The Psychology of Ecommerce Websites
Hold on to your mind. It’s going to get blown.
I’m going to list 10 websites and their conversion rates.
As you read through this list and try not to die, think of two things:
- What is your own website’s conversion rate? 1%? 3%?
- Why do you think these websites have such jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, eye-popping conversion rates?
I can’t answer the first question. That’s for you to ponder in solitude.
But I can answer the second question — why do these websites convert so well?
So, without further ado, here are those websites:
Schwan’s, Food, 41.7%
ProFlowers, Flowers & Gifts, 26.5%
Vitacost.com, Health & Nutrition, 24.0%
Woman Within, Catalog /clothing, 22.4%
Blair, Catalog /clothing, 20.5%
Lands End, Catalog /clothing, 19.5%
DrsFoster and Smith, Pet supplies, 18.6%
Office Depot, Office, 18.4%
Roamans, Catalog /clothing, 18.4%
QVC, Jewelry, clothing etc., 18.3%
Pretty insane, huh?
Check out the graph below (same data) and think back to your own conversion rates. Where would you show up on this site?
You want conversion rates like that? Fine. You’re going to have to do stuff — like conversion stuff.
You see, the conversion rates aren’t dependent upon SEO alone, nor upon the huge amounts of organic traffic these sites receive, nor on the huge amounts of money spent on PPC or retargeting.
The conversion rates you see here are largely dependent on conversion rate optimization.
Want to amp up your conversion rates? Get this first.
Yes, I’m going to give you some tips of the psychological variety, but let me throw in a few observations.
- The website list you see above is from 2010, which is basically last century in the Internet world. In the examples below, you will see other sites, which, according to my research, also have sky-high conversion rates. They are more this-century kind of sites.
- Conversion rate optimization is a vast field, and there are so many variables. I’ve chosen to focus on the psychological principles that characterize high-converting websites. In my conversion optimization universe, psychology trumps technique. While others like to drool over cool “tricks” like changing their button color, I’m more concerned about the deep and motivating principles of websites — issues that affect the psychology of the user.
- Techniques that work for site A won’t work for site B. The list below is about psychology, not cute CSS tricks. Thus, the tactics that you read in my list are more reliable as an example to follow. However, I want to issue a warning regarding the importation of principles from site A to site B. Every site is different. Every niche is different. Every user is different. Every thing is different. Thus, don’t expect to be able to apply all these principles to your website and jack up conversion rates.
Disclaimers in place, I do think that you will be able to see your conversion rates rise. Here’s the psychology and the tactical improvements that you can implement on your site to make more money.
1. Help the user understand the personal value of the product or service.
People really only care about themselves. For your website to be successful, you need to cater to people’s self-absorption.
Why are they on your website? Unless it’s your mom, then they really don’t care about how you feel, about how your day is going, or about how much you want your conversion rates to go up.
They’re thinking about their needs, their wants, their desires and their satisfaction. That’s it.
You need to help them understand why your product or service is so valuable to them — how it will make their life better.
Practically the best way to convey value is by a combination of image and headline. The headline communicates the value message, and the image backs it up.
This is how MailChimp, a massively converting website, gets such killer conversion rates:
Did you get that headline? You want to send better email? Of course you do. See why this site is so powerful? It’s all about the user.
Here are a couple practical tips for making this value as powerful as possible:
The headline needs to be short. The user has to understand the value as quickly as possible.
The headline needs to address a real need. Don’t assume that you know what your user wants. Make it a goal to really understand what real users want, not what you think they need. Do your research.
2. Create effortless visual and cognitive flow.
Every website has some sort of flow — the way the user works through the page to the final goal of a conversion.
On some websites, this flow is more like a traffic jam.
Let me provide an example of what not to do.
This website allegedly provides information about getting a certificate in graphic design. But where’s the headline? What’s the real value? What is this place? Which column do I read?
When I scroll down, I get even more confused.
Who is she? Is that Julia Grant, the graphic design student? What is this about downloading a free program catalog? Where is the freaking free program catalog?
Anyway, you get the idea. A site like this is loaded with psychological roadblocks, obstacles, U-turns, spike strips and detours.
Let’s talk about flow again.
The idea of a site that flows is this: The user is able to easily understand what to look, where to click, and how to convert if he or she chooses.
Try to forget that bad example, and let’s take a look at a more positive example.
This is Tavern, whose conversion rates are stellar. I’ve kept the image low-res, because I want you to see the flow, not just the details.
What happens on a website that has great flow? Here are a few characteristics:
- Lots of white space. The eyes need a place to rest. Adding clutter creates confusion as to where the eyes should move, and thus what the mind should focus on. If you don’t have enough white space, you’ll have psychological confusion.
- Don’t do columns. Designs that have lots of columns, fences and divisions do not contribute to psychological flow; they create psychological confusion. The idea behind flow is that the eyes and mind know where to move next. Don’t create competition for yourself by adding extraneous elements.
- Go simple. Notice how, in the design above, there is absolute simplicity with the overall design. There are not a lot of competing colors or features. There’s just the message and smooth intuitiveness of the page.
3. Pound in the benefits.
As Harvard researchers discovered, customers care less about solutions. They care about benefits and features.
In a former era, it might have worked to tell about awesome solutions. Today, however, that’s not going to happen. Your customers research products, pricing and solutions. They know what they want.
You need to sell them on the benefits.
This is an issue deeply rooted in buyer psychology. A Stress Bank article entitled “Why People Buy: The Psychology of Sales and Marketing” makes a clear case for selling benefits (emphasis mine):
People desperately want to feel cared for and understood more than anything else, and the businesses that understand this vital psychological factor will gain a major advantage over their competitors.
No matter what type of business you have, in your marketing materials you MUST sell benefits, not features. People only care about one thing, "what's in it for me?"
A feature is a characteristic of your product or service. A benefit is what that feature does for a customer.
Get the idea? Selling benefits will powerfully compel a buyer to purchase your product or service, whereas features and solutions will just bore your users.
Evan Carmichael stresses the same point in his article, “The Psychology of Selling” (emphasis mine):
It is essential that the prospect gets hooked on a possible benefit immediately from the start. Getting the prospect curious about a benefit prior to discussing your product is crucial to sales success.
Basecamp is one of the most talked-about landing pages on the Internet because they’ve been able to dial into the customer’s psyche like few other landing pages have been able to do.
Here’s a quick peek at one portion of their landing page:
It’s benefits. Just benefits. Even though a couple of them are positioned as questions — like, “Can I see how other people use Basecamp?” — the psychological message behind that question is a benefit.
This website, and many other successful ones like it, load benefit after benefit after benefit after benefit on the user. As the user takes in this information, their mind is full of benefits — no drawbacks, no barriers, no objections. It’s all about the benefits.
If a user is interested and reading this information, it will eventually break down the user’s objections or push the objections from the user’s mind altogether. Benefits are positioned in such a way that they target customary objections and compel a user to convert.
4. Let customers speak for themselves.
People get way too concerned about writing copy for their landing page.
I know that writing landing page copy is tough. And it’s important.
But what is the most compelling form of copy on a landing page? It’s testimonials.
In Conversion Rate Expert’s makeover of Moz’s landing page, they identified testimonialsas a major contributor for the $1 million revenue uptick. It was No. 4 on their list.
What does a testimonial do? It speaks to the user on a very deep psychological level. A customer can identify with the testimonial psychologically, because they know that the testifier is like them. The person who provides the testimonial was in a situation very much like the potential customer. They experienced the same pain, understood the same situation, felt the same need, wanted the same thing, and eventually converted.
The customer is interested in that level of information. You, as the seller, can say anything you want to. The customer may or may not believe you. But a testimonial? That’s a different story.
VinoMofo, and its in-your-face branding, has been able to pull in sky high conversion rates. It’s a company with major clout, disrupting a black-tie industry and creating huge revenues.
Here’s what they do on their mile-long landing page:
You get the idea?
Testimonials sell. You can’t write stuff that good. Even if the testimonial is full of typos, awkward phrases, and horrible grammar, you are not able to write stuff that is quite as effective.
You’ve got to let your customers speak for themselves, and let them sell your product to others.
The psychological power is intense.
5. Raise the urgency level.
Two of my favorite conversion tricks are urgency and scarcity.
Here’s how it works:
- Urgency: You need to buy this now.
- Scarcity: You need to buy this before it runs out.
Urgency and scarcity create a powerful motivation for users, because of their psychological backing. When a user experiences urgency, they are far more likely to take action.
What frustrates the conversion process for many sites? It’s the lack of customer action. Simple enough. No conversions equals no action. What, then, could cause more action?
Easy. A sense of urgency.
Psychologists try to parse the various aspects of urgency, dividing it into positive urgency and negative urgency, low conscientious urgency, impulsive urgency, etc. What all of these urgencies have in common is that they motivate action.
An article from the Journal of Abnormal Psychology describes “negative urgency” as “the tendency to act rashly when distressed.” Such urgency is “affect-driven,” meaning that the individual experiencing the urgency is motivated by the emotional impact of extrinsic factors.
In a journal article from Behavior Research and Therapy, the authors report that urgency creates “the tendency to act rashly in response to intense emotional contexts.” Whether this is bad or good depends on that context and, more importantly, upon the act elicited by that context and prompted by that urgency.
What eventuates from the situation of emotional urgency is action. In an e-commerce context, the action must be a conversion.
Researchers Levethal, Singer and Jones discovered that urgency is ignored unless the user knows how to act upon their urgency. Their findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology determined that users needed “specific action plans in the translation of attitudes into actions.”
So, let’s take a step back from all the scientific research and psychological layers, and put this into concrete terms. To win conversions using urgency, you must:
- Create an urgent context. Imminent death. Fire. Due dates. Whatever.
- Provide a specific action for users to act on that urgency.
There are a myriad of ways to create that urgent context. Here’s an example:
Let me point out a few urgent issues about this website. First, you should know that ProFlowers is an award-winning company. Second, you should know that they have massive conversion rates. Third, you should know that they live and die by holiday traffic, most notably Valentine’s Day.
Now, why is this particular page so compelling? Look. It has urgency factors everywhere. I’ve put red boxes around them so you can see them more easily:
- Same Day
- Limited Time Only!
- It’s officially last minute!
At the time of writing this article, a few days before Thanksgiving, any plans to have or present flowers for the holiday need to be acted on. Thus, each of these phrases and statements creates urgency.
Now, while the customer's urgency is high, ProFlowers satisfies with a big, fat, CTA. It is boxed in blue above.
That’s what urgency does. It creates the emotional intensity, and satisfies it with action.
Psychological power is your secret weapon in gaining higher conversion rates and improving the power of your website. Without psychological tactics, there’s no such thing as a successful or high-converting website.
Take a look at your website, dig a bit deeper into its psychological potential, and see how you can improve your conversion rates.