Jeremy Smith Feb 19, 2019 11:31:05 AM 26 min read

The Definitive Framework for Conversion Psychology

Here’s the problem with conversion optimization:

We all want to do tactics, but we neglect the framework.

I see this played out all the time. It happens in corporate boardrooms, in startup scrum meetings, in coffee shop conversations, and on remote-work Skype calls. People think, “Ooh! Conversion optimization! Yes, please!”


Yes, Please! Yes, Please!


And then they start talking about which split tests to run, what color headline to use, and which buttons to make bigger.

And I do this.

Oh no, disappointed

Don’t get me wrong. I’m one of the world’s greatest fans of conversion optimization. I also firmly believe that conversion optimization isn’t about tricks, tactics, and techniques.

Conversion optimization is beyond “best practices." It’s more than thinking (subjective) you know who the users are, and believing (wrong) what the users want.

A vital piece often missing from these conversations is the understanding of conversion psychology, as well as being able to implement the correct framework.

At this point, many readers stifle a yawn and feel the twitch of their fingers ready to type in "" Words like “psychology” and “framework.” Yeah, no.


Psychology is boring. Framework is insipid.

Most money-grubbing, promotion-seeking, caffeine-addicted, fresh-faced conversion optimizers want to do sexy moves that will blow your mind and skyrocket their conversion rates.

It happens like this:

Holy freaking shizzle! Are you serious? If I put one word after the word “submit” on my CTA my conversion rates will go up 320%?!

that's shocking


No, I didn’t make that up. It’s a true story, and those types of gimmicks are mass-produced by highly reputable agencies touting the “skyrocketing” strategies.


What’s happening? This.

follow like sheeps

(Image source)

Those are lemmings, by the way. They are leaping off a cliff to their doom.

Let me be very clear. The only thing skyrocketing right now is SpaceEx's Falcon, and even it’s not doing so hot.

boom, hot

(Image source)

I want to readjust this tactic-driven approach. Tactics are fine, provided they are rooted in a understanding of psychology, and shaped by an adaptable framework.

In the article that follows, I’ve sketched out a very high-level framework. Keep in mind, the framework is adaptable. In addition, the framework is also a sketch. It’s not a comprehensive guide.

What works as a framework is a bit different for everyone. However, having a documented framework is key. It’s kinda like having a game plan.

This framework builds off an understanding of psychology.

Let’s talk about a few

Each of these methods for building a conversion framework directly responds to psychological features innate in every human.

Increase Motivation

A consistent element of conversion optimization deals with motivation — why someone does something. Motivation is what guides people in life, making them do things as complex as building a nuclear reactor or as mundane as going to the bathroom.

Motivation is everything (you know, kinda like perception). They are twins.

With this understanding, it’s easy to see how conversion optimization and marketing reside in the same universe. Marketing is defined as “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services.”

Conversion optimization is exactly the same thing but sharpened to a point.

How do we, as conversion optimization consultants, increase motivation? Here are a few ideas:

Create Urgency

Urgency has been called “the conversion optimizer’s secret weapon.” Urgency is a feeling of importance that drives immediate action.

As conversion optimizers, we know that if someone doesn’t act immediately, they may never act at all. Swift  and decisive action are required in order to win the conversion game.

You can create urgency through a variety of methods, but it’s critical to understand how and why urgency works before you can try to implement it in your conversion optimization strategy.

One of the best at urgency-driven conversion optimization is Groupon. Their entire model is built on the power and appeal of urgency.


Encourage Likeability

Likeability is a fuzzy concept to some people. Brands, like people, can either be likeable or unlikeable.


If your business is unlikeable, you lose. People might buy from you, but they’ll do so grudgingly. They won't be repeat customers. And they surely won’t want to tell their friends about you.

If, on the other hand, you have a likable business, brand, persona, approach, website, content, social media profile and overall branding, then you win. Likability is a thing, and it matters for conversion optimization.

Develop Consistency

What does consistency have to do with conversion optimization?

Consistency has two parts — 1) what you do, and 2) what the customer does.

First, you as the business must develop consistency in your branding and approach. According to traditional marketing, all of your marketing material and efforts should have a uniform look and feel.

One marketing strategies company puts it like this:

If your targets hear the same message over and over again, the same way each time, they are much more able to spread the word in the way you want it to be spread.

Consistency on the part of the business helps to develop consistency on the part of the customer.

Cialdini’s powerful Six Principles of Influence develops the idea of consistency. Here is how it affects the customer:

Principle: We feel we must always align our outer actions and promises with our inner choices and systems, such as our beliefs and values.

The customer strives for consistency. She acts in the way that allows her to feel consistent. Here are some examples (from Changing Minds):

  • A company gives away free samples. The customer finds that, having used the item, they feel more inclined to buy it.
  • A person is more convinced that a horse will win a race after they have placed a bet on it. In fact they may even increase the bet amount.
  • A charity gets people to sign a petition not so much to influence others as to get them to increase their commitment to the cause.

People are driven by the desire for mental equilibrium. They want their values, their motivations, and their beliefs to be in alignment. If they aren’t, then they feel a sense of cognitive dissonance. Life is about constantly adjusting our beliefs, actions, values, and behavior in order to overcome dissonance and achieve equilibrium.

This abstruse concept has an enormous impact on marketing and conversion optimization. By understanding how a person’s beliefs and behaviors are linked, we can more effectively garner their interest and action toward our products and services.

Offer Incentives

Motivation is driven by the promise of reward.


Incentivizing behavior isn’t gimmicky or shallow. It’s simple behavioral theory. People do things because they will get rewards.

Incentivization is much more than just giving people a product in exchange for money. Incentivization has small-scale applications, such as making people click on a subscribe button, or signing up for a free e-book.


Why would a person want to get the free e-book? Because they are incentivized by the reward of knowledge, information, mastery.

Many times, the incentive is rooted in the satisfaction of a feeling. The New York Times demonstrates  it brilliantly:


See? It’s not just about a newspaper. It’s about a feeling of convenience. It’s about security. It’s about dependability. It’s about a better you.

Reduce Friction

Motivation is the positive element in conversion optimization. But that’s only part of the framework.

Conversion optimization is as much about fighting the negatives as it is working for the positives. This is why my framework involves reducing friction.

What is friction? Simple. Friction is anything that gets in the way of conversions.

And I mean anything. It could be the customer’s dog barking, an itch on their left big toe, or a sudden desire to eat a loaded baked potato.


Some forms of friction we can control. Some we can’t.

True conversion optimization requires identifying the customer’s friction points and discovering how to overcome them.

One thing that I want every marketing professional to understand is that friction can affect everything. Friction is absolutely massively immense.

Look at a single manifestation of friction in the example below. The page on the left is full of friction. The page on the right reduces friction. What’s the difference? It’s a simple layout thing; that’s all.

not this but this

Friction can creep up anywhere in your web presence, derailing conversions and turning you into a furious, frothing marketer.

Your task? Understanding friction and working to overcome it.

Here is the three-pronged approach to overcoming friction:

1. Minimize anxiety.

Anxiety is a form of cognitive friction. Every buyer comes to a new conversion experience with a sense of anxiety. There is no history of interaction with the given website, so they don’t know quite how it’s going to work out. They haven’t built any trust.

Thus, they import a series of questions into the experience:

  • Where do I click next?
  • What’s going to happen?
  • Will they steal my information?
  • Is my credit card information safe?
  • Has anyone else bought from this business?
  • What do they think about it?
  • When does my shipment arrive?
  • Will it be broken when it arrives?
  • What if the site breaks?
  • Holy cow, did the site just break?
  • Why is this taking so long?

These are part of the user’s anxiety, their cognitive friction.

You, as the mastermind conversion optimizer, must win the battle against this cognitive friction.

Harry Potter

(Image source)

It’s easier said than done. Half the battle is just knowing that cognitive friction exists. You must anticipate where and when anxiety is likely to come up.

An e-commerce site, for example, often produces a sense of anxiety over the trustworthiness of the store’s payment. In response, the site should use trust signals.

Here are the trust signals used by Wayfair:


The website for Snapdeal also uses trust signals:


The two most powerful means of reducing anxiety are:

  • Clarity
  • Simplicity.

The better you achieve clarity and simplicity in your web experience, the greater your ability to improve conversions.

2. Establish Credibility

Assume that your customers distrust you until you can prove otherwise. The goal of every interaction with your customer is to incrementally build more trust.

There’s a whole branch of conversion optimization focused on trust signals and trust factors. Implementing trust signals builds credibility. If your customers don’t think you're credible, then they won’t buy from you.

The more trust factors you have, however, the more conversions you’ll score.

 trust factors

3. Educate

Educating your user is another method of overcoming friction. Education isn’t necessarily about online courses and curricula, though that’s certainly permissible. Education is about creating content that satisfies a user's desire for information.

Most of the top-ranked pages on the web are informational. In other words, they answer users’ questions, solve their problems, and give them knowledge.


(Image source)

To get in front of these queries and earn the trust of your audience, you need to be producing high-quality content.

Content is what educates, and it comprises a powerful form of marketing and conversion optimization.

Deliver Security

Finally, the customer needs to have a sense of security as they interact. Security is the warm-and-fuzzy feeling that a customer needs as they act, interact and buy from you. You're selling more than a product or service; you're selling a feeling.

Wrapping It Up with a Bow

Each of the points in this framework come with their own medley of tactics, techniques and cool tricks.

My point, however, is not to tell you all the cool tricks. Conversion optimizers are obsessed with tricks — the cute “27 tactics” articles and the “15 mind-blowing split test” posts. Those are fine. Maybe there’s a place for that. Hell, I am even guilty of writing a few of those types of posts myself.

But in the maelstrom of sexy tactics, we conversion optimizers and marketers have somehow missed the boat entirely. The conversion optimization ship has set sail, and we’re splashing around in the tide pools.

The game is won by establishing an adaptable framework. An adaptable framework is one that allows you to apply psychological marketing principles that are backed by qualitative and quantitative research. This in turn will shine the floodlight on the customer journey and their intent, revealing demographics and, more importantly, psychographic characteristics, instead of relying solely on "tactics" that might cajole that customer into a specific purchase.

To reboot your conversion optimization, you need to flush your system of the toxic buildup of “best practices,” “27 tactics” and “skyrocketing” crap, and get down to the heart of conversion optimization — psychology, heuristics, customer understanding, quantitative research, qualitative research, etc.

And — shameless plug for my blog — that’s why I’ve intentionally done in my writing. I’m committed to provide actionable tactics backed by psychological research. Why? No. 1, because it works. And No. 2, because that’s the huge gaping hole in the conversion optimization world.

But what about split testing? Where is the advice about my button color? What should I do about those magic conversion words? Please tellme tellme tellme!

That’s tactic. That’s technique.

That’s important only as far as it goes. There’s something bigger and better lurking behind those playschool tactics.

psych school

There’s a psychological framework, a conversion psychology, a driving force.

Once you understand the power behind conversion optimization, you can dispense with the gimmicks. You won’t be fooled by the cute little tricks. Instead, you’ll be prepared to unleash mentally compelling power on your customers.

That’s the dynamite of conversion optimization.


Jeremy Smith

Digital marketer with a penchant for dance; helping clients see the light through the jungle of tweets since before Twitter was cool.