Persuasive E-Commerce Design With Cialdini

Aug 7, 2012 by Jurian Baas

Photo of Cialdini in an office.

You can only be an expert in selling if you understand what makes humans tick. This goes as much for designing online shopping experiences as it does in the real world.

A lot of your success will depend on how well you manage to get into your customers heads. You need to persuade them into performing the way you want them to. You have to understand and respond to their basic needs, experiences and biases. Some people associate ‘persuasion’ with some kind of evil manipulation, but that is not what this is about. It’s about providing value by speaking to people in ways they understand, not cheating them into a purchase.

When it comes to selling, Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is a classic. Cialdini explains why people say yes with six principles. They are easy to apply to your e-commerce business:

  • Reciprocity
  • Commitment and Consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Authority
  • Liking
  • Scarcity

Let’s go over the principles one by one.

Reciprocity

Most people feel the need to return a favor.

The way you can use this is pretty straightforward: give something away that has real value to your visitors. Amazon does a great job at this by providing free chapters of a lot of books for the Kindle:

Free sample chapter for Kindle on Amazon.com

Commitment and Consistency

When people agree to an idea or goal, they will probably honor that commitment later. They will even do that if the original incentive or motivation is removed. This is because people come to see the commitment as congruent with their self-image. This is how cognitive dissonance works, and why someone who did you a small favor tends to like you more than someone who didn't.

A small favor gets your foot in the door: it paves the way for getting bigger acts of commitments, like actually purchasing a product.

Again an example from Amazon: people who add books to their Wish List will be more likely to buy the items on it later, because they ‘admitted’ they want them.

The WishList feature on Amazon.com

Social Proof

Even though we think we want to be original, all human beings somehow crave for acceptance and validation from the group.

An obvious way to show that your site is actually being used and appreciated is showing off Facebook likes, Twitter followers and Google +1s. Of course, you will need a decent number of followers for that. Another clever move is to ask users to leave a review of your shop after they gave positive feedback. This way you can quickly collect positive testimonials which you can use to persuade others.

Another example from Amazon (last time! I promise): they show what other people buy along with the product you are looking at. This provides instant social proof.

The 'also bought' feature on Amazon.com

Authority

Where the Social Proof principle is about showing off absolute numbers, the Authority principle is about the quality of the endorsement. A place selling tennis rackets will benefit a lot from an endorsement of Roger Federer, for example.

Authority doesn’t only come from famous people or professors, however. Many e-commerce sites use badges of security certificates, given to them by third parties. These third parties are seen as security experts and invoke a feeling of transparancy.


VeriSign offers this trustworthy 'Norton secured' badge to site owners
VeriSign offers this trustworthy 'Norton secured' badge to site owners

Liking

The Liking principle is related to the Authority and Social Proof principle, but applies to arguments from people we actually know in real life. We take a recommendation from a friend to heart because doing so validates our belonging to our group of friends.

This is why it is so valuable to ‘go viral’. Recommendations by friends are seen as very valuable, and people return the favor by passing the advice along. Before you know it, your content spreads exponentially.


Different curves of viral growth (Credit: Think-Through.com)
Different curves of viral growth (Credit: Think-Through.com)

Scarcity

If something is hard to get, people will want it more. Scarcity makes a product seem desirable and cool.

Apple knows how to make use of this principle very well. People stand in ridiculously long queues at every new product launch, which creates a lot of hype and free press.

Etsy also makes clever use of this principle by listing how many products are available. When this number runs low, they create a sense of scarcity. Users feel the need to act fast because the product might be sold out soon.


Etsy prominently shows the products availabilty
Etsy prominently shows the products availabilty

Takeaways

We hope you find ways to sensibly appeal to these principles. Don’t go overboard, but try to identify the places where you can use them.

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