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How to Use the Foot-in-the-Door Technique in Online Marketing

By Jeremy Smith

The Foot In The Door Technique

The term foot-in-the-door is a familiar one. In fact, you may have even used this term yourself in everyday speech:

  • “Yeah, it’s looking good. I’ve got my foot in the door, so I think that the sale will go through.”
  • “I don’t know if my son will get accepted to Harvard. I thought he had his foot in the door, but their application process is really stringent.”
  • “The contract work let me get my foot in the door for a full-time job.”

In common parlance, “foot in the door” refers to getting past the first step in a process, or making an initial advance in a certain direction. The idea is that once someone gets their foot in the door, it’s less likely the door of opportunity can be closed.

The phrase originated during the heyday of door-to-door salespersons who would place their foot in the way of a closing door. Once their foot was in the door, the potential customer would have to listen to the sales pitch.

Rude? Yes. Effective? Maybe.

“Foot in the door” has another and more significant meaning. Although it sounds a bit lowbrow, the term refers to a sophisticated psychological phenomenon that you should know about.

The foot-in-the-door technique is often misunderstood. What’s worse, it’s typically completely ignored by online marketers. It has profound implications for online marketing that could completely change the way you do business and make money online.

What is the Foot-in-the-Door Technique?

The basic idea of the foot in the door is this:

If you get a customer to agree to a small request, they are more likely to agree to a larger request.

(The technique is also known by its abbreviation, FITD — and sometimes FTID.)

Do you know what FTID means

The salesman shows up and asks, “Can I show you something?” or “Mind if I ask you a question?” That’s a little request. You open the door. Then, the salesperson makes a bigger request. “Would you like to buy two vacuums or just one today?”

By responding to a small request (opening the door), the customer is susceptible to respond to the big request (buying the vacuum).

ChangingMinds.org explains the concept in the following way:

Ask for something small.

When they give it to you, then ask for something bigger.

And maybe then something bigger again.

The concept is simple, but its implications are enormous.

Renee Grinnell describes FITD like this:

Example: According to this phenomenon, you should be more likely to convince your friend to make and decorate 200 cupcakes for the PTA bake sale in two days if you first ask for help with a smaller task, such as shopping for ingredients.

It has implications in virtually every field of human interaction.

  • A politician asks his constituents to wear a pin. Next, he asks them for votes. Next, he asks them for donations.
  • A fundraising effort asks people to come eat dinner. Next, they ask people to write $5,000 checks to support the cause.

Gradual changes lead to great results. And small compliances lead to bigger ones.

small compliances lead to bigger ones

Freedman and Fraser Test the Technique

The most famous experiment on the foot-in-the-door technique was led by Stanford’s Fraser and Freedman in 1966. They titled their experiment “Compliance Without Pressure."

That phrase — compliance without pressure — sums up the psychological significance behind FITD.

Most people are aware of forceful sales techniques and strong-arm tactics. With the foot-in-the-door technique, there is very little pressure.

Most of the pressure is applied by the customers themselves. It is a subtle pressure, because it has to do with changing one’s self-image rather than persuading one’s self to make a purchase.

Freedman and Fraser’s study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol 4(2), Aug 1966, 195-202) consisted of two experiments. Each experiment, as hypothesized, confirmed the reality of the foot-in-the-door phenomenon. Here are those experiments:

Experiment 1: 

The first experiment consisted of 156 women (“housewives”) divided into four groups —  three test groups and a control group. The first three groups were each contacted by telephone. They were asked a simple question, “Can you tell me what kind of household products, like soaps and cleaners, you are using?”

Three days later, they called upon the same three groups of women again, plus a fourth group (control group). This time, they asked the women if they would be willing to allow a researcher into their home to catalog the various types of products being used in their home.

If you think about it, that’s a pretty big request. First off, this involves opening your home to a total stranger. The stranger would then open up your drawers, cupboards, closets and cabinets to investigate the items you own, hold them, touch them, measure them, and write down information about them. It’s a bit intrusive, to say the least.

Out of the first three groups that were first reached by telephone, 52.8% agreed to allowing a researcher into their home to examine their household products. Of the control group, only 22.2% agreed to the larger request.

Experiment 2:

In their second experiment, Freedman and Fraser studied a group of 112 people (both men and women). Again, they were divided into four groups.

This time, they visited the homes of the subjects in person. They asked the respondents to place a small sign in their car to promote safe driving, or a small sign in a window of their house about keeping California clean.

A week later, they asked these same subjects if they would be willing to place a big and ugly billboard in their yard with the same message (safe driving or keep California clean).

Researchers were interested in finding out whether the message — a social issue — had any impact upon the efficacy of the technique.

As it turns out, the variation of the request didn’t have an impact. The group of people who had initially expressed willingness to display a small sign were more likely to agree to the placement of a billboard in their yard, whereas the control group was far less likely to say yes to the same request.

FITD Today

Apparently, it’s not just a 1966 phenomenon. A replication of the experiment in 1974 produced the same result. A few years later (1981), another study confirmed the theory’s validity. In 1999, the theory was thoroughly examined yet again.

Repeated studies have confirmed that FITD works:

Why does FITD work?

Here’s an interesting question to grapple with. Why is the foot-in-the-door technique so successful? Why does it work?

Many psychologists hypothesize that when a person responds positively to an initial request, their self-image actually alters to accommodate or rationalize their compliance. Because they have done something, they now feel a certain way about themselves that explains why they’ve done the action.

Because their self-perception and/or attitude changes, they become more willing to respond positively to another request that coheres with their new self-image. They view themselves as the type of person who responds positively to requests like that.

There’s also the idea of consistency going on.

Having made one decision, a person is likely to continue making decisions that are consistent with that initial decision. This is similar to the commitment theory.

Commitments are like snowballs. If you make a small commitment, it inevitably leads to larger commitments, and larger commitments, and so on.

What are Applications of the Foot-in-the-Door Technique for Online Marketing?

Theory is fascinating, but it should all lead somewhere. You can apply FITD to your online marketing endeavors. Here’s how:

The Big Idea: Start small. Go big.

First, let me trace out the big idea of FITD in online marketing.

The idea is to start with small efforts, attempts or requests, and then go for the big one. If you can gain a positive response to a small request, then you will eventually gain a positive response to a larger request.

Ask for an email address.

One of the best ways to implement FITD is through the request for an email address. Responding positively to a request for an email address is a small thing for most people. It doesn’t cost anything. It’s easy to provide. It has very little apparent risk.

Once the user has given you an email address, they become more likely to do something else — something bigger.

Once you’ve secured the email address, the door is open for additional requests.

Not only do you have their agreement, but you also have a means of communicating with them. You don’t need to go straight for a $1,000 sale at that point, but you can request other larger things — read this article, comment on this blog, share this on Twitter, sign up for this webinar, etc.

Each request — each successive approximation — brings you greater leverage down the sales funnel.

Ask them to do you a favor.

Another means of initiating FITD is asking the user to do you a favor. You can even word it in that way on a CTA or in an email — “Would you do us a favor?”

Many people are  inclined to respond positively when someone asks for help. When they do so, they are engaging in behavior that primes them toward future positive response.

Surveys and the “Could I ask you a question?” technique.

The question is one of the simplest and most innocuous forms of FITD. This is the one that’s used in the mall by the insistent sales people who ask you, “Mind if I ask you a question?”

The question is just a hook. It’s the foot in the door.

You can  set the hook with fun surveys. For some reason, people like to take surveys. If you can get someone to fill out a survey, especially one of those “what kind of person are you" surveys, you have a greater likelihood of gaining their buy-in later.

what kind of person are you surveys, you have a greater likelihood of gaining their buy-in later

Ask them to unsubscribe.

In a twist on the FITD, you can invite negative participation to reinforce the customer’s devotion.

One of the most effective ways I’ve seen this happen was in an email marketing situation. One industry leader whose emails I subscribe to sent a ranting email one day. He complained that a lot of people on his email list weren’t clicking through and weren’t engaged. He asked those who weren’t interested in his emails to unsubscribe.

It was a well-written appeal, and it was effective. I must confess I hadn’t clicked through on some of his emails and hadn’t responded to some of his requests. Rather than unsubscribe, however, I held on. The next few emails I got from him, I was sure to click through, and comply with his request.

In a way, he asked for me to do something for him — to unsubscribe. Because I didn’t do this, I felt more inclined to respond to his requests the next time they came.

Invite them to a webinar.

A more significant form of request is the webinar invitation. If you want to increase the level of engagement with your mailing list, the webinar is a good way to scale up. A webinar takes time, requires registration, and provides a more direct way for the participant to respond.

Using the webinar as a means of FITD is highly effective.

Ask for a test, not for a purchase.

The way  you ask for things is critical. If you can put it as a test, rather than as a purchase or commitment, the user is more likely to respond positively.

Think back to the FITD experiments conducted by Fraser and Freedman. Their initial request was for simple survey data on household cleaning products. Their second request was for an in-home investigation. That first request was the test — an innocuous and harmless provision of data.

You can accomplish the same thing with your online requests. A CTA that says “Test It Now,” or “Give it a try” is a FITD request. There’s not much consequence there. Your next appeal can be “Well, now that you’ve tried it, why not buy it?” Or something like that.


There aren’t a whole lot of guys driving around neighborhoods hawking encyclopedia sets or vacuum cleaners these days. But there are a lot of people selling things online.

You could be one of them. And you could be much more effective.

If you want to increase your sales, I invite you to try the FITD technique. Start small; go big. Your customer is the one who pressures himself or herself into the sale, leaving you to simply reap the profits.

Let me know how it goes for you.



Tags: Conversion Optimization, online marketing, sales, Web Psychology

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