Your brain on sales. Your brain on sales.

The 7 psychological triggers to boost your eCommerce store’s sales

Someone recently asked me which marketing books I would recommend to help them sell more online. Without hesitation, I pointed them to Influence and Pre-Suasion by Dr. Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University. 

Psychological triggers are a major factor in marketing—your goal is to use the right words and right pictures to inspire someone to purchase your product. In Influence and Pre-Suasion, Cialdini focuses heavily on time-tested, extremely effective psychological triggers that anyone can use, whether online or offline, to help them influence customers and boost their sales:

  1. Reciprocity
  2. Commitment and consistency
  3. Social proof
  4. Authority
  5. Liking
  6. Scarcity
  7. Unity

In this article, we’ll take a look at each of those seven triggers and examine how you can apply them to your online store to increase the efficacy of your marketing and grow your sales.

1. Reciprocity

Reciprocity is a deeply ingrained part of human nature: when someone gives you something, you’re compelled to return the favor. Chances are that you’ve bought some things that you might not have originally wanted because of this principle.

Don’t believe me? If you’ve ever gone to Costco, you’ve probably seen this principle in action. According to team that runs Costco’s samples program, the act of giving away samples can result in up to a 2,000 percent increase in sales.

Of course, as online retailers, you can’t physically hand your customer a sample when they visit your store like a brick-and-mortar retailer. And it might not be cost effective to offer to mail out samples of your products. So, with those limitations in place, how can you use reciprocity to grow your sales?

One thing you can do: find ways to offer digital extras for free. For example, skincare brand Murad provides users with a quiz to give recommendations for the face cleanser that matches their skin type and preferences. It’s not only a sales technique, it’s something that’s genuinely helpful—and, as a result, can trigger reciprocity instincts in the customers who glean some value.

Murad's online quiz creates reciprocity.

Another tactic is too add free samples alongside a customer’s order. This is a great way to earn reciprocity in the moment—and, if the customers like what they get, it’s a good way to sell even more products to them in the future. Cosmetic and beauty companies love this strategy, as demonstrated by Ulta Beauty:

Ulta creates reciprocity with a giveaway.

2. Commitment and consistency

Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution and not followed through with that goal? According to Cialdini, your brain is trained to treat any new opportunity or goal as a threat. With the second principle of commitment and consistency, Cialdini suggests you make small incremental commitments. 

For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds before Christmas by going to the gym three times a week, instead of committing to going to the gym, make small incremental commitments such as:

  • Putting on your gym shoes
  • Getting in your car
  • Driving to the parking lot of your gym
  • Entering the gym

As a retailer, how you can use this to your advantage is to get customers to make small commitments to your brand. Eyeglass company Warby Parker capitalizes on this psychological principle with their home try-on program. They send you five frames to try out for five days for free. You only pay for the one or ones you like, and send the rest back.

Warby Parker's home try-on gets customers to commit.

They say there’s no commitment to make a purchase. But, very similar to Costco samples, customers feel a sense of commitment the minute they get the samples.

Another way to get shoppers to make small commitments is to get them to customize and design a product. This is what Indochino, a men’s clothing retailer, does by prominently showing a “Customize Now” button in every product page.

Indochino's customization feature builds commitment.

3. Social proof

If you’re anything like me, anytime you see a crowded restaurant, you think to yourself, “I should try this place out.” That’s social proof principle in action. It’s our tendency to like things or products that other people already like, whether we know them or not. 

Does social proof actually work? According to a study by Nielsen, 83 percent of consumers trust product recommendations from their friends and family. So… yes, social proof works.

There are a few ways you can use the principle of social proof to grow your store’s sales.

You can use reviews, testimonials, social media feeds, and user-generated content to turn your customers into brand advocates. By showing real people who love your products and use them, you’re letting other shoppers know your products have been vouched for—and there are lots of satisfied customers using the products out in the wild. It’s particularly effective to use photos and videos here, since those allow customers to craft of vision of themselves using the products in those ways. (This also dovetails with another psychological trigger, unity, which we’ll hit later in the article.)

Check out this example by Wool and the Gang in which they showcase the clothes that their customers created using their product. By including photos and Instagram handles, it’s clear this user-generated content comes from real people enjoying the product.

Wool and the Gang uses social proof.

But social proof doesn’t even need to be that complicated—or overt. One very easy method is to showcase a “Most popular” or “Best sellers” collection on your site—that alone gives a handful of your top products a boost of social proof. Here’s how Maple Holistics highlights their best-selling products on their home page:

Maple Holistics showcases its bestsellers.

4. Authority

There’s a reason why the Nike’s Jordan Brand subsidiary hit $3.14 billion in the past fiscal year. When you have an industry expert, in this case Micheal Jordan, arguably one of the best basketball players of all time, as a spokesperson to represent your brand, people are more likely to trust you and purchase your products. 

However—and this is just a hunch—you probably can’t afford to hire Michael Jordan to endorse your products. Fortunately, you don’t have to. You don’t need to recruit a major celebrity or even a smaller social media influencer to lend a sense of authority to your brand. Instead, you can establish your brand as an authority. 

An example of this is Dovetails Vintage, a UK-based arts and craft online store. They have monthly in-person workshops to teach people basic and advanced painting techniques:

Dovetails Vintage holds classes to build authority.

Another example is REI, one of the most popular camping and outdoor sports retailers in North America. They have an entire section of their website called “Expert Advice” with detailed, helpful, insightful guides on everything from setting up a tent when you’re camping to avoiding blisters when you’re running a marathon. Through this content marketing play, REI firmly establishes itself as an authority in the outdoor space—and, as a result, when someone’s looking to buy a product for their next outdoor endeavor, they now trust that REI is the smart place to go to get it.

5. Liking

Great salespeople don’t just talk business with a customer—they want to get to know the customer. That’s because we’re more likely to say “yes” to a request if we have a positive connection to the person making it.

So, how do you use this principle to help you sell? Tell your story. Showcase who’s behind your brand, your values, your company culture, and what you like to do. The majority of people, especially younger people, consider a company’s values when they make a purchase—so share your values, help customers get to know you and like you, and make the sale.

Here’s an example of how Hiut Denim uses their site to tell their story—from why they picked their town for the business to how they’re committed to bringing more environmentally-friendly processes to the denim industry.

Hiut Denim's story showcase.

6. Scarcity

When something is in limited supply, its value and our desire for it suddenly tends to go up. That’s human nature dating back to our ancient ancestors—and it can work well for your marketing purposes.

ModCloth uses the scarcity principle by highlighting products that are about to go out of stock so that customers who are interested in those products don’t miss out. Notice they leave the product that’s out of stock on the page—that’s a signal that they’re not bluffing about low stock; their stuff really can and will sell out.

ModCloth's sense of scarcity.

They also have a “Back by Demand” page because, presumably, these products flew off the shelf previously due to their popularity and could sell out again at any moment.

ModCloth's back by demand section.

7. Unity

This seventh principle behind the psychology of selling is from Cialdini’s latest book, Pre-Suasion. The concept is “unity,” and it’s predicated on the idea that brands and their customers don’t just have shared values and ideas, but also shared identities. 

People naturally categorize themselves based on different groups—from things like gender or nationality to circles of friends. Those groups help us feel connected, feel like we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves. And, as a result, we take actions in line with being a part of those groups—proudly buying what they buy, doing what they do, and acting how they act. So if you can demonstrate how buying your product is a natural extension of a person’s “membership” to a group, you can take advantage of the unity principle to increase your sales.

Patagonia is a good example of the unity principle in action. Yes, they sell durable and fashionable outdoor gear. But, their best customers aren’t just the people who want warm coats or even those that love doing stuff outdoors—their best customers are ones who view themselves as activists who are fighting to preserve the outdoors. So they demonstrate their connection to that group in many ways, like the images and language they use. 

Patagonia creates a sense of unity.

They also demonstrate their connection by going to a place that many brands won’t: They take a stand on polarizing topics. For instance, they wrote a blog post to speak out against the American government when public land from the Bears Ears National Monument was taken away. The article will undoubtedly alienate some people—however, by speaking directly to Patagonia’s target customers, they can aim to more than make up for any lost sales.

Patagonia takes a stand in a blog post.

Key takeaways

Each of Cialdini’s seven principles really boil down to one core principle: Decrease the risk of people saying “no” to buying your product. What’s the main underlying reason someone decides not to buy something from you? They don’t believe the product is worth it. You can overcome that objection by using psychological triggers that will guide your customers toward seeing why your products are worth buying, how they fill a need in the customer’s life, and how you’re the right store to buy from.

  • Reciprocity. We’re more likely to do someone a favor if they’ve done one for us. While there are some roadblocks to an eCommerce business passing out free samples, you can trigger reciprocity by delivering other types of value.
  • Commitment and consistency. Once people make small commitments, they’re more likely to stick it through. By getting a customer to make a small commitment, it can lead to them making a larger commitment down the road.
  • Social proof. We want to see other people vouching for something before we do it. So leverage things like reviews, testimonials, user-generated content, and even top-selling products to demonstrate how many people out there are satisfied by what you’re selling.
  • Authority. Establish yourself as an authority in your space to help customers feel confident in buying from you.
  • Liking. If people like you, they’re more likely to buy from you. So showcase the people behind your brand and your brand’s values.
  • Scarcity. It’s human nature to want something more if there’s a limited supply. Use your website to show off when you are low on inventory to encourage customers to snap up what’s left.
  • Unity. People strongly identify with groups, and make decisions in accordance with those groups. Cater to your target customers’ groups in order to convert them into passionate, repeat shoppers.
Ramli John
Ramli John is a Growth Marketer at Jilt. He is based out of Toronto, Canada, the land of poutines and maple syrup lollipops. When not knee-deep in data to uncover growth opportunities for Jilt, you can catch Ramli sipping his upteenth coffee cup for the day while podcasting about the latest trends in marketing for Growth Marketing Today.

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