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The Neanderthal in the Online Shop: Psychology and Online Marketing

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Understanding the human psyche can be a very useful marketing tool. In this article, we provide you with 7 tips to help you market your products in the best way possible.

You’re probably well aware of a few classic sales psychology tricks, and I’m sure you toy with the idea of implementing some, for example the scarcity tactic. This is when you artificially reduce the number of your products so that the buyers MUST act – because otherwise they miss out on something in high demand. That might work, but, to be honest, I don’t think much of such simple tricks.

We now know all these thick books and “success workshops” on sales psychology, and, of course, anyone who uses this advice can at least double their sales immediately. I think a lot of our customers know these books and their guidelines as well, and is not it a bit embarrassing to get caught using sales tricks? Especially as many of the people who recommend these tips sometimes sometimes don’t seem very reliable. For example, people who’ve read the book “The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini are often quick to prove how you can quickly become rich and famous, using examples from booking.com.

However, I don’t know anyone who has actually has become rich and famous during the past two years. The sources contain a lot of truth: Neuro-marketing is a serious science, NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) has been supporting sellers and psychologists for decades, and Cialdini describes important psychological principles that work well, at least in the offline world. However, the self-made quick-tips are almost always too simplistic and aren’t very effective, particularly when used for a second time.

Is it really a good idea for you to dupe your own customers with tricks? I certainly don’t. I believe in karma, and that people who con other people either are, or will be deeply unhappy.

I think that lots of people probably do fall for the scarcity trick – but, they won’t come back to your store for their next purchase. Booking.com doesn’t work because of the obvious “9 others are currently looking at this” eye-catcher, but despite it, and their success has more to do with the huge selection of hotels and the great usability. Booking.com has certainly accelerated its success with the Cialdini tricks – but they’ve ultimately worked hard for it, and they have a great product.

This is my hypothesis: Psychology can be useful for online marketing – but only if the product is great and you act sustainably. In this article I go into this idea in more detail.

A Short Introduction to the Human Psyche

Let’s briefly talk about what sustainable psychology is. If you understand the basic psyche of humans, you could develop your own set of marketing tools yourself. Without going into too much detail, here are two important thoughts:

Firstly, the bad is more important and sustainable than the good.

Our mind has evolved very, very slowly but steadily over the past 2.5 million years. In this long period of evolution, there were good and bad times for our ancestors. Good times were for example sitting around the campfire with family and listening to the first stories that were told. Bad times were, for example, meeting a saber-toothed tiger, if there was no rainfall for weeks on end, or if you were traveling alone. All of these could turn into causes of death, and such moments were sadly more common than the happy times sitting around the fire. Our brain has evolved accordingly: We have learned that danger (i.e. stress) could be hiding behind every tree, and it could even be something life-threatening. The bad is more important to us humans than the good. Sorry, but that’s just how it is.

Although the saber-toothed tiger has become extinct and we can now barely avoid other people’s company, the past few years have not been enough to re-program our brains. Therefore, even abstract fears (i.e. decreasing visibility on Google) can cause biological stress and confusion in our minds. Such a small thing can mess us up an otherwise great day. You can’t avoid it, and even if it doesn’t spoil your day, when stressed, the body goes into stress mode, even if we don’t really notice it. More on that later…

Secondly, we are constantly overwhelmed – but at least we function.

Our mind has learned something else, too: There are significantly more impressions than we can handle. For example, if you consciously processed every detail around you when turning your car on a main road, you would never manage to cross the intersection. There are lots of other cars, pedestrians, mad cyclists, road signs and the ALDI billboard is advertising an interesting special offer. Everything is screaming for attention. And what we do? At the same time, we listen to music, talk to the kids in the backseat while slowing down to the perfect speed, switch to the right gear, and think about whether we will go to ALDI afterwards. Real casual. In other words, the IMPORTANT (the driving) runs quite unconsciously alongside the unimportant things we want to achieve.

In other words, we humans are really good at survival! Millions of years of human existence has established great automatisms in us – which then run unconsciously. The happiness hormone dopamine is released and increases our sense of well-being. But, if we suddenly get stressed and a cyclist makes a drastic turn around the corner, the body overrides the well-being and the stress and adrenaline kicks in. Among other things, adrenaline causes a stronger circulation of the extremities, a higher coagulation ability and a focus on so-called fight or flight instincts. All this made sense for millions of years, and increased the likelihood of our ancestors surviving the encounter with a sabre-tooth tiger. Now, however, with the “civilized” stress of the modern world, these primal instincts are more of a nuisance. In some cases they can be useful – for example, in traffic, it helps you to focus on driving. However, if you want to give a lecture or go through a complex payment process, the coagulation ability of your blood doesn’t help you in the slightest, nor does a flight or fight instinct.

The last 20 years of the “online evolution” of humans hasn’t been able to change this, so our Neanderthal brains repeatedly encounter digital surfaces that trigger pretty bad reactions which we can’t do anything about. For example, when you are being asked to give your credit card details to a shop you have no confidence in, or if the payment process is unclear, adrenaline rushes in, causing stress, and triggering a fight and flight instinct. As I said: there are no other options …

Here are some basic tips for how to properly treat the Neanderthal in us on the internet:

7 Tips for the Neanderthal in Us

By the way, don’t simply these hints into simple guidelines – that won’t help with a long-term strategy for success.

1. Visual key stimulants

You’ll have seen this image of an eye-tracking survey before:

When the model looks at the product, the viewers follow their gaze

Figure 1: Easy to recognize: When the model looks at the product, the viewers follow their gaze.

When the woman looks at the product in the photo, our eyes stay there longer. The statement is clear: we direct our gaze to where other people look. People are always an eye-catcher for us (because “togetherness” has been immensely important for millions of years), and we follow the gaze of other people. Consider how you react when the person you’re having a conversation with looks over your left shoulder – you will also probably turn around. Right?

So, get your readers’ attention through glances and through a few other factors:

  1. Babies always attract attention.
  2. The line of sight of the person being photographed will encourage people to follow their gaze.
  3. If anything that historically would have been a danger (e.g. spiders, snakes or similar) appears in the picture, everything else will fade into the background.

Be careful: It’s best not to use symbols indicating danger to attract attention to something. That may work – but the viewer might subconsciously become anxious and stressed. And one of the most important effects of stress (which made sense in cave-man times) is, as I said, the narrowing of the mind and – usually – a flight response. I think that could have a negative effect on your conversion …

2. Selective perception

Now watch this short film.

Video: Selective attention test

Maybe this didn’t work for you, but it would for around 50% of people. The most important thing is: If you look at the movie again, it will definitely NOT work again. By that I mean: You cannot view a video clip in the way your clients or readers would, and if someone notices a trick, it’s always very obvious.

Of course, this also applies to your website. YOU are certainly the worst judge when it comes to usability or meaningfulness. So don’t be surprised if your visitors DO NOT see something that is at the center of things. It’s better to use more sample groups.

And never try to trick people twice.

3. Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience

Jakob Nielsen can probably be described as the US-usability-pope. In any case, he researches a lot and is taken seriously. He has come up with a very clever rule:

    “Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know. Design for patterns for which users are accustomed.”

Video: Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience

In other words: The users expect your site to work like any other page they might visit. A very simple, but very important rule, because it takes the “self-efficacy” – one of the most important personal needs – seriously. This self-efficacy means that we want to feel that we can achieve something with our abilities. For example, if we’re looking for something on a website, we would look to the top right hand corner, because that’s usually where the search box is. If it’s not there, or somehow hidden, we are frustrated and get stressed (see above).

I would like to refine Jakob’s Law a bit: Of course, it’s fine to surprise your readers and buyers, but not as an end in itself. Therefore, pay attention to “vital” functions (where is the search function? Where is the shopping cart? How does navigation work?) for an intuitive layout. And in this context, I would like to present surprisingly ingenious products.

4. Skimmer, scanner, reader

How do you find a website? Often you start with expectations (which are triggered by Google search results, for example), then you look for trust signals in the first few milliseconds, try to get an overview when scanning, and then read the page partially or completely. For me, this looks like a contribution page along the following characteristics:

Yes, of course: First, your visitors will find you somewhere. Maybe on Google, maybe Jameda, maybe elsewhere. From there, they remember a promise that you have made them (consciously or unconsciously). Then they skim the visible area of your website – a good time to win their trust. Then they scan your website to get an overview, and then work their way through from top to bottom or read only what interests them. One thing is important: Someone becomes a reader or buyer only after successfully passing through these three aspects. Now you have the task to make the users happy on exactly these four points. Start by thinking about WHAT you see / perceive, and HOW you make it as useful as possible, or what information is meaningful / important at that point – and what might overwhelm you.

5. The principle of closure or why metaphors make people happy

    “eenie meenie miney mo,…”

I bet you finished the rhyme in your head. Correct? Because we cannot help but fill in the gaps.

And the great thing about this is that after finishing such a ryhme, we’re proud of ourselves and our body gives us a tiny droplet of the happiness hormone dopamine. So even on a purely biological level, we get into a very happy state through rhymes or the recognition of metaphors – because we have solved a simple task.

This means that if you want your readers to feel comfortable, let them complete something. Don’t be too wordy, but use general knowledge so they can think of something as “finished”. These achievements not only make your users happy – the learning effect is significantly higher than with normal reading. This also works in social media. It’s fun, because we think for ourselves and can successfully discover the story behind something.

6. Positive (fitting) mental connections

I find “positive thinking” rather silly and even dangerous. Nevertheless: If we want to be liked, we should create a positive atmosphere. This can be done very easily in terms of language, with the “adjective and connotation technique”. This is a psychological trick to manipulate to put yourself in a positive light:

Come up with twenty (hopefully mostly positive) adjectives for your product / topic / your statement, and twenty (pleasant) words that are related to your topic in a text context (i.e. connotations). For example, for “pizza”, adjectives could be: delicious, crispy, Italian, and connotations could be: wood oven, holiday, white wine, cheese, olives, and so on.

Of course, you don’t need to use all twenty adjectives and connotations in your text. Twenty is a lot – it will take time to come up with them. By using these words, you will create complex, but understandable connections for the reader – which, thanks to the release of dopamine, will greatly benefit them in turn.

7. The online hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is an ancient system that attempts to explain human needs and motivations. This hierarchy of needs has long been outdated for complex relationships, because people can, for example, also strive for self-actualization when they are hungry. However, it still gives a good overview of needs and it works well on a website. Figure 3 shows this hierarchy with “online” keywords.

Figure 2: Read from the bottom up: Physical needs are most important, then safety, etc. (Image source)

Don’t make it too easy for yourself by simply applying this principle to online marketing. Go through the Maslow pyramid from bottom to top based on your goal and your particular situation, and then decide which level you still have to work on.

8. Aftercare: “Buyer’s Remorse Syndrome”

Finally, an example from general sales psychology. I like it a lot and I don’t think it’s too widely used.

It’s about “Buyer’s Remorse”: You know the feeling you get when you buy a new camera for $1,299.00 and you only notice the shortcomings once you’ve bought it. This doesn’t feeld good, and it probably comes from the fact that we mostly decide emotionally – but like to rationalize our decisions. This means that during (or after) the decision-making process, we are looking for rational reasons why we actually want this product. We are also looking for faults in the product. Once the decision is made, we have spent a lot of money (1) and on a product and now we are more aware of the problems or faults. That’s how I explain it.

I think you have two ways to cure or at least alleviate this decision making process:

  1. Help “rationalize” at the end of the process. Even in the shopping cart, you can provide the top reasons to buy the product. Provide long feature lists and the most amazing technical data. Let them forget their objections – that will reassure the buyer.
  2. Take care of the aftercare: Include user tips with the delivery, what they can do with it now that they have it. Maybe offer them a webinar where you can demonstrate how to use and love the product. Or perhaps continue to provide them with ads from their newly purchased product via re-targeting – so that the customer is reminded that they are floating on cloud 9.

And what does that get you? Satisfied customers of course – customers who become ambassadors for your products, and who will hopefully return to your online shop.

So What Happens Now?

These tips won’t automatically give you a boost in sales – for this, you need a great product, a lot of thinking, and intelligent marketing. But if you fulfil these requirements and are willing to work hard, I hope this article provides you with some inspiration for how you can use psychology to improve sales and conversions in your online shop.

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