that there are still gains to be made from traditional A/B testing to a large audience. A common error for marketers to make is to ‘over-personalise’ customer experiences without any data to show that their user base is ready for a customised experience. This usually results in a higher frequency of inconclusive experiments, and the winning tests having a smaller revenue impact than they would if the benefit was served to the entire audience.

How do I find them?

1.What would you do?

The starting point for building user segments should be to think about your own personal experiences when browsing your website and that of your competitors. It’s likely that those experiences aren’t unique to you and are common amongst your user base. At the first level, think about when you visit the website, what devices you use and what your state of mind tends to be.

It’s difficult to template this approach as your user segments should be unique to your website or industry. Every website has new and returning users, but the characteristics of these user types can differ wildly across websites within the same industry. A new user to google maps can have wildly different intentions to a new user visiting citymapper despite there being an argument that the core products are very similar.

2.Do they exist in the data?

The next step is within analytics, where we can check for our 3 audience criteria: identifiable, impactful and showing distinct behaviour. Anything that is identifiable in analytics should be identifiable on the website (unless you are merging 3rd party data after user sessions – but this should be an edge use case).

The most common way to find user segments within analytics is to see how user journeys differ by different visitor properties – i.e. is there a significant difference between how users transition through the website when they come via branded search terms compared to unbranded? How does their journey differ depending on where they are in the customer lifecycle?

It’s important not to overcomplicate your segments to make them look groundbreaking – most aren’t! It may be as simple as new visitors and those on mobile having similar characteristics compared to returning desktop users. Providing you’ve found distinct behaviour and the audiences are large enough to have a real impact on your KPIs, you can begin to align your strategy towards their needs.

3.Give them some life.                                                                                         

Once you’ve found your segments, I find it useful to name them and give them a relevant story. This can help tailor your thinking towards what the customer needs are and align your strategy to their goal. The best experimentation programmes tend to be customer-centric – so your user segments should be too.

Those new visitors and mobile users seen in the graphs above may have a large proportion of traffic but low conversion rates – and looking at the customer lifecycle shows that almost ¾ of revenue is generated after the first session anyway. It’s reasonable to assume that these visitors are researching at this stage, whilst returning users on desktop are much more likely to convert. Labelling these two segments as “researchers” and “buyers” can stop you wasting time trying to make new users convert when they aren’t likely to; instead you can find out what information is important to these and enhance their user experience so they are more likely to return and convert at a later stage.

There you have it! A couple of actionable user segments that bring to life the different ways visitors browse your website.

From this you can stop bombarding researchers with intimidating urgency tactics that frustrate this type of user and instead look to provide them with the core information they need. When they come back, and they will if they’ve had a positive first impression, you know they’re significantly more likely to purchase. That is when conversion tactics can help give the user the nudge they need to get the conversion over the line and turn what may have been another abandoned basket into a loyal customer.

If you’d like to find out more about how you begin to build meaningful user segments for your business, get in touch today!

6 time-tested persuasion techniques from the real world to use on your website

Sometimes it’s easy to forget the art of persuasion wasn’t invented in the 90s with the onset of dial-up internet. All it takes is a quick break away from the screen, and it’s not long before you realise how much inspiration can be drawn from the ‘real world’ – having evolved and stood the test of time over centuries.

Recently I had the pleasure of experiencing an unlikely source of such real-world inspirations in the shape of Istanbul’s magnificent market, the Grand Bazaar. Beyond the chaos and sensory overload that hits you at first sight, the bazaar is one of the toughest places to compete for attention. Home to 4,000 shops spread across 61 covered streets, each street specialises in a particular type of item, so a shop ends up selling almost identical merchandise to their 20+ neighbours. With local tradesmen having to sharpen and evolve their selling techniques since the 15th century, the Grand Bazaar is a treasure chest of time-tested lessons we can learn from.

In this article, we expose some of the most interesting time-proven persuasion techniques used by local tradesmen, explain why they work, and show how you can apply them effectively on your website.

Break the ice with a simple question

The similarity of products being sold side-by-side means a nice product presentation often isn’t enough – tradesmen must find additional ways of bringing in customers. Seconds into entering the market, salesmen approach me with their favourite ice breaker: “Where are you from?” It’s hard to think of an easier question to answer, yet it serves an important purpose.

Simply by answering “Russia”, I’ve committed myself into a conversation where the shop owner now has the chance to find common ground (showing off his language skills and inevitably admitting his respect for Putin). His chances of luring in an experienced shopper like myself are now considerably higher.

How you could use this:

Get users to make that initial small commitment. A small question or action that doesn’t require any thinking can get that initial engagement from your users without putting them off longer steps. It can also be a great opportunity for users to self-select and allow you to tailor content around their answer.

Not dissimilar to the bazaar classic "Where are you from?", money transfer website Azimo starts with a simple ice breaker question on their homepage.
Not dissimilar to the bazaar classic “Where are you from?”, money transfer website Azimo starts with a simple ice breaker question on their homepage.

Once a destination country is selected, they are able to offer more persuasive, localised content.
Once a destination country is selected, they are able to offer more persuasive, localised content.

Similarly, instead of presenting your visitors with an off-putting long form, starting with a simple first question can get that important first engagement that will make users less likely to run off as they face the more frictional questions.

Like bazaar salesmen, freemium online games face much competition from similar products so look to smoothen their onboarding as much as possible. Rather than slapping a registration form on the front page, this "Age of Empires" knock-off asks one simple piece of information at a time, starting with username. 3 steps later, having by now built a peasant house, they are asked for their email, at which stage they are more committed to the game.
Like bazaar salesmen, freemium online games face much competition from similar products so look to smoothen their onboarding as much as possible. Rather than slapping a registration form on the front page, this “Age of Empires” knock-off asks one simple piece of information at a time, starting with username. 3 steps later, having by now built a peasant house, they are asked for their email, at which stage they are more committed to the game.

Offer something first

As I am eventually lured into a carpet store, I am politely offered a glass of Turkish tea. Tea is a huge deal in Turkish culture and is an ever-present part in the art of selling by bazaar salesmen.

The act of accepting a glass of tea triggers an important psychological principle in itself, creating a sense of reciprocity in the buyer. As such, when we were given a little something for free, we became indebted to the other party and are naturally more obliged to offer something back in exchange. In this context, that could mean making a concession in negotiation, feeling more obliged to buy or at the very least giving your time for the shop owner to sell their story. In addition, the time spent drinking tea and listening to the seller creates a second level reciprocity – time indebtedness.

How you could apply this online:

Offer something meaningful to your visitors – without them needing to give something in return (be it money or information). Depending on your business this can be a free piece of content that is of value to them (think ebooks or webinars), or a sample of your product.

Besides this, reciprocity can have more creative methods. SurveyGizmo (below) pro-actively offers its users a free trial extension without asking for anything in return. They know that this small act of kindness will make you much more likely to then start paying after the trial extension.

Sell the story

As I sip the delectable tea, the seller has the perfect stage to sell their story to a now-receptive audience. I am told about the history of Turkish rugs, the people behind the work, the unique processes and great that goes into making them and the resulting quality that will make rugs last for generations (ever increasing in value over time).

In a market so crowded with identical items and with prices so fluid, the importance of differentiating your product is absolutely crucial both to getting the sale and one at a higher price. Many tourists (including myself) never came to the Bazaar with the intent of buying a rug, and experience will tell the seller that a strong story highlighting authenticity, antiquity and quality will often prove enough to create the necessary desire.

How you could apply this online:

Boost your perceived value by really selling the story. You may not be fighting for attention in a bazaar, but it is more than likely that there are plenty of similar products or services available as alternatives. Get the insights from your customers about why they chose your product and emphasise this at key consideration stages to make it crystal clear why exactly you stand out from your competitors.

Swoon Editions does well in selling the hand-crafted story throughout their product pages, boosting perceived value of their furniture.
Swoon Editions does well in selling the hand-crafted story throughout their product pages, boosting perceived value of their furniture.

Anchor the price

Once the storytelling is over, the owner’s assistants begin to bring out the rugs. The first rugs I am shown are as intricate and beautiful as they come, however with the price tag to match. I’m quoted a price far higher than I would ever spend on a rug – and as I tell him this I am confident the shop owner already knows this. He is applying the price anchoring technique: the next set of rugs brought out for me are still pricey, but sit in a considerably more realistic price range – one that subconsciously I’m now more likely to be content with.

The deliberate act of showing me the highest price items first sets a psychological benchmark against which I am comparing subsequent prices. Now that I’ve been shown the expensive rugs, the next ones come across as relatively good value.

How you could apply this online:

The price anchoring technique is particularly powerful in an environment like a bazaar where the less experienced customer typically doesn’t have a great knowledge of prices, however anchoring can be readily applied online.

One of the most natural places anchoring can have a dramatic impact is in setting pricing strategies. If you present the lower priced option first, they will be anchored towards the lower end, and so the reverse applies when you show the expensive plan first. Another classic is adding an extra-premium option to a 2-option plan that typically leads more people to select the seemingly better value now-middle option.

Adding an extra, significantly more expensive plan option helps encourage users to go for the now relatively better value "Plus" plan, as demonstrated by CrazyEgg's pricing plan above. They went a step further by reversing the usual plan order to set the anchor at the most expensive plan before they view the rest.
Adding an extra, significantly more expensive plan option helps encourage users to go for the now relatively better value “Plus” plan, as demonstrated by CrazyEgg’s pricing plan above. They went a step further by reversing the usual plan order to set the anchor at the most expensive plan before they view the rest.

Give positive reinforcement

I take time to look through the mid-range rugs laid out in front of me, with the salesman briefly fading into the background. As I get my hands on a particular rug, he steps back in saying “Great taste! This rug is 100% wool and is of great finish.” He explains how you can see the quality of the finishing is particularly intricate and shows how the rug changes colour depending on viewing angle. Call me gullible, but his words encouraged me and made me more open to negotiation.

How you could apply this to online:

Applied at the right moment, positive reinforcement can prove an efficient nudge to encourage a user to follow through to the next desired action and convert.

One of the most natural settings in which you could apply it, is at the point items are being added to basket. This could manifest itself as the virtual version of the Turkish salesman (praising the user’s selection) or through the use of positive messaging when a particular goal is achieved, such as reaching a free delivery threshold, completing an offer or unlocking a discount. Equally, reassuring users of the value of the product they have selected (price/most savings , most popular) can be a powerful motivator at the crucial final stages of the funnel.

White goods provider AO gives an encouraging virtual pat on the back once you've added certain items to the basket.
White goods provider AO gives an encouraging virtual pat on the back once you’ve added certain items to the basket.

On forms, a virtual pat on the back on completion of a particular step can “humanise” the experience and go a long way in encouraging the user to continue the momentum through to the end.

Address common objections

As we narrow down to a particular rug and we begin to discuss the price, the shop owner feels the sale edge closer and starts explaining about the free wrapping, hassle-free & reliable shipping, how the rug is easy to maintain and how it’s going to last for a lifetime.

Through experience, rug sellers naturally pick up on the common objections tourists thrust at them (often in a final attempt to pull out from buying a rug they never intended to buy) and use this knowledge to proactively address each of these concerns. This may seem obvious, but for some reason it often fails to translate itself into the online world. And unlike the physical world, there is often no-one to answer those concerns on demand.

How you could apply this online:

Find out the common objections your visitors are raising that are stopping them from converting, and make sure these are made perfectly clear and visible at the stages they have those concerns. This should be a fundamental principle of any conversion optimisation programme, yet is still often neglected.

Do this simply by asking your visitors and customers directly – something that’s so easy nowadays with all the tools out there, yet for some reason still overlooked by many. Use on-site surveys to ask those that are abandoning the leakiest parts of your funnel why, or you could ask those that did convert if there was something that made them hesitate. If you have customer support – speak to them or listen in to their conversations. Use the insights you get to address their concerns exactly in the places you know they crop up.

On their subscription form, Netflix ensure the most burning concern is addressed with a simple heading.
On their subscription form, Netflix ensure the most burning concern is addressed with a simple heading.

Graze uses well-timed callouts to encourage users facing a choice commitment dilemma.
Graze uses well-timed callouts to encourage users facing a choice commitment dilemma.

It’s important to remind ourselves that while the medium may be different, the human nature is still very much the same at its core. Whether strolling through a bazaar or browsing the depths of Google, the same principles of persuasion influence our decision to convert – even if the execution will vary.

I may have returned from Istanbul with a rug I neither really needed nor intended to buy, but besides serving as a lush-but-out-of-place living room centrepiece it also serves as a reminder that we should be inspired by and learning from those who have been relying on and perfecting the art of persuasion for centuries.

Key takeaways

So, next time you are out shopping in the ‘real world’, take note of your positive experiences and observations and think about how you can transform these onto your website to help boost your own conversions.

  • Break the ice with a simple question
  • Offer something first
  • Sell the story
  • Anchor the price
  • Give positive reinforcement
  • Address common objections

The Love in Decision Making: Why thinking with your heart is really thinking with your head

Gone are the days where you only socialise with people in your village and are too scared to ask the girl next door out on a date. As the digital age evolves, communication has become fast and easy, pulling people from all over the world together in the space of just a few clicks. With millions of users worldwide, online dating is a craze that has swept us away.

From free apps to paid subscriptions, casual dating to exclusive memberships, the variety of dating sites out there ensures that there is something for everyone. However, the ease of online matchmaking comes with concerns about safety, satisfaction and stress. How do we decide how much we like someone simply based on a photo and a one line description on their profile? With apps like Tinder that have 50 million people using the app every month (based on figures from 2015), how do we decide who is worthwhile to invest our time on?

The problems humans have with decision-making has always existed, so will increasing the number of potential date choices we have make it easier or harder to find our better half? Firstly, we must consider the choice paradox…

1. The choice paradox

Humans are animals full of irony and contradiction. When we are presented with too many options we have difficulty in deciding what is best, at the same time when we are only presented with a few options we complain about how little options we have available.

Psychological studies have shown people value choice as it activates regions in the brain (the striatum) which is associated with motivation and reward. Also by keeping choices opened, it prevents loss aversion (tendency for people to prefer avoiding losses than acquiring gains). In the example of the ‘Door Game’, participants were firstly asked to select one of three doors which corresponds to different rooms. After entering each room they can choose to click inside the room for an unknown amount of money or choose to go to a different room. Each room had a different range of money available. The twist here is that each participant were only given 100 clicks so they had to strategise which rooms to click.

(Shin, J., & Ariely, D. (2004). Keeping doors open: The effect of unavailability on incentives to keep options viable. Management Science, 50, 575–586)


The best strategy to take for the ‘Door Game’ is of course to find the room that looks like it has the highest payouts and stay there for the rest of the game, and this is indeed what most of the participants did. However, in the first variation of the experiment where participants were told a room will disappear after 12 clicks if unvisited, people clicked to make sure all doors stayed open throughout the game (thus making about 15 percent less money than the control group). More interestingly, in the second variation, where participants were told the exact payouts of the rooms, people still tried to keep all the doors open!

The results from the experiment showed how people overvalued their options and even invested money to keep their options open. If so, does this mean the endless options on online dating would actually make it harder for people to abandon people they don’t really like and focus on those who have more potential? Some psychologists disagree, as there is also something called choice overload, which is even worse…

Choice overload is when people avoid making a decision altogether as it requires too much cognitive effect. This happens when there are too many choices and people do not have the ability to compare and contrast all the options available. For example, people are 10 times more likely to buy from a tasting booth display with 6 jam flavours compared to 24 as there are fewer choices [1].

2. The dating circle

So does the size of the dating circle affect people’s choices and their experiences? Here are some of the key findings on user experiences between small and large choice set sizes [2]:

  • Enjoyment and levels of satisfaction was the same.
  • People were lazier with larger choice sets, using frugal decision strategies (e.g. looking at attractiveness instead of occupational status).
  • People with larger choice sets were more likely to diverge from their “ideal” mating preference.
  • As choice set increases, people are more likely to say ‘no’ to the potential partners (the idea of choice overload).

As we can see, when the number of potential partners available increases, people’s’ decision-making changes. Of course there are issues about communication methods and dating outcomes as well which we will not discuss in this article. Nonetheless, it is clear that this new form of matchmaking has changed the way we view dating and can have its advantages and disadvantages.

So how can the theory of choice paradox be applied to improve online dating sites? With numerous online dating websites out there, a business needs to stand out from the rest in order to optimise their conversion rates. Based on the choice paradox, people should be presented with a limited number of choices, but just enough to keep them on the hook so they ask for more.

3. Conversion rate optimisation for dating websites

Users are spoilt for choice when it comes to signing up to online dating sites, therefore knowing your target audience is very important when considering improvements for your site. It is much better to target specific people than to send generic messages out to everyone. Below are some examples of how the top dating sites succeed in the market:


Keep the landing page simple. For, their landing page has only got a clear CTA with no copy, making it clear what the user should do.

Once you are signed in onto the site, there are only a limited number of profiles in view so the user would not be overloaded with options. Users can see more options by scrolling down but keeps this to a minimum by having a maximum of 4 profiles per row.


Again the page here is simple, with a clear CTA. Three features of the site are clearly displayed to add an element of persuasion. Notice the second feature that says Okcupid’s ‘super-smart algorithm uses your answers to discover people you’ll like’. This is appealing because it reduces the number of choices a user has to make.

Like, once the user is signed in they are presented with a list of candidates that increases as you scroll down. There are only three profiles in view each time and the percentage underneath each profile shows your compatibility, making the decision process easier.


Similar to the other two sites, has a clear CTA on its landing page and has a Registered Trademark sign on its logo to add an element of trust.

Interestingly, below the fold for the site, there is actually a lot of copy which explains how eHarmony works.

Once you open an account, you are presented with the various subscription options in which you can choose to ignore. However, without a subscription you are unable to view the profile photos of people on the listing. By playing on the idea that people like to keep their choices open, they may pay for a subscription to see the profiles which they were not allowed to access.

4. Key Takeaways

  • People like to keep their options open, but at the same time having too much choice can cause choice overload.
  • The number of potential partners in the dating circle can affect the way people make decisions.
  • The number of potential partners that are presented to a user should be optimised so they have enough choices to keep them committed to the site, but not too many that they give up on making a decision.
  • Dating websites should keep CTAs simple so that users do not need to use their cognitive load as they would already be using this a lot when making a decision on who to date.


[1] Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995–1006.

[2] Finkel, E. J., Eastwick, P. W., Karney, B. R., Reis, H. T., & Sprecher, S. (2012). Online dating: A critical analysis from the perspective of psychological science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(1), 3-66.


The Definitive Guide to the Foot in the Door technique (learn how to 2X your conversion rate)

(This is the 2nd article in the 8-part series where I explore Cialdini’s 7 (not 6!) principles of persuasion and how best to sequence them).

In case you missed it, here’s Part #1: How to make reciprocity work online: 14 surprising insights

There is one technique that does wonders for your conversion rates. As I am about to show you, you can use it to:

  • double your email signup rates (one firm used it to increase their CR by 113%)
  • grow average monthly revenue of a subscription-based business by 11.4%
  • get up to 2x as many leads who are happy to jump on a phone call to discuss your product

I am talking about the foot in the door technique. The reason why it works is that it utilises an effective persuasion mechanism called the commitment and consistency principle.

Read on if you want to find out how to achieve similar results for your business.

What is commitment and consistency principle?

Commitment and consistency principle is based on the theory that we, humans, want to appear consistent to ourselves and to others. Sometimes we alter our attitudes to be in line with our actions (as explained by the self-perception theory).

This is where persuasion experts step in.

By making people to commit to something, we might change their attitudes. This makes it more likely that they will comply with other related requests in the future. A classic example comes from a 1966 study by Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser.

Researchers asked a group of residents to support a safe driving campaign. This meant installing a large (6 feet by 3 feet) sign, stating “DRIVE CAREFULLY” on their front lawn. Only 17% of residents agreed to do so, but this number jumped to 76% for another set of residents.

What caused that difference?

Two weeks earlier researchers approached that group of residents with another request. They asked them to install a small sign in their window that read “BE A SAFE DRIVER”. People easily said “yes”. What residents did not realise is that this first commitment would make them see themselves as the type of people who support such causes as safe driving. Two weeks later, to appear consistent with their past behaviour (and a newly acquired self-image) they had to agree with a larger request, too.

That’s the essence of the foot-in-the-door technique: compliance with a modest request leads to compliance with a larger request.

Now let’s think about how you can apply that principle to your online marketing!

What is so powerful about it?

Consistency and commitment principle is powerful because not only can you increase immediate conversions within your sales funnel, but also alter your customers’ attitudes towards your brand. As you will see in the studies below, this could go as far as turning your dissatisfied customers into satisfied ones. This means lower churn rate and higher lifetime customer value.

Will it work for you and how can you maximise your chances of success?

As with the norm of reciprocity, you are very unlikely to be able to manipulate your customers. When applying this principle online, people would think more deliberately about requests that they comply to. So, unless your request might add some real value to their lives, people will likely reject it. Yet, you can still use this principle to gradually guide them towards the target request. The one that will help them to live a better life and make you money.

Commitment and consistency principle has the greatest effect when one’s self-image is affected by his/her previous actions. According to Cialdini, for the highest chance of a commitment affecting one’s self-image, it needs to be:

  • Active (a person consciously commits to something)
  • Public (there is a sense that commitment is known/observed by other people)
  • Effortful
  • Freely chosen (uncoerced)

Not to bore you with dry theory, we will jump straight into some examples. Today I am considering 4 main use cases for this technique: email sign-up, user onboarding, check-out optimization and lead generation. Where relevant, I will cite research by Cialdini and his colleagues. Jerry Burger’s meta-analysis of existing research on the Foot-in-the-Door technique deserves special attention.

Email sign-up

Here’s what the standard email popup looks like:

While great, there is a psychological process that interferes with our goal of getting a visitor’s email address. It’s called psychological reactance. It occurs when people perceive a threat to their sense of personal freedom and choice. When we become aware of an effort to reduce our freedom (eg. we feel we are being forced to do something), we often respond in such a way that will re-assert that freedom. In that case, we will close the pop-up window.

It’s a completely different story when we offer our readers an opportunity to sign up for our email list. Let’s consider SnackNation’s example. They offer their readers an opportunity to sign up for a newsletter within their popular article, “121 Proven Employee Wellness Program Ideas For Your Office”.

When clicking “Download this entire list as a PDF”, users are making an active commitment that does not feel coerced (ie. it was their free choice). This increases the chances that they will finish the sign-up process. When SnackNation changed a forceful pop-up for an uncoerced opportunity to get a PDF checklist their subscription rate increased by 195%. From 20 subscribers per week to 59.

Moreover, entering your first name and an email address requires a certain amount of effort (tick this one, too). This gives SnackNation not only a chance to get subscribers, but also make related requests in the future such as a webinar sign-up (which is a larger commitment).

“Remember you signed up for this PDF checklist? We know you are the type of person who cares about employees’ well-being. Why not sign-up for our free webinar that will help you with exactly that?”

Apparently, that’s what they do:

Now, using research on the use of commitment and consistency principle, I will walk you through some questions. They will help us to understand if SnackNation is doing a good job.

Does it tie a visitor’s first commitment to her self-image?

First of all, we know that, to be effective, the first commitment needs to insert a desirable (from our point of view) self-image into the person. So, we might want to improve this page by tieing a person’s identity to the action.

It could look like this:

Does your second request seem like a logical progression of your first request?

Burger found that when a second request seemed like a continuation of the first request, participants were twice as likely to comply relative to the control groups.

In SnackNation’s case a webinar on wellness seems to be a logical progression of the first request to download the wellness program report. Well done guys!

On the other hand, Decathlon, a global sports retailer, fails on this one. As you enter their website, you are being presented with a standard email sign-up form. It promises that upon entering your email address, you will receive sport advice and offers.

From my point of view, the logical progression would have been to ask me to confirm my email address, so that I can start receiving those offers. Instead, their second request is to create an account at MyDecathlon (I am still not sure what that is):

In other words, to complete that enormous sign-up form with several tabs:

Decathlon’s signup process is likely to be ineffective because psychological reactance might kick in. A user might feel that Decathlon purposefully omitted any information about account creation. They made the pop-up form seem like a newsletter sign-up, so that users don’t realise that they will have to go through a lengthy sign-up process, all before receiving any of the promised perks. As we know from reactance theory, when we feel manipulated, we will act in an opposite way to re-assert that freedom (ie. not sign up).

But there is another reason why Decathlon’s sign up process might be failing. It violates the rule of reciprocity…

Are you taking and giving back or just taking and taking more?

We know that when we apply the principle of commitment and consistency, compliance with a small request leads to compliance with a larger request. Well, this is not always the case. As one study showed, when two requests are made one straight after another (and the second one is not a logical progression of the first one), the norm of reciprocity might burn this whole persuasion effort into pieces.

In line with the norm of reciprocity, after people complied with the first request (put some effort on their end), they feel that the person who asked for it is indebted to them in some way. So, unless the “asker” provides something of value back first, the second request would be taken unfavourably. People would perceive it as an imprudent act that violates the norm of reciprocity and, as Cialdini says in the book, we tend to react negatively to such violators.

Note: The reciprocity norm is unlikely to backfire when the sign-up form is designed as a logical progression sequence (for example, upon signing up you are made another request, to confirm your email). This is because the second request would seem as a part of the first request, not a separate request. According to Burger, the highest risk of the reciprocity rule backfiring is when two unrelated requests are made one straight after the other.

This is exactly the mistake that Decathlon is making.

First of all, upon receiving your email address, they make you a second request that is unrelated to their first request. I would have expected them to ask me for confirmation of my email address. Instead, they asked me to create an account at some unknown MyDecathlon. As we saw this involves filling out several, complicated forms.

I have also put some effort on my end, I provided an email address. So, if the second request does not logically progress from the first one, I would at least expect to get something of value in return for my contact details. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Now, I feel that the reciprocity norm has been violated, causing a negative reaction on my end.

Compare this to what Reebok is doing.

You just comply with their first request (enter your email address) and boom!

A free coupon offer straight to your inbox.

Obligations on both ends have been fulfilled, now I am ready to consider any other requests from them.

Similarly, SnackNation provides you with value once you complied with their first request. Upon entering your contact details you expect to receive a PDF-checklist in return.

The copy on the next page informs you that the PDF was sent. So, SnackNation fulfilled their obligations and it’s ok to make a second request (webinar sign-up).

So, what should a firm like Decathlon do if ultimately they want you to create an account with them?

Well, they could have informed us that we would need to create an account before receiving any offers.

Then, copy in the email would seem like a logical progression of what has been offered in the pop-up.

Alternatively, they could take an approach where the first commitment would be tied to a person’s identity. They could offer a 60-second quiz, making users answer a number of questions about themselves.

The quiz would allow them to find out more about the person. This in turn would give them an opportunity to use that first commitment (quiz completion) as a segway to registering an account at MyDecathlon.

Here’s what it could look like:

However, there is also another factor that we need to consider when dealing with the norm of reciprocity. It’s timing.

Are you timing your requests or trying to feed the whole pie?

One study has shown that the reciprocity norm lasts only a few days, at least for the kinds of favors typically examined in social psychology experiments (for example, receiving a soft drink). That is, the obligation people feel to return a small favour appears to dissipate after a short period of time. So, if you are making two, unrelated requests, you might overcome the negative effects of the norm of reciprocity by simply making these requests on separate days.

Research is inconclusive on how many days need to pass by for the norm of reciprocity to lose its effect. In a recent study a lapse of 2 days was sufficient to produce a more favourable effect than when there was no delay at all. This means that if Decathlon employed the quiz change I described above, it might have been safer to send the follow-up email 2 days later.

What are you communicating about people’s likelihood to comply with your request?

A fourth consideration we need to make is social proof. It was found that if a person perceives the type of request you are making as the one only few people comply to, they would be less likely to commit to it. This is exactly what SnackNation might be sub-communicating with their “The number of seats are limited…” copy. We are not being told how many seats are left (or have been reserved).

This could have been interpreted as a “needy” attempt to get at least a few webinar attendees (unfavourable social proof). So, from the research on commitment and consistency, it might have been safer to reframe this last bit as “XX caring HR managers have already signed up” (I assume that a good number of people actually signs up).

Pro Tip: Customise your email pop-ups

In case you don’t have time to create customised lead magnets to every single one of your posts (or you’re afraid the bonus won’t be noticed), you could test customising your standard pop-up box.

Instead of making a sign-up request straightaway, you could re-frame it as a question. Here’s an example of how Thrive Themes did it:

They ask you a question instead of pushing the sign-up form on you. The sub-headline, “Let us know, maybe we can help!” reinforces the idea of helpfulness vs. pushy-ness. These two elements reduce the psychological reactance. Now the user can consciously pick the goal they are interested in (making an active, somewhat effortful commitment that does not feel coerced).

And only after that she is being presented with a request.

With the first commitment having been made, the reader’s self-perception can now be framed as “I want to design a cool website, I just chose it as a selection”.

I asked Hanne Vervaeck, the marketing team lead at ThriveThemes, about their results:

We were able to get our conversion rate up from 5.5% (the control) to an impressive 11.7% by changing from a simple opt-in to a multiple choice opt-in form.

Hanne Vervaeck

Marketing Team Lead at Thrive Themes

It doubled their conversion rate. Very impressive indeed.

User onboarding

Similarly, Duolingo uses the principle of consistency & commitment to convert visitors into active users. Everything starts with a declarative statement, “I want to learn…” where a visitor needs to choose a language (an active commitment).

Straight after that, Duolingo asks me to decide how much I want to commit to language learning (another active commitment).

This is very smart as then they can send me emails with “remember, you set this goal for yourself”. I checked it and that’s exactly what they do:

Again, using the knowledge from Burger’s meta-analysis, we can improve the way Duolingo gets a commitment from their users. Research has shown that labeling people can have pronounced effects on their behaviour. When participants’ behaviour was attributed to positive internal traits (eg. calling someone “cooperative” or “helpful”) compliance rates were higher.

(Adapted from Burger, 1999, “The Foot-in-the-Door Compliance Procedure: A Multiple-Process Analysis and Review”. Combined results of 3 studies that experimented with labeling.)

Similarly, Duolingo could label users based on the commitment they made. If I chose “insane” as my commitment level, they could show me this message:

Supposedly, that label would make me more likely to keep using the app on a daily basis.

In the past, the commitment part was pushed further down the onboarding process (you can see the full overview by Samuel Hulick here). The idea was that they provided some “aha moments” first and then requested the user to make a commitment.

It’s interesting that they pushed it towards the beginning of the funnel. We will discuss why this might have been a bad choice in the 8th part of these series where we discuss sequencing.

Another great example comes from Naked Wines. Before you can use their services, they screen you on whether you would be a good fit for them.

Let’s do it!

Now, I told them I consider myself to be a wine enthusiast who would prefer a wine with a story. I have not only made several declarative statements about who I am, I have fully laid out how they can tie up my identity to their marketing.

To reward or not to reward?

There is mixed evidence on how offering extrinsic rewards affects effectiveness of the commitment and consistency principle. It’s important to notice that neither Duolingo nor Naked Wines offer any incentives in return for commitments we are making (Naked Wines gives you a voucher, but it has not been said in the copy).

Generally, studies have shown that when we are rewarded for a commitment, we are less likely to comply with a subsequent request. This is because we attribute our initial commitment to the reward, not to our internal qualities (e.g. being “determined” or generally liking certain types of wine). The greater the reward, the less committed the person is to the act (according to a study by Kiesler and Sakumara).

With that said, all these studies used money as an extrinsic reward. This is rarely the case with our online marketing activities. Instead, we offer ebooks, PDF checklists, etc. Those types of incentives have not been explored in academic research. I personally believe that ebooks and PDF checklists are a sufficiently small reward for a person to still feel committed to their action.

So, ideally you would not use them. For example, there is no way I would attribute my commitment to Duolingo learning to anything external. It’s 100% clear that I made this commitment because I want to learn a language. This gives them the full power to nudge me to stay committed to that goal (hence, use the app).

However, it should not hurt too much for the standard perks we use in online marketing. (Plus, as we will explore later in this article, rewards can strengthen our commitment). Testing is the only way to answer this question with certainty though.

Optimisation of a check-out funnel

You have probably already read about Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. The team behind it re-designed the donation form using the commitment and consistency principle. This resulted in a 5% increase in the conversion rate, adding millions of incremental dollars.

They split the check-out process into 4 steps, thus splitting the target request to donate into a series of smaller commitments. It worked.

What was missed in other overviews of this campaign is the way copy was re-framed. Notice, the new form asks, “How much would you like to donate today?” vs “Donate now”. This again overcomes the psychological reactance, showing the visitor that there is no threat to their freedom. Moreover, “How much would you like to donate” transforms the first commitment into a declarative statement about a person’s intentions, prompting one to think “I(!) want to donate that much”.

Obviously, the first commitment is active as you have to select an amount, and is not effortless.

As with the campaigns above, the strength of this implementation is that it does not offer any rewards. In terms of improvements, we know that labelling could have been used to tie one’s self-image to their action. For example, upon clicking “Continue”, one might have been shown a message, saying “That’s so generous of you. We appreciate your support.”

Lead generation

Finally, the principle of commitment and consistency can be used for getting/closing sales leads. This is not a post on sales techniques, so I will only cover how you can generate leads through digital media.

Crazy Egg offers a great example. When reading their blog, here’s a Qualaroo survey that you get. (Notice how you can skillfully use Qualaroo not just for research, but also lead generation).

Funny fact: Hiten Shah told me that at this moment their priority with this form is customer research, but we both agreed that it could as effectively be used for lead generation.

It starts with a non-intrusive question, “Would you like to know which problems on your site are driving people away?”. Notice that it also does not use any manipulative copy such as, “No, I want to keep losing customers”. Emphasis on the you again attempts to tie this commitment with our self-image.

After having made an active commitment, a visitor has to actually put some effort in and explain what her problems are.

The next question is the target request. Notice how it has been built on top of all the previous questions.

The copy remains being non-intrusive, “Would you be open to…?”.

The final step is again a logical progression of previous commitments. Giving an email address is a sufficiently small, but valuable commitment to the subsequent phone call offer.

So, again Crazy Egg combines active, effortful and non-coercive elements of commitment making for maximum effects.

I asked Hiten Shah if they used direct sales approaches (eg. asking “Would you be open to a 20 minute call about…” straightaway), and if yes, how did they compare to gradual, commitment-based approaches?

Here’s what he told me:

We have found that the direct approach is much less effective. We have tested both approaches and this one works much better. It is up to 2 times as effective in getting us people who are willing to get on the call.

Hiten Shah

Founder of Crazy Egg and Kissmetrics

It’s difficult to think of how you could make all the commitments above public, but you could introduce publicity once a visitor has become familiar with what you are offering.

For example, Duolingo could prompt users to publicly share their goal of learning a new language once they completed some of the exercises.

We will cover public commitments in more depth in the next section.

Long-term impact of the commitment and consistency principle

Cialdini’s work on influence is not limited to immediate conversions. Persuasion is a different animal. The definition of persuasion, according to Cialdini is that it is focused on “the change in a private attitude or belief as a result of receiving a message.”

That leads us to the idea that we might use the principle of commitment and consistency to alter one’s attitudes towards your brand or product (or both). By making people to take a favorable stance towards your brand, you can set them on a path where it would be inconsistent to switch to your competitor.

Referral programs

Researchers explored how this effect could be induced through referral programs. The intended goal of referral programs is to attract new business. Yet, many don’t realise that, due to the effects of commitment and consistency principle, recommending a company to a friend strengthens the bond between a firm and the recommending customers themselves. This makes existing business more stable. For example, churn rate might go down.

Indeed, this is what a 2013 study has found. A group of researchers examined the impact of participating in a referral program on customers of a global cellular communications provider. They operate on a subscription-based model, so SaaS folks might find these results particularly interesting:

  • Researchers found a significant churn-reducing effect from participation in a customer referral program. Twelve months after participating, the probability of being an active customer was 93% for participants (of the referral program), but only 81% for non-participants.
  • Moreover, the average monthly revenue for participating customers grew by 11.4% compared with a matched control group.

The principle at work is the same. After publicly recommending the company, the customers’ attitude towards the company became more favourable, to be consistent with their own behaviour.

Madlen Kuester and Martin Benkenstein show that this could go as far as turning dissatisfied customers into satisfied ones. Their study showed that recommending a firm enhanced attitude and loyalty towards the recommended provider despite users’ prior negative experience with that firm. In simple terms, users who were dissatisfied with the firm’s service in the past became more loyal after recommending it. They rationalised it backwards, “If I recommended the company, then they offer a good service” (change of attitude despite prior negative experience).

(Note that this study was not conducted on a group of 120 undergraduates in a non-real life setting, so whether the same impact can be produced in real life remains an open question, but theoretically yes, it can be.)

To reward or not to reward? Re-considered.

Oddly enough, the 2013 study examining churn has also found that the larger the reward offered for referring a customer, the stronger the effect on attitudinal loyalty. How can this be the case? Haven’t we previously said that rewards are bad for making a person committed to their previous action?

The devil is in the detail.

Based on research, it seems that rewards might have a negative impact when you are working with people who have no pre-existing attitude towards your brand or had a negative experience with your brand. In that case, they would be more likely to justify their actions in terms of extrinsic rewards they received.

However, according to positive reinforcement theory when customers already have a positive attitude towards the brand (remember, people participating in referral programs are likely to be existing customers; why would they recommend something to a friend if they did not like it?), a larger reward can strengthen that attitude. So, whether to offer rewards or not would depend on the situation you are dealing with.

Let me reiterate. When you need to create a positive attitude or reverse an existing negative attitude, you should avoid using rewards (if using, the smaller the better). When you need to strengthen an existing positive attitude, rewards can serve you well (the larger the better). At least that’s what these findings suggest.

The how-to of building a commitment through a referral program

When it comes to execution, all the same principles apply. For greatest results, a referral needs to be an active, effortful, public commitment that does not feel coerced.

A referral program used by Typeform ticks all those boxes. It’s important to point out that in contrast to many other referral programs, it allows you to customise the message that will be sent out. Most referral programs just ask you to enter your friends’ email addresses. This is great in terms of simplicity, but you might be missing out on an opportunity to strengthen loyalty of your existing users.

By allowing them to change the message, you create a situation where

1) if they did not change it, that still means that they agree with what is being said (= more active commitment)

2) if they do change the text (telling about their positive experiences), you are building an even stronger commitment because then it also becomes more effortful.

Are you right on time?

Finally, timing is crucial. The 2013 study found that effect was the strongest for customers with low expertise in the service category and little experience with the provider. This means that engaging customers in the referral program at an early stage of the onboarding process would produce maximum effect on their loyalty.


The same principle is at work when customers are voluntarily leaving testimonials. Each testimonial is a public, declarative statement about their experience with your brand. If it was positive, then your customers are likely to use it as a frame of reference when thinking about which brand they prefer.

Basecamp shows testimonials of 1,000 of its customers on their website.

Each is an active, public, effortful statement about their experience that was not coerced.

Key takeaways

I explored the commitment & consistency principle with all of its peculiar subtleties. It appears that its application is not as simple as breaking a larger request into a series of smaller ones. For it to take a substantial, lasting effect, the first commitment needs to establish (or reinforce) a certain self-image within a person.

That self-image would act as a frame of reference for a person to decide whether to commit to subsequent requests or not.

For maximum chances of establishing a desirable self-image, the first commitment needs to be:

  • Active
  • Effortful
  • Public
  • Freely chosen (uncoerced)

To enhance the likelihood of inserting that self-image, you can:

  • Label a person to possess a certain internal characteristic after they took a certain action (eg. you’re “determined” or “you care about your employees’ well-being”)
  • Frame your copy in a way that makes the visitor think in declarative statements about herself (or better make her write them).

To make sure the process goes smoothly, think about how the principle of commitment & consistency interacts with other principles of influence:

  • Does your second request seem like a logical progression of the first one?
  • If not, the norm of reciprocity will likely backfire.
  • To counteract it, you should either provide something of value first or wait at least 2 days between making 2 requests (or both). Top tip: make sure to remind the person of their first commitment when making the second request.
  • Use social proof to show that it’s a norm to comply with a request you are making.

If planning to use rewards:

  • Offer small rewards when trying to get a commitment towards something that a user does not have a pre-existing attitude towards (eg. a new reader or a user on your website would not have a strong attitude towards your brand)
  • Offer large rewards when trying to strengthen a commitment of existing customers

As we have seen, this principle can be successfully applied to improve email signups, user onboarding, check-out funnels and lead generation. More importantly it can strengthen loyalty of your newly acquired customers (for example, through referral or testimonial programs).

How to make reciprocity work online: 14 surprising insights

(With the release of Cialdini’s new book Pre-suasion over the course of 8 part series I will do an in-depth exploration of each of his 7 (not 6!) principles and how best to sequence them)

Ever wondered why helping influencers on Twitter doesn’t create a relationship?

Tired of giving well researched content away without even getting a bunch of shares, not to say email addresses?

Baffled that free trials aren’t converting into paid subscribers?

You might be overlooking some important reasons that reciprocity may not work as well in an online world, as it does in an offline world.

I have been reading posts about reciprocity that make bold statements about how it works online, but they oversimplify. There have been countless times when I would never reciprocate anything back even though people’s content was outstanding.

It can’t be just as simple as give and take, can it?

So, I decided to do some research. I am not an anthropologist. I cannot give you a full explanation about what role reciprocity plays in our cyber lives. But, I have spent more than 50 hours reviewing existing research and examining whether that rule would work online. Here’s what I found.

I scoured through 20+ research papers so that you didn’t have to, here are the 14 most valuable insights.

Let’s start!

Understanding why reciprocity may not work online

Cialdini’s rule of reciprocity may not work for your online marketing. Here’s why:

People are less likely to respond in a click and whirr mode

Image Credit

People process information in two ways. One is when we rely on heuristics (mental shortcuts) to make our decisions (eg. a book has many positive reviews, so it must be a good one). The other is when we are more deliberate with our decisions (eg. reading through reviews, previewing table of contents). This concept is known as the elaboration likelihood model.

All 6 principles in Cialdini’s book “Influence” are based on the idea of a click and whirr response (the idea that we take shortcuts when making decisions).

This is an important point that many people have missed in suggesting that you can as effectively apply Cialdini’s principles of persuasion online.

Contrary to that belief existing findings suggests that we are more likely to take the long (deliberate) route if:

  • The topic is of importance to us
  • We have the cognitive resources available to process the message
  • We know something about the topic
  • The arguments are written

Exactly right. We can tick all these boxes for our cyber lives.

Yes, we do sometimes get bombarded with email and notifications, get distracted by our co-workers and relatives. That leaves us with less cognitive power. We also watch sales videos where our focus would shift back and forth from the content of the message to its source.

Most of the time, though, we consume content in privacy. We are able to control our environment (various distractions), what we read, and what topical websites we get it from. Across all generations, blog articles were found to be the most consumed type of content (according to research by Fractl and Buzzstream).

This means that when we are online instead of taking shortcuts, we are more likely to make deliberate decisions about who we reciprocate to.

To make the point clear, let’s consider a couple of examples.

In the book “Influence” Cialdini cites Dennis Regan’s study where a man called “Joe” managed to double his ticket sales by first making a little favor. Before making an offer to buy some tickets he (unexpectedly for the recipients) offered them a bottle of Coke. Feeling obliged they purchased. Well done Joe!

Sam Parr, founder of Hustle Con, repeated the same process. He negotiated a motorbike’s sales price down to 1800$ ($400 saving!) by gifting a $1.99 Coke before starting the negotiation. Here’s what the conversation went like in his own words:

But in the online world, even if you are genuinely trying to help someone, people’s thinking process might look like this:

Me: Wow, what a cool episode. I think that the host of this podcast might also like reading a blog post on a similar topic.

(8 hours go by since we are in different time zones)

Host: (opens the email) Who is he and why is he sending me this?

Host: (an hour goes by, gets some work done, opens the email again) So why did he send it? Is he trying to get something from me? Is it worth my time? Well, whatever, I have got some work to do.

Host: (closes the email, end of the conversation).

In our cyber lives we have more time to think about authenticity of other people’s motives (any reasons to doubt it have been shown to reduce the power of requests).

We have more control over what we devote our attention to and your “gift” might not get that attention. Even if it does, it might not even be considered a gift.

And the recipient may feel fine about not saying “thank you” or suggesting something back in return. Here’s one of the reasons why:

People are less likely to reciprocate when they can stay anonymous

In the book Cialdini tells us one of the reasons why we reciprocate is, “because there is a general distaste for those who take and make no effort to give in return, we will often go to great lengths to avoid being considered a moocher, ingrate, or freeloader.”

Well, when you are just an anonymous user – this won’t happen. For example, you can use Kaspersky online scanner, close it and no one would ever know if you complied with the author’s request to install an offline version of their software or not.

There is no one to apply that social pressure.

But research shows that social pressure matters a great deal. A field experiment (sample size of 180,000+ people) examined the impact of social pressure on people’s likelihood to vote. They found that a mail letter that applied the most social pressure resulted in the highest compliance rate. Here are the triggers that this mail letter included:

  • An identity appeal emphasising that voting is generally a good thing to do (“DO YOUR CIVIC DUTY— VOTE! Remember your rights and responsibilities as a citizen.”)
  • A social pressure appeal informing them that their voting records would be disclosed to their neighbours (and their neighbours’ voting records would be disclosed to them).

Those two triggers resulted in 8.1 percentage-point uplift (29.7% vs 37.8%). (Mailer that only included an identity appeal only resulted in 1.8 percentage points uplift).

The experiment above studied compliance, not reciprocity per se. Researchers did not give anything to people before making a request. So, unless you want to argue that citizens are by default in a reciprocal relationship with the government, we shall look for some further evidence.

Luckily, another study did focus on reciprocity:

(Adapted from Whatley et al, 1999, The Effect of a Favor on Public and Private Compliance: How Internalized is the Norm of Reciprocity?)

People who received a favor and were not required to put their name on the form were less likely to comply with a donation request.

In contrast to our offline lives, when we are online we can easily choose ignoring other people’s requests. Lack of social pressure means that our identities are not at risk. This is particularly true when…

The person you are making a request to is not dependent nor affected by you in any way

When we are interacting in the real world, we can see, in real time, how our actions affect others and how we are being affected by them. When we are online, these effects are not clear. In fact, many interactions we have online are one-off encounters where we are not trying to build long-term relationships. So, we might as well just ignore them.

That’s exactly what Neville (founder of Kopywriting Kourse) does. He clears his inbox from all these one-off shooters to leave space for those who have something important to say:

Neville is not the only one.

Research on social dilemmas shows evidence that this is a general human tendency. Studies show that one-shot encounters encourage selfish rather than cooperative responses. People who only expect a single, anonymous exchange with another person will tend to favor themselves rather than selecting mutually beneficial choices.


That’s why many people who really get a lot of value from the free version of your product would not share it. Unless they see their actions being interdependent with their ability to use it in the future (e.g. many start-ups would cease to exist unless early adopters spread the word), they are more likely to act selfishly.

Similarly, influencers you are trying to reach receive hundreds of similar random emails per day. Most of them are perceived as one-off shots. Unless there is an indication that you might have some business in the future, it’s better for that person to act selfishly and ignore you.

You’re expected to give stuff away. It’s not a favour.

In the book Pre-suasion Cialdini mentions that unexpected gifts are those that will most likely result in return favors. For what we are doing online (e.g. provide a free trial, write useful content, give an ebook away) we are expected to give these things away. Everyone is doing it and you’re no different. That’s why people don’t even perceive it as being a favour, but rather a given.

Perhaps, a free trial might have surprised me back in 1999.

Certainly not today.

There are people who won’t reciprocate anyway unless they see a benefit in doing so

Several papers including this one discuss that there are different ‘personality types’ or social value orientations as they call it. Your social value orientation determines the nature and likelihood of you reciprocating back to others. There are 3 of them:

  • Prosocials – those looking for win-win cooperation; they believe that it is better if everyone comes out even in a situation.
  • Individualists – those who are only concerned with their own outcomes. They make decisions based on what they will gain personally; no concern for others.
  • Competitors – those who tend to maximize their own benefit, but in addition they seek to minimize others’ benefit, e.g. they find satisfaction in imposing their own will when cooperating.

So, assuming that people consistently belong to one type or another, not everyone will reciprocate regardless of what you have done to them. Individualists take into account only how potential cooperation might affect their own outcomes, so unless you provide them with a good reason to cooperate, it won’t happen. Studies supported the idea that individualists reciprocate less than prosocials.

Understanding why reciprocity will work online

But here’s why it will work (and what you can do to overcome the caveats above)

Many humans will reciprocate regardless

As Cialdini says in the book, “the rule for reciprocation is so deeply implanted in us by the process of socialization we all undergo [eg, we learn it from our parents.]”. With all of the studies above, researchers found that these factors reduced people’s tendency to reciprocate, but none of them found that it eliminated it completely.

It’s not just social pressure that forces us to reciprocate.

As researchers explain some people reciprocate because they have internalised reciprocity as a personal norm. It becomes a part of our moral values and thus failing to reciprocate might create feelings of guilt, even when no one pressures us to repay back.

For example, Mark Schaefer, author of Return on Influence, shares his experience of how he had been thanking everyone on Twitter for sharing his posts. His explanation of why he did this closely resonates the research described above. Him saying “Mom would be proud” clearly shows that this is something we learn from parents. He carried that value to his online communications, too.

We also want to reward and encourage good behaviour of others.

Here’s a real-life example of a UserOnboard fan:

Finally, as we have already discussed, there are different personality types. Prosocial people will want to maximise outcomes both for you and themselves, striving for equal benefit for both parties.

One of the very smart people in our industry who I had the privilege to learn from has this quote in his signature:

Likely to be one of those types.

Finally, our tendency to think deliberately about who we reciprocate to does not result in us not reciprocating. It just means that we are less likely to be manipulated and more likely to respond to those who can provide real value.

How to maximise your chances of success?

With that in mind, let’s consider what you can do to overcome the caveats I have just described. We will go through each action tip by considering 3 main use cases for the rule of reciprocity: building relationships with people in our industry, content marketing and user onboarding.

You can provide meaningful gifts

In their books Pre-suasion and Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion, Cialdini and his colleagues mention meaningfulness (or significance) as a factor that increases your chances of making someone to reciprocate. I want to argue that in the online world meaningfulness is a core element, not an enhancer. Since we are more likely to be deliberate about who we reciprocate to, unless we see value in what has been provided to us, we are very unlikely to exchange anything with that person.

I interpret meaningful as something that helps us to make progress in our lives (this would particularly make sense for those familiar with Jobs-to-be-Done framework). Here’s how you could apply it.

Building relationships

When Sam Parr was starting out with Hustle Con, Neville Medhora, founder of Kopywriting Kourse, was on his target list of those he wanted to invite. From watching Bootstrap Live he knew that Neville loved Dave Matthews Band.

Guess what he did to build their relationship.

Yep, he sent Neville a DMB live DVD.

Here’s what Neville’s response was:

Content marketing

Going back to my definition of ‘meaningful’, Jobs-to-be-Done is the core research framework that helps us to understand people’s struggles. By knowing what our customers’ struggles are, we can write that thorough, actionable content that will help them to overcome those struggles.

Gregory Ciotti, content marketer at Help Scout, puts it this way: 

If someone implements your advice, they can’t help but form a connection with you.

Gregory Ciotti

Content Marketer at Help Scout

To give you an example of how jobs have been solved and what effect they produce, let’s consider Brian Dean’s work.

Many people creating content struggle to make their work visible. They struggle despite implementing the good ol’ advice of creating “great content”.

That’s exactly the struggle that Brian addresses in his link building article.

And here are the types of responses that Brian occasionally gets:

This shows the emotional connection that meaningful gifts like this create.


Similarly, SurveyGizmo provides an extra period of trial subscription without you asking them for it. I considered it as a meaningful favour because I wanted to carry on doing my research vs. having to ask them for extending my trial vs. having to build a business case for my management to approve that subscription.

Similarly, Basecamp’s whole onboarding process (or ‘lack’ of thereof) was a meaningful ‘gift’ for its users:

You can exceed expectations

As I have already mentioned, Cialdini’s research shows that unexpected gifts are more likely to make the other person to repay you back.

Building relationships

We have just seen Neville’s response to the DMD live DVD. The second reason why it worked is that it was unexpected, even more so because their relationship shifted from online to real life.

Content marketing

People expect you to produce content, but you can still go beyond their expectations by producing really great content.

For example, another type of comments Brian Dean gets look like these:

His content is so uncommonly actionable, detailed and well-designed that he continuously exceeds people’s expectations.


Similarly, the trial option offered by SurveyGizmo exceeded my expectations because it was not the standard for software industry.

Other SaaS companies like Slack design unusual user experiences, e.g. its slackbot setting you up, another addition to its slick onboarding experience.

You can break anonymity by showing your own face…

One study has shown that reversing anonymity increased compliance rates. A group of people was emailed to fill in a questionnaire. Some received an anonymous email, while others received an email with a sender’s picture. The latter were more likely to comply with the request (57.5% vs. 83.8%).  

Building relationships

This is exactly how Stephen Twomey increased his success rate with cold emails by more than 300%. He used that technique to get press coverage (social proof to boost your conversions!), backlinks from reputable publications as well as to connect with influencers in different industries.

He just added a picture at the bottom of the email. Here’s an example from one of the projects he worked on:

Result: For 50 emails that he sent without the picture he received 3 guest post requests. For 50 emails that he sent WITH the picture he received 13 requests (300%+ difference).

Content marketing

Many blogs still have faceless author contributions, even those in online marketing industry.

Obviously, being able to see the author’s face makes the connection more humane. Example from


For user onboarding, you can use tools like Intercom, so that people know who they interact with.

…and making them to show theirs

This is the most important part. As we have discussed, when our identities are not at risk we are less likely to comply.

Building relationships

The best strategy with cold email is being referred by someone. Not to sell something you want to sell, but being referred to help. In that case the person on the other end knows that you know their right email address and you are part of their in-group, meaning their identity is on the table.

Content marketing

With content you can use platforms such as Disqus. They keep trail of all the previous communications a person had. For example, when I click on Bryan Harris’s comment, I can see the past history of his communications. That means that when Bryan Harris leaves a comment on someone’s website, he does not just leave an opinion, he leaves his opinion.


For user onboarding use Intercom. It integrates with FullContact. FullContact uses a person’s email address to gather all the publically available information on that user. So, when chatting with someone you don’t talk with user #15345, but a real person. You have access to their job title, social profile, etc.

There is one caveat to Intercom. When I am chatting with someone from a support team, I don’t necessarily know if they know who I am.

But if you play it smart you can still build a very personal connection. For example, go above and beyond in your customer service by utilising the information that becomes available to you. Look at what they did here:

And help your customers when they need it. Here’s an example of me asking for extra access to Buzzsumo subscription. To do so I surely needed to disclose my personal circumstances, again putting my identity on the table.

More importantly, (although it’s harder and won’t be perfect) you can still apply social pressure and establish social norms online

For this to work you need to place yourself in a community. So that it’s not you reaching to someone as if you exist in a vacuum. Instead, it’s you reaching out to someone with both of you having a sense that you co-exist in the same community where rules are set and reinforced by the collective mind. Those rules govern who gets rewarded and who gets punished for their behaviour.

Let’s consider some examples.

Building relationships

When David Garland, founder of The Rise To The Top, wanted to connect with Tim Ferriss, he did not just send him a bunch of cold emails. Instead, he used a combination of different mediums including Twitter, his personal blog (and email), making his attempts to connect more public.

Did Tim Ferriss start feeling guilty for not replying to any of those comments (consequently creating a sense of obligation)?

I don’t know, but as we have already discussed, publicity increases compliance. It might have had some effect when they connected via email. Ultimately result is all that matters. In David’s case Tim agreed to participate. Twice.

(we will cover other aspects of David’s strategy later).

Content marketing

For content marketing, social rewards can come in the form of likes and upvotes…

…or rankings:

Social costs can come in the form of being ‘excluded’ from a community for not contributing. For example, Moz excludes you from its ranking unless you have logged in the past 60 days.

It can also come in the form of not getting support from others when you need it. Here’s an example from

If building a community platform sounds too complicated, could you build an end of the year wall of fame for users who shared your content (and unexpectedly give them something as a gift)?

Surely you could. Just use Buzzsumo and you will quickly find everyone who shared your posts. It’s quick and easy.


Memrise, a language learning app, applies social pressures to user onboarding, too! They made me feel guilty for not catching up with my class.

They also push me forward by showing to me how I compare relative to my peers:

Even if your SaaS product does not have a community around it, can you assign people to demo classes and tell them that they are not catching up? You should test that!

You can encourage cooperative behaviour by sending long-term signals

As we have already said, if people don’t know that achievement of their goals is interdependent on cooperation with you, the chances of them cooperating automatically go down.

To reverse that, you need to send signals that you are staying in the game for a long period of time.

Building relationships

With cold outreach, there are numerous things you can do.

#1. Be persistent.

David Garland from The Rise On The Top has not been just helping Tim Ferriss for a couple of months, but has been providing him with favours for a period of 2 (TWO!) years.

In his own words:

For the past two years I’d been building my platform, helping Tim out to the best of my ability in various small ways, including retweeting his content, writing about him on my blog, mentioning him on the show, reaching out occasionally with an idea, etc.

David Siteman Garland

Founder of The Rise to the Top

As you remember, persistence is what Neville Medhora (and many others) evaluate in you when you are sending them a message.

#2. Show your affiliation with people in that person’s in-group.

Sam Parr who I mentioned previously asked for an intro from his friend Joey Mucha to invite Rick Marini, founder of BranchOut, to his conference. In this particular case Sam was not really making any favors to Rick, he was approaching him with an offer.

BUT! With his follow-up email, Sam made Rick a favor (of some sort) by not being sales-y (many people are), but reaching out to him in a very personalised, caring way:

This made a good impression:

And Rick came to the conference.

I used the following template to reach out to people who I thought could benefit from my research skills:

Content marketing

With content, you can create interdependence by making it likely that people will want to ask you a question.

We have seen it done at GrowthHackers, Moz…

On a standard blog, it seems that by answering people’s comments you can foster reciprocation.

Here’s an example from Brian Dean’s blog:

See this “Added to my buffer” spin by Sam Oh? Nice and subtle use of the reciprocity rule. Obviously, I don’t know the full story, but he might not have shared it unless he needed to ask this question. Thinking of long-term effects I can see that Sam shared Brian’s content at least 13 times to his 7000+ Twitter audience (no causation suggested here, just an observation).

So, provide valuable, detailed advice and make sure people know that you will help them when they need it.


I don’t think this one applies to user onboarding well. You can’t frame it as, “Hey, I gave you access to a free trial, so, could, you, please, complete your profile and set up the integrations, so that you can see how valuable our product is and ultimately sign up?”.

“If you don’t do it now, I won’t give an extension in the future” (creating long-term interdependence).

Despite that, I have a great example for you (at the end of this article) of how one company used incentives and interdependencies to triple their trial-to-paying conversion rate.

You can show the sacrifices you make

Another factor that I did not see Cialdini mentioning in his book is “the degree of sacrifice experienced by the donor”. Researchers suggest that the more person thinks you have sacrificed something substantial to provide a gift, the more they will feel obliged to return something back. In my own interpretation it’s about communicating or showing how much effort you have put into something.

Building relationships

Here’s how I (unknowingly) used it to build relationships with people:

Not only is the fact that I read his book shows my degree of involvement with that person’s work, the rest of the email is a 1028 words “essay” where I provide a new perspective on what he has been working on. It might not always work, but in this particular context I genuinely thought that this type of detail would add a lot of value. In the end, we had a very meaningful exchange around this topic. Moreover, using skills I learnt from copywriting books I tried to make it as engaging as possible, so strike a balance.

Content marketing

When people publish content on their blogs, all they do is hit publish and hope others will appreciate it. However, readers don’t know how many hours you have spent and the number of late-nighters you had before hitting that blue WordPress button. Maybe you should be telling them. At least that’s what the research tells us.

A couple of days ago I saw this post trending at GrowthHackers. From the title I sensed that it’s another collection of random tips, but when I opened it the description below made all the difference.


This has also been successfully applied to user onboarding.

That person has gone at great lengths to explain what she did, what worked and what did not. She included screenshots. I could feel the “sacrifices” she made before getting back to me. This is when I thought that Mailchimp is not actually that bad. I am still feeling obliged to stay with them although I already got all my campaigns working in GetResponse.

Finally, you don’t need to put all your hopes into reciprocity

Many articles out there seem to suggest that you just publish good content, give a free trial to your customers and people will start giving back.

That’s ok, but gets you very little in the way of results.

Reciprocity works for building relationships. Reciprocity works for creating preferences for your product, not your competitor’s (at least one study suggests that).

It sometimes works to get people to enter email addresses into your sign up form.

And it rarely works to get them to enter their credit card details and click “pay”.

This is the key action you want people to take, not just share your content, not leave you comments on your blog, but pay for your product.

That’s where incentives are most powerful though. Give people a good reason why they should purchase your product or enter their email and they will be more likely to do so.

In fact, Optimizely generated more than £3 million in pipeline opportunities using incentives alone. They offered an Apple Watch to a targeted list of high end executives in exchange for a meeting and got an 8% agreement rate.

The rule of reciprocity is one of the many tools you can use and solely relying on it would be plain stupid.

Many big brands follow that strategy on their blogs though. Adidas is one of them:

In contrast, guys at SnackNation, a healthy snack delivery service, offer an incentive for you to join their subscriber list. Free, great content serves the role of establishing the relationship. A clear incentive serves the role of getting them the email addresses. Here’s an example from their wildly popular article, “121 Proven Employee Wellness Program Ideas For Your Office”.

Similarly, when David Garland offered Tim Ferriss to be interviewed on his show, he did not just assume that all their previous interactions would pay for themselves. Instead, he tied it in with an incentive. Tim Ferriss just launched The 4-Hour Body, making the show a perfect opportunity for him to spread the word.

This made it a no-brainer.

Finally, one SaaS company used interdependencies (as well as incentives and an element of gamification) to triple its trial-to-paying conversion rate.

Team at ProdPad, a project management software, cut its trial from 30 days to 14 to 7 days.

Once they cut it down to 7, they decided to allow flexible extension for every important step you complete.

Set up an integration? 2 extra free days. Added a mockup? Another 2 free days.

The reasoning behind it is obvious. The quicker you can get a trial user from “first touch” to “first value”, the more likely she is to become your happy, paying customer.

Instead of leaving it as a 30 day trial, hoping that users will have enough time to make the full use of their product, team at ProdPad set up an incentive-based system where every desirable step is rewarded with a trial extension. They even gamified it (notice the progress chart and green ticks)!

So, now when a user approaches a 30-day trial, she would not think, “I should start being nice to their team, so that they can extend my trial in case I am over the limit”, the user knows right from the start what the dependence is (between her actions and her ability to use the app).

Again, this shows that adding incentives to what you give away for free can substantially increase the power of your persuasion efforts. Tripling your trial to paying conversion rate is not bad at all.


Reciprocity is a powerful persuasion tool, but it comes with its caveats when applied online. Beware of the reasons why it is less likely to work and overcome these challenges with the techniques I described above.

Here’s a full summary for your reference:

Building relationships

  • Provide meaningful, targeted gifts (tip: research the person, Sam Parr watched conference videos to find out what Neville Medhora was into)
  • Exceed their expectations (eg. send them a physical gift)
  • Break anonymity by showing your face (eg. include a selfie at the end of your email)…
  • …and look for a way to ensure they show theirs (eg. find a way to be referred by someone)
  • Use social pressure to your advantage (eg. connecting via an active community or social media adds publicity to your and the target person’s actions)
  • Make it clear that this is not the first time the two of you might engage with each other (eg. be persistent and show affiliation with that person’s in-group)
  • Explain the sacrifices you made to provide that gift, in a subtle way (eg. explain how difficult it was to find, but you did X, Y and Z, and finally got it, or just show the effort you went to)

Content marketing

  • Write meaningful material that helps your target prospects to make progress in their lives (tip: use JTBD framework)
  • Exceed people’s expectation by creating visually attractive, insanely detailed and super-actionable content
  • Show your face in the author section
  • Make users show their face when interacting with you through the blog (eg. integrate your comments section with Disqus)
  • Create a community in order to enforce the social pressure (this involves having a publicly observable rating system as well as appropriate rewards and punishments that reinforce desirable user behaviour)
  • Make use of interdependencies between you and your readers (eg. by giving meaningful help through the blog comments you might encourage readers to give something to you, in anticipation that they might receive something meaningful back from you)
  • Show the sacrifices you made to write that article (eg. number of hours spent, interviews conducted, core challenges you had to overcome)


  • Provide users with meaningful favours (tip: find out what their struggles might be at different points of the onboarding process, use JTBD and on-site surveys to get meaningful, contextual data)
  • Exceed users’ expectations by researching your industry and creating unexpected, meaningful experiences
  • Use tools like Intercom to create personal, non-anonymous connections with your users
  • If applicable, create social groups within your app in order to generate social dynamics
  • If applicable, use copy notifying the user how they perform relative to the rest of the in-app social group
  • Show the sacrifices you made (e.g. to build the app, build a certain feature, or resolve a bug issue when answering a support ticket)

Finally, remember that the rule of reciprocity is only one of the many techniques that you can use. For your visitors to progress through the final steps in your conversion funnel, it would be less risky for you to utilise incentives (eg. explain the clear benefits of giving an email address or subscribing for your product) than solely relying on reciprocity.

5 Books every e-commerce manager should read (to increase conversions)

Keeping a healthy online sales engine is no walk in the park. From web usability and UX (yes, they’re different things) to copywriting and consumer psychology, there are many factors at play when it comes to your customers behaviour and their chances of converting (i.e. purchasing) on a given visit. With average e-commerce conversion rates at only 2%, an e-commerce manager needs every weapon at their disposal to ensure their visitor-to-transaction ratio is at optimal performance. Knowing the impact of each conversion lever – and how to pull accordingly – is an art which, in the long-run, is well worth the initial investment.

Whether you’re starting to think about testing, already running your own experiments or just looking to brush up on a few essential skills, this list has everything you need to get focused, and start thinking critically about your website conversion strategy and performance.


Don’t make me think – Steve Krug


A staple for the CRO community, Steve Krug’s Don’t make me think is refreshingly real and to the point, bringing some much needed simplicity to the often over-complicated world of web design. Krug eats his own dog food by keeping right to the point – the book could easily be read over half a week’s commute – with relevant (and occasionally hilarious) examples which paradoxically, will make you think a lot about your website design and user experience. The beautifully obvious takeaways make it both a satisfying and highly actionable read, guaranteed to trigger your first few site changes and make you think about your longer term optimisation strategy.


The Design of Everyday Things – Donald A. Norman


The Design of Everyday Things is one of those books which will enrich your thinking far beyond your professional remit. Besides the vast reassurance that you’re not alone in your daily struggle against doors, microwaves and all the minutiae of present-day life, the takeaways for e-commerce managers, UX designers (or anyone concerned with web performance for that matter) is nothing short of profound. By delving into the mechanics of human-environment interactions using concepts like perceptual psychology and embodied-cognition, the reader’s discovery is something to have legitimately been described as ‘life changing’. Everything will look different after reading this book, not least of all your website, which is sure to undergo some gestaltian re-analysis after you’re done.


User Experience

Hooked – Nir Eyal


Not your run-of-the-mill UX recommendation, true, but Hooked makes the list here for it’s priceless contributions to the importance of UX in customer habit formation and retention. 30% of an e-commerce website’s customer base purchase only once per year – Hooked shows you how to create a sense of dependency in key moments and then keep users engaged enough to guarantee their return through association, just as soon as their needs arise again. As Nir Eyal puts it – “the result of engagement is monetisation”. The book centers around a clever model known as ‘the hook canvas’, and is handily split into succinct chapters for each phase.


Psychology/Behavioural Economics

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion


The seminal guide to persuasion, Influence single-handedly opened the literary floodgates of consumer psychology and behavioural economics to the masses. Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion – reciprocity, commitment, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity – have become a major basis for every subsequent publication in the field, so if you’re only really going to give the time of day to one, let this be it. When you start running experiments based on cognitive-behavioural levers, you’ll get the testing bug, not just because you’re playing directly on your consumers motivations, but because it creates so much potential for agile optimisation and reactive campaign formation. Loaded with enchanting stories that make for a surprisingly fluid read, it’s guaranteed to stay with you, especially as you might read it two or three times.


The psychology of price – Leigh Caldwell


Applying well documented behavioural insights, the psychology of price gives a solid structure to pricing effects you didn’t realise you already knew (most likely from experience), all set to the backdrop of the fictitious Chocolate Teapot Company. This works perfectly by helping you to absorb all the theory whilst providing tangible examples, with practical application guidance and case studies throughout. Add that to the list of 36 solid pricing techniques providing abundant price test ideas and the book will likely pay for itself several hundred times over. Putting this in your bookcase is definitely a no-brainer.

While there are definitely many worthwhile books out there for this diverse (and demanding) profession, these would have to be our five ‘desert-island’ e-commerce necessities. Are there any you think we’ve missed? What did you make of our list? Let us know in the comments below!

Mine your spam email – it’s full of tips on how to be more persuasive.

Spam email copywriters have to work hard. They are the illegal street traders of the email world, flogging fake meds and pushing casino offers down the alley that is your spam folder.

You can’t succeed in the cut-throat world of spam without using a few clever tricks and persuasion techniques, and the spam folder can be a veritable gold mine of inspiration and ideas for how to be more persuasive.

To demonstrate, here is a screenshot of my spam folder. This covers about a week.


Almost every email is using one or more persuasion techniques to persuade me to click. Here are my favourites:

Making the sender a person

Just under half of these emails claim to be sent from a person rather than a company. The sender column in each case shows the full name of a person. This is an effective persuasive technique for a number of reasons.

  • A person’s full name adds legitimacy, no matter what the content of the email.
  • A person’s name, rather than the company name, suggests this is a specific member of staff getting in touch with me directly.
  • Names have associated familiarity. For example, the second email is from Amber. Perhaps I met someone called Amber recently. This could be her getting in touch with me again. It’s worth a quick click just to be sure.
  • All the names have something in common – they’re womens’ names. I’d be surprised if targeting a man with emails from what appear to be women was an accident.

In a sea of emails where the senders are companies, a person’s name immediately distinguishes that email as more worthy of my attention. In the spam email business, attention equals clicks.

Outside of spam emails, giving your business a human face (and name) can be equally as effective. On-site customer service is an area where this can work well. Live-chat popups will frequently now show the name, and even sometimes a friendly picture, of the agent that you’ll be talking to. If you’re a lead generation business, a worthwhile test could be to make your contact form more personal, with names and photos of your service team. At we carry out a lot of email surveys and we’ll always ask for a customer service agent’s name to use as the sender of our emails. It looks less like an automated email, and this generates a higher response rate.

Addressing your customers by name

At some point I have given my first name to the people over at Gala Bingo and It is good to see that it’s being put to good use. They have both used my name as the first word in their subject lines.



We are all primed to notice mentions of our own name, whether spoken or written. Most of us will at some point have found ourselves suddenly listening to someone’s conversation because we hear them mention our name. It doesn’t even have to be our name, often just a word that sounds similar can have the same effect.

When scanning this long list of emails, my first name is bound to stand out and grab my attention. Spammers know this is an effective strategy. They are so keen to use it that they will even take a gamble on the part before the @ in your email address being your name and address you by that. My full email address would still stand out – the digital equivalent of my name – and chances are that I will read the subject line. Quite an achievement when most of these emails will normally be deleted before they are even seen.

A customer’s name is a powerful persuasive weapon when used effectively. The customer experience immediately feels more personalised when names are used. If you can personalise the content at the same time then you’re in a very strong position.

It’s often stated as best practice when collecting customer information to remove as many fields as possible. Many sign-up forms have moved to being just an email address and password, with no name field. Whilst this may get you a few extra initial sign-ups at first, your effectiveness at converting those sign-ups to sales may be impacted by not knowing that customer’s name. The safest bet is always to split-test it and measure the conversion rate to sale of the name vs no-name cohorts.

Using a question to generate an answer

The third email down in my list (apparently from Eva Webster) is asking me a direct question.


The question stands out. This particular question is phrased like a challenge, and the promise of a challenge might actually be sufficient to get my attention. People often check their emails when bored, so it doesn’t take much to get their initial interest. Plus it’s human nature when challenged in some way to want to prove that you are up to the task.

Using questions in your copy is an effective technique in general because, when someone asks a question, you can’t help but instantly think of your answer. In the case of spam email this might just be enough to stop you in your tracks as you scan down your inbox. Using a question as a headline can be an effective way to capture your reader’s attention and establish their mindset as ready to engage with the rest of your content.

Questions work particularly well in certain industries. Take cosmetics for example. There’s a mould for cosmetic industry TV adverts where they start with a model asking you a direct question such as “Do you want longer, fuller lashes?”. Starting with a question is so effective in this industry as it plays on the insecurities of the audience. Even if you didn’t want longer fuller lashes, chances are you’re now aware that maybe you should do. Then luckily for you the rest of the adverts tells you exactly how you can get those longer, fuller lashes that you didn’t know you needed. It’s a very effective way to capture the customer’s attention and get them thinking about your product.

Using fear of missing out to motivate

From the sheer volume of spam they are sending my way it does seem like are determined to try every trick in the book in the hope that one might work on me. Here is an example of them using the scarcity principle to try and provoke a response.


This is nicely phrased to give the impression that I am wasting a great opportunity. The “Hurry!” at the end is both commanding me to take action and emphasising that there is a limited timeframe involved. This email is much more likely to get my attention than one where there is no sense of urgency.

This fear of missing out is not a new concept, and examples of its use are everywhere. Low stock indicators on ecommerce sites, next-day delivery countdown timers and simple limited time offers are fairly commonplace. Some fashion retailers will even have a “last chance to see” section of the site that only contains items that you might miss out on if you don’t buy them now.

Nearly all of the emails in this list use one technique or another to try and persuade me  to click. Some of the best use multiple techniques combined.  Here are the four key techniques we’ve seen in just this small selection of emails.

  • Making the sender a person
  • Addressing your customers by name
  • Using a question to provoke an answer
  • Using fear of missing out to motivate

Why not take a look through your junk mail folder and see how many different persuasion techniques you can spot being used?

Where else can we see persuasion techniques in action?

We’ve used my spam folder here as an example, but persuasion techniques like these are in use everywhere you look. Next time you find yourself compelled to open a particular email,  influenced by a certain advert, or buying something online, ask yourself these quick questions and see what persuasion techniques you were influenced by.

  • What was the first thing about this that caught my attention?
  • What did I see next that made me engage further?
  • What about this eventually made me take action?

When you find persuasion techniques working on you, look for ways you can use them in your own marketing. After all, if they’ve worked on you they will probably work on other people too.