Stand out with the help of social psychology.

So it is really easy to set up a website today but it is not that simple to get noticed. You have to stand out with your product, your message and your website. How can you achieve that? – The answer ist social psychology!

When you’re digging for information on the web about design and conversion rate optimization (CRO), you most certainly read about the six principles of persuasion by Cialdini or other psychological theories and studies which can be applied to the online world.

So why is it so important to consider psychological theories when you are creating a website or selling a product online?

If you want customers to buy from you and not your competitors you have to stand out from the crowd. You can do that by an awesome web design, an awesome customer support and an awesome product. But I’m most certain that all of the companies can offer that  – or at least can write about it on their website. So you have to kind of trick your customers into choosing your site above another (but in a nice way, not a sneaky one, please).

Here, psychology comes into play. Psychology is after all the study of human behavior and the online setting is the place where most of us engage most of the day right now. So there is a lot of human behavior on the web and a lot of opportunities to make the (customer) relationship better using some knowledge from psychological research.

It is important to always have in mind that you interact with other human beings, even though you do not see them in a physical way. That is something to consider when designing a web page where you want to sell something. So the first step you can do at the beginning is to think about which web pages you personally like and which pages you do not like. Can you tell why? Do you have a certain gut feeling about it?

Maybe the site is too crowded with information and ads that you can not make any difference between relevant content and irrelevant stuff. You can’t find what you are looking for and give up, by closing the site, before you have read an interesting article or even purchased a product. Maybe you want to purchase a product on a particular site but  because of some destructions on the site you are not able to do so. You have put some things in your online shopping cart but have not purchased the product and you can not even remember why?

Does one of these scenarios sounds familiar to you?

From the consumer point of view we know exactly what we like on a website and what we don’t like, just from our gut feeling. So we can extend our knowledge creating a great webpage which converts by adding psychology. Because just relying on our gut feeling is not enough anymore.

Because psychology is science, there needs to be testing and analysis. This also works for your website: through A/B testing. It is important to have one control page and one page where you change one thing. Then you will let this appear on pages to your website visitors at random. After a certain amount of time you can see whether the changes had any impact on your conversion. To test only one thing at once over a long time against a control website is an ideal situation. Mostly this is not possible because you do not have enough website visits or you want to see fast effects and therefore combine different changes in one new website design. This is possible as well, but then it is difficult to tell if one thing was effective or whether it was the whole package of changes that lead to the higher conversion.

Now I have talked a lot about why psychology is useful for you to consider for your website, but I have not yet mentioned any concrete theory. So here comes a short introduction to some useful psychological theories.
At first of course the six principles of persuasion by Cialdini. This is a general theory on how people are influenced by other people in the most different situations. These principles can of course be applied to online environment.

  • Reciprocity: If you give me something, I want to give you something back
  • Commitment and Consistency: If I have said A once, I have to say A again next time
  • Social Proof: If everybody is doing it, it’s probably the right thing to do and I should do it as well
  • Authority: If an expert is saying it, it must be right
  • Liking: If I like you, I’m more willing to do something for you
  • Scarcity: If there are not that many products left I have to be fast to get one of the remaining

Some other great examples of possible theories that can be applied to CRO are decision making theories. One often cited study by web design blogs is the so called jam study by Iyengar & Lepper. In their study they gave participants the chance to try out new sorts of jam. The first group saw 24 jars of jam displayed, the second group could only sample 6 jars. After they had the the chance to try out some of the jams, they were asked to purchase one.

Guess in which situation participants were more likely to purchase jam? When there were only 6 displayed!

What is the explanation for this? When there are too many choices we won’t choose at all because after all we could make the wrong decision. So then we will say no to decision making from the start and we will make no purchase at all. This is called choice paralysis. Sellers have to consider this when they sell certain products online.

So this was the start to a series of post about using psychology for your design and selling process online. Do you have any experience using psychology in your web projects?


Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
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.