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Using the Principles of Psychology to Make Your Online Marketing More Persuasive

Since finishing my degree in Psychology and Neuroscience I have been fascinated with the way in which the insights I learnt could be applied to marketing.  With that in mind I will be putting together a series of articles on the benefits of incorporating the lessons of psychology into your online campaigns.

Robert Cialdini’s classic ‘Influence – the psychology of persuasion’ lists 6 weapons of influence that can be used (or misused!) when persuading others.  These weapons take advantage of automatic stereotyped behaviours that people use to help simplify their decision making.  They can be devastatingly powerful when used as sales techniques so read on to find out how having these weapons in your arsenal can help make your e-commerce campaigns more successful.

1. Reciprocity

The rule of reciprocity decrees that we should try and repay in kind what another person has provided for us.  Alvin Gouldner found this trait to pervade all human societies, most likely thanks to the significant competitive advantages it provides. As a result, failure to comply with the reciprocity rule leaves individuals judged negatively by others as a moocher, sponger or leech.


By giving away something to a customer or potential customer you can create the strong feeling of a need to reciprocate.  Exceeding a customer’s expectations by sending a free gift with their order or providing a free shipping upgrade can leave them feeling indebted to you.  Indebtedness is not a feeling that people are comfortable with and we are often very keen to repay the favour quickly so as to level the playing field once again.

This means that emailing a quick follow up request for the customer to review their purchase on your website or leave a positive comment about your company on social media is much more likely to be successful in the light of this indebtedness than it would have been without the reciprocity principle having been engaged.

When trying to utilise this principle to encourage a sale you can offer free whitepapers to download, perhaps the first chapter of your book, a free version of an app with paid upgrades available or even a 30 day trial.  Be careful with that you don’t give too much though, I mean do you know anybody who has ever bought a winrar license?!


Rejection then retreat

Another handy way in which to use the reciprocity rule to your advantage is through the technique called ‘rejection then retreat’.

This technique begins with you making a request of somebody that they reject.  You then follow up by making a concession to their rejection by making a smaller request.  This second request will then be much more likely to be granted.  Since you made a concession to the other person by reducing the size of your request, they then feel the need to make a concession to you by acquiescing to this reduced request.

This principle works very well when link building.  If you reach out to another site owner and for example ask them to post a link on their site to your blog post they may well say no.  After their rejection however they are much more likely to agree to your follow up request to promote your blog post on their social media channels.

This can be sneakily employed by asking initially for a much larger favour than you actually wish for so that the follow up request for the favour you really wanted is more likely to be agreed upon!  Chris Dyson covers this in much more detail in his great article on using psychology in link building.

Commitment (and Consistency)

Consistency is another positive trait that people are keen to prove they possess and as such will go to great lengths to appear consistent with their behaviour and beliefs.

Research shows for example that customers who have been tempted by a 20% discount promotion are more likely to go on to buy even when this promotion is removed at the point of sale, than customers who did not see the money off promotion to start with.  Rather than feeling duped, the first group go on to make a sale as they had already made the commitment to buy at the cheaper price and want to be consistent with this commitment.

Now, I’m not suggesting you employ such underhand tactics but there are lots more ethical ways in which this principle can be exploited.

Foot in the door

The foot in the door technique is the most popular way of utilising the commitment principle.  A small sale can turn a person’s self-perception from that of a prospect into that of a customer.  They will then want to behave in line with that new perception in the future, making your sales efforts all the more successful.

These small sales can be achieved through so called ‘loss leaders’- extra special offers where you may stand to lose some money but you can do so happy in the knowledge that the lifetime value of your new customer will far outweigh the initial loss.  Even 30 day trials and free samples can go some way to changing a customer’s perception of themselves to incorporate them being the kind of person who uses your products.

Writing is believing

Another incredibly successful tactic is that ‘writing is believing’.  Even when we’re told what to write, the very act of writing an opinion makes us feel obliged to act in line with it.  The more publically we do this, the bigger the obligation to behave consistently.

Herein lies the secondary benefit to prompting your customers to write positive reviews of your products online.  By writing positive comments they are influenced to feel and act more positively about the product, in line with this publicly expressed opinion.

An even more effective strategy can be setting up a competition on social media that encourages participants to write 200 words about why they like your company or products.  By writing these positive assertions on your facebook wall they are declaring (in a very public way) that they are a fan of your products and as such their self-perception is adapted to accommodate this commitment.

competition fb

Social Proof

Whenever we feel unsure how to behave in a situation, social proof is usually the first piece of evidence we seek.  We use other people’s behaviour to tell us how we should be behaving.  The more we feel we are similar to the people in the situation, the more effective this social proof will be.

Testimonials are a highly effective way to incorporate social proof into your website.  Reviews from ordinary people (preferably with photos) tell your visitors that people who are similar to themselves approve of your products and so the inference is made that they too will like your products.

Other people bought this and you should too!

Having a ‘best sellers’ section of your site adds the benefits of social proof to the products featured by effectively saying to the visitor ‘Don’t know what to buy?  Well lots of other people bought these’.

This is especially useful when shoppers are looking for a gift and unsure of the best choice.  If you can show that lots of people like these particular products then the shopper can be comfortable that chances are the person they are buying for will also like the product.

Batman best sellers
Who doesn’t love Batman?!

A ‘people who bought this also bought’ section is also very persuasive.  If a visitor gets to the end of a product description and likes the sound of a product they should then be presented with similar products.  By lending the social proof of others, the visitor then knows that people similar to themselves like these other products and so the likelihood is they will like them too.

Social media is of course the best way to utilise the social proof principle. What better way to influence potential customers with social proof than to be able to show them that their friend ‘likes’ you?  Spending time cultivating an active social media following will pay dividends.  When adding social share buttons to your website, choosing the option of showing which of a person’s friends also likes you on facebook is a great way to increase your following through social proof.


It’s not real surprise that we are more easily persuaded to do things by people we like.  The trick is improving your likeability in order to improve your persuasiveness!  To do this we need to look at the factors involved in likeability:

  • Attractiveness – Nope, I’m afraid I can’t help you there!
  • Similarity – We like and trust people we perceive as similar to ourselves.  The key here is really getting to know your customers, who are they and what do they like?  Social media is once again worth its weight in gold for this.  What kind of things are your most active followers sharing?  Use these insights to build a better picture of your customers and build your social media personality accordingly.  If you can make your social media presence seem like that of a friend rather than a company your engagement and popularity will skyrocket and sales will follow.
  • Compliments – Everybody appreciates a compliment and whilst it’s easy to go too far with these things, showing your customers you appreciate them will certainly improve your likeability.  Offering sales promotions exclusively to your social media following or email subscribers is a great way to thank them for their custom and tell them you think they’re great!
  • Familiarity –Frequently popping up in a customer’s news feed or email inbox, keeps your brand front of mind.  Don’t overdo it though as this technique only works if customers associate you with positive things.  Be sure to share good news and not pester your customers with constant sales messages.  Add value with your communications and mix up sales messages with other helpful or entertaining information.
  • Association – ever wonder why so many athletes were trying to sell you random products after the Olympics?  Studies have shown that we feel more positive towards people we associate with good things.  Companies were trying to play on this by associating their brands with the positivity and national pride generated by the London 2012 Olympics.   Negotiating a sponsorship tie-in with an event, charity or celebrity can have a really positive effect on your brand.  Just by associating your product with a characteristic – for example attractiveness courtesy of a model in your advert – can cause those characteristics to rub off onto people’s perceptions of your product.
Fast runner = fast internet?
Fast runner = fast internet?


Milgram’s famous electric shock study showed the powerful effect authority has on us and the lengths we will go to in obeying orders given to us by a person in a position of authority.  We trust the opinions and advice of those in authority.

Where better to start utilising the authority principle than on your own website?  Start writing your own onsite blog with interesting and informative content.  Not only will it do wonders for your SEO, it will help you to develop your authority within your niche.  Why not try to set up an interview or guest post opportunity with a leading blogger in your niche?  Through the principle of association, your website will be seen to be more authoritative.  By building up a reputation as an authority within your field, your products or services will gain credence.

These efforts can of course take time, for faster results try utilising other people’s authority.  Use a tool such as followerwonk to identify influencers in your niche and reach out to them using social media.  Develop relationships with these people, even just communicating with them publicly will lend you authority by association.

There are much bigger advantages to play for though.

Could these authority figures be persuaded to share some of your new content on social media or their own site?  Could you send a sample of your product for review by an authoritative blogger?  Until you become an authority in your field, borrowing the authority of another by association is the next best thing.


As human beings we are often more motivated by the prospect of losing something than we are by gaining.  Losing a freedom by having a choice taking away is incredibly motivating and as a result when an entity is scarce, it becomes much more appealing.  Scarcity can be created by having only a limited amount of stock available, having a deadline for sales or lots of competition.

Limited stock is particularly motivating as not only is the chance to buy slipping away but it also incorporates the element of social proof as the item must be popular to sell out.  Amazon take advantage of this by warning customers when stock levels are low.

qwerty t-shirt
The ticking clock adds to the feeling of scarcity!*
*Also if somebody wanted to buy me this t-shirt that’d be fine by me!

Qwertee and TeeFury make the most of the scarcity principle by making their t-shirts available for one day only.  This prevents customers from navigating away from the site with the intention of ‘thinking about it’ or coming back after payday.  The product will not be there in 24 hours’ time, if you want it you have to buy it now and that’s incredibly powerful!

Understanding the motivations that drive decision-making can pay huge dividends for e-commerce sites.  Incorporate reciprocity, commitment, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity into your campaigns to encourage sales and grow your brand.

Comment below and let us know how you are using the weapons of influence in your online marketing campaigns!

Boom Online

Boom Online

Boom was founded in 2010 as an eCommerce specialist digital marketing agency. Our specialism is in the home retail sector, where we've managed SEO, PPC and Digital PR for both household brands and local businesses.View Author posts

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