Buy me: The psychological tricks that make us click

We’re all wise to the little tricks that bricks-and-mortar stores use to tempt us to buy. Wafting the smell of freshly baked bread through the supermarket, knocking a penny off prices to make them appear a pound cheaper than they really are, the bright lighting used to make goods look more appealing. Yet, few of us understand the subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — techniques used to part us with our credit card details online.

The psychological tricks that make us click

Online stores deploy all manner of psychological triggers and techniques to ensure that you don’t leave the site without putting a couple of items in your basket — and often the items that they want you to buy, and not what you set out to purchase in the first place. The placement of buttons, reviews from carefully selected fellow customers, the number of product photos, the colours of the action buttons and even the design of the “checkout” itself have all been carefully tailored and tested to improve the site’s “conversion rate” — the ratio of site visitors who are turned into paying customers.

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How can you stop yourself being manipulated? Only by being wise to their psychological pulls and learning what to look for when you’re browsing the online stores. We’ve spoken to a panel of experts in online psychology and retail site design to reveal the methods used by the leading online retailers, so that you can spot them the next time you’re shopping online. We’ve marked up the sites of household names such as Amazon, Asos and EasyJet to show you exactly how you’re lulled into making a purchase. And we also reveal how to get your own back, by taking advantage of the retailers to get a better deal for yourself.

Social proof

All of the experts we spoke to agreed on one thing: we’re hugely susceptible to the opinion of our peers — even if we’ve never met them before, or have zero proof that they’re even genuine in the first place. Almost every leading retailer will rely on the power of user reviews to convince customers to make a purchase, to persuade customers that this a product that people like them should buy.

Psychological tricks that make us click - social

“One of the key things they [leading retailers] do is to provide what’s called social proof,” says psychologist Graham Jones, author of Clickology: What Works in Online Shopping and How Your Business can use Consumer Psychology to Succeed. “Part of the social glue that holds us together is that we like the things that our friends like — it’s the fuel that keeps the group going. It’s a way of social groups reducing conflict.”

That’s precisely the instinct that Amazon and other retailers tap when they stuff their homepage and product pages with boxes claiming “people like you also bought this”. According to Graham, “what they’re doing is using the psychology of social proof to get you to buy things that, actually, you might not even have considered buying, but now your brain is saying ‘well, I ought to have it because people like me have it’.”

The degree to which retailers personalise these recommendations varies, but the pull is more powerful if retailers can show you have more in common with fellow purchasers. Stores may harvest the personal data you supplied at registration and your buying history to highlight reviews from those with similar traits. You may even be offered discounts for filling out surveys, to give the stores richer information to base their recommendations on. “It’s not just about having user reviews on there but providing a point of identification,” says Emma Travis, a strategist at retail conversion optimisation specialists PRWD. “If you could, for example, include the gender, the age, the interests of the person doing the review… that will allow someone on your website considering buying the product to say ‘if it’s suitable for them, it’s suitable for me’.”

Sometimes sites play on people’s egos to convince them that they fit into a certain category. “LinkedIn do this very, very well,” says Nathalie Nahai, a digital strategist and author of Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion. “They might put up ’20 things every exceptional boss should know’. Then they’ll use a lead saying ‘good bosses do XYZ, exceptional bosses do more’. Because you’ve bought into the idea of being a good boss, but want to be exceptional, you have to read on and end up being sold to.”

The ultimate endorsement comes from those you know personally. For example, Google uses the homepage of the Android Play Store to promote items that have been previously bought and highly rated by specific contacts, showing you their photo and star rating alongside an image of the product itself. The Store encourages you to “follow” others in your social circles to “learn from people in the know”, increasing the authority and the trust you place in the store itself.

The stores mine vast databases of buyer behaviour in order to recommend items that have been purchased by your peers, but don’t for a second think that these items are highlighted purely because they’re highly popular or rated by your contemporaries. “They will be choosing what’s the most profitable thing for them to sell you, rather than stuff they make the least profits on,” says Graham Jones. “They’ll be selective in what they’re pushing.”

Reviews don’t even need to be from specific people to increase trust in a site. Emma Travis says that sites can see a huge upswing in sales simply by promoting a unique selling point (USP) — such as “nine out of ten of our customers rate this product highly” — on their homepage. “We’ve run an experiment with one of our clients where they put a USP bar on their homepage with social proof in it, and it actually increased the key conversion rate by 20%.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively, Travis recommends that clients don’t hide or delete negative product reviews on their sites, because they can actually help to increase sales. “Having negative reviews is likely to increase the trust, because it says ‘we’re not perfect’,” she says. If the retailer responds to the negative review, that’s a further feather in their cap, because it shows the customer that the site cares about complaints.

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