JeremySaid's Blog for Startups and Lead Generation

Using the Psychology of Habit to Turn Visitors into Addicts

Posted by Jeremy Smith on Feb 12, 2015 9:05:14 AM

As a conversion optimizer, I’m interested in what makes people click — on a deep, psychological and cognitive level. But I’m even more interested in what makes people click again, and again, and again, and again …

That is what I call a habit.

If you could turn your product or e-commerce site into a habit, how much would it impact your revenue? I imagine that the results would be absolutely meteoric.

When someone does something over and over again, it usually means that they are visiting, becoming invested, spending money, and turning into a customer, and a repeat customer, and a repeating repeat customer.

This is the kind of behavior that you want to create.

Here’s what you need to know about the psychology of habits, so you can turn your site visitors into raving addicts.

What is a habit, for marketing sake?

According to Psychology Today, forming a habit is a “process by which new behaviors become automatic.”

A habit is something that happens regularly, automatically, and without conscious effort. It’s nearly involuntarily.

A habit is more than just a behavior. Habits are a neural phenomenon. As we form a habit, we are creating a familiar path for our neural circuitry.

The body’s “neural circuitry” is the complex interaction of cognitive processes and external stimuli that constitute our daily actions, responses, and behaviors.

The body’s neural circuitry

(Image from BrainFacts.org)

Neurons receive information (in the dendrite) and send information (from the axon). The synapse (connection between two neurons) transmits the signal to the next neuron, and so on down a neural pathway. This is the process that is repeated millions of times throughout the body as you perform specific actions.


(Image from Wikipedia)

The more you do those actions, the more those circuits become accustomed to it.

For example, if you are in the habit of turning right off the interstate on your way home, then you’re going to have a hard time if you move to a different location that requires you to turn left instead of right. When the mind and body are in “I’m going home” mode, it is prepared and primed for that right-turn-off-the-freeway action. The brain is anticipating it unconsciously, and the neural pathways are primed for action.

That’s why it’s so hard to break a habit. The plasticity of the neural pathway becomes hardened over time as we continually do the same thing.

How is a habit formed?

Psychologists describe the formation of a habit as the “habit loop.” It’s really quite simple:

A “cue” prompts the habit. The “routine” develops and learns that habit. A “reward” presents a positive feedback for that routine, and the cue prompts it again.

And so the cycle is formed, and it continues repeatedly to create a neural pathway in the formation of a habit.

How is a habit formed

(Image from Charles Duhigg)

  • Cue: This is akin to pulling the trigger. It starts the process. The cue is what tells your brain to turn on the habit.
  • Routine: The routine is nothing more than the act of carrying out the habit: Pedaling when you sit on a bike, lifting your leg to avoid the carpet bump as you walk from the kitchen to the living room, stepping on the brake as you put the car into drive, reaching for your iPhone when you hear a ding. These are all the routine or action of the habit.
  • Our brain learns to like the habit. Why? Because there is some sort of reward. The bike moves. You don’t trip. The car accelerates smoothly. You read a text from your friend. The reward may be subtly and psychological, but it’s still there.

I’d like to build on this habit loop by introducing an alternate model. This one introduces a fourth component into the habit loop. It is the “hook model.”

habit loop

(Image from Nir and Far)

According to this model, the trigger (or cue), causes the action (or “routine”) which results in the reward, which flows into the investment.

The investment is what sets this model apart from the traditional three-step habit loop. Investment is the work or effort that the subject puts into their habit formation. The subject is investing in it — taking time, spending money, exerting effort, sacrificing sleep, telling a colleague, etc. Investment can be any level of effort that is not directly part of the habit, yet is part of the overall environment in which the habit is formed.

I’ve introduced the “investment” aspect of the habit loop because it’s critical to the habit-forming power of an e-commerce setting. In e-commerce or online sales, there is some level of investment that the customer must engage in order to experience the reward.

What does this all mean in an e-commerce setting?

Let’s take this knowledge of habit formation and place it into an online experience context.


The action needs to start somewhere. Basically, your website appears in the user's awareness. It could be a tweet, a Facebook post, a retargeted ad, or some other form of showing up.


The user then takes action to get to the website and navigate on it. It requires clicks, taps or movement.


There are a variety of rewards that can be implemented in this phase. The mere design of the website can itself be a reward. It’s aesthetic or pleasing.

The CTA button — big, easy to see, and enjoyable to click.

The content is another part of the reward. Reading something on BuzzFeed or watching some eye-popping viral cat video on YouTube might be a form of reward.


The investment can change, depending on where the person is in the conversion funnel. What is important is that you require this investment.

Here are some examples of investments that a person might participate in, as it relates to a habit-forming website:

  • Taking time to read a blog post.
  • Sharing a piece of content.
  • Retweeting.
  • Emailing a resource.
  • Providing their email address.
  • Opening an email.
  • Spending money.

Each of these features should be present in some way. The way in which they appear can vary widely depending on what your product is, who your customer is, and how it all fits together. Practical methods will become more apparent as you see some of the examples in the remainder of this article.

How do I implement this?

Creating a habit-forming website doesn’t necessarily follow the clean loop that we examined in the previous section. Life is a lot more fluid. Trigger, action, reward and investment get jumbled together in a sort of casserole of goodness that prompts habit-forming responses.

Nonetheless, there are a few features that stand out as being important to a habit-forming website.

Give them something worth coming back for.

It’s hard to form habits where there’s nothing worth coming back for. We form most habits because there is a clear risk/reward payoff. We get in the habit of looking both ways before crossing a street so we don’t get drilled by an oncoming truck. We get in the habit of brushing our teeth, because we don’t want to pay the dentist out the wazoo for pulling and replacing our decaying teeth.

What about in an online environment or an e-commerce setting? It’s going to be difficult to create a habit unless there is something worth coming back for. Let me give you an example from BuzzFeed.

Give them something worth coming back for

Why have so many of us developed an addiction to BuzzFeed? Because the content is so out-of-control insane. Who wouldn’t want to read “21 Signs Your Laziness Has Gotten Totally Out Of Control” or “27 Times Disney Princesses Perfectly Summed Up Your Night Out?”

It’s the content. BuzzFeed creates content that people like, want and come back for.

Get them back to the website.

In order to create that “action” that forms a habit, the customer needs to get used to coming back to the website. How do you get them back to the website again and again?

One popular option is to create a subscription-based service. If someone is paying for it (the investment), this creates a reverse sense of reward/action. After all, they are paying for it, so they need to use it, right?

One example of this is Audible. Audible is an audiobook subscription site. You pay a monthly fee, and get to choose an audiobook to buy each month. They send you an email to remind you to come back to the site.

Audible.com is an audiobook subscription site

Naturally, since you’ve paid for it, you go back to the site and get your book.

Audible.com home page

This technique follows the habit loop perfectly. You’ve made the investment. They send you a trigger. You take action by going to the site. You get the reward of a new book.

Habit formed.

You can see the three methods that Audible uses to get you back to their website (the action):

  • The investment. You’re paying for it.
  • The reward. Those are some good books.
  • The trigger, which is an email. They remind you.

Those three things are all working together to create the habitual action.

Regular usage.

To get a behavior to transform into a habit, the customer needs to use the site on a regular basis. There are a couple ways to do this.

Membership is the first method. If a user joins, then they will have an interest in coming back. A parallel to membership is recurring billing, mentioned above. Whatever it takes, just get the customer back to the site as regularly as possible.

Audible gets its users not only visiting the website, but also using its mobile app to play the files they download. BuzzFeed gets people to tap into its feed. And an app called Slack gets people to use it all day long.

Slack, a project management and collaboration app, has the “ability to quickly form a habit.” The blog Nir and Far claims that this is the reason for the company’s amazing success. Here’s what they say:

Slack also meets one of the most important prerequisites required to form a new habit: the key behavior occurs frequently. The company says the average Slack user sends 40 messages a day. Habituated users send twice as many.

Slack creates habits quickly

(Image from Slack)

Regular use is what turns a habit into a habit. You brush your teeth every night. You pull out of the driveway every morning. You flip on the TV after coming home from work every day. These are habits because they are regular.

Slack does the same thing. Users become accustomed to the interaction, respond to the triggers and get hooked into a habit.

Habit-forming sites follow this model.

Some of the most habit-forming websites are social sites. Why do they compel us to go back and back and back again? Obviously, it’s because we’re social creatures. We desire connectivity and interaction.

But there’s a habituating component, too. Take Facebook for example:

  • Action — You go to Facebook. You click around. You see friends. You see pictures. You make a comment.
  • Reward — Someone likes your comment. This makes you happy. You see little red numbers in the top bar. Things are happening. You’re getting recognized, validated.
  • Investment — You’re now on a social network. You’ve spent time on it. You’re a member. You have a community.
  • Trigger — Facebook is now everywhere. You see its logo on restaurant menus, in the grocery store, and on every website you ever visit. You use your Facebook login to join others.  You hear Facebook talked about wherever you go. You are awash in a milieu of Facebook triggers.

It’s no surprise that Facebook is such a habit.

Pinterest, Twitter, even LinkedIn — they all flow so easily into habit because they have all the ingredients of a habit loop built into their very structure and model.


Some habits are easy to make. Few habits are easy to break. The key to continued e-commerce success is turning your product or website into a habit. With a few not-so-difficult techniques, you can create habit-forming potential on your site.



Topics: Conversion Optimization, ecommerce, Neuromarketing, psychology of habit, Web Psychology

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