Lesser-known psychological principles that can improve your conversion rate | by Chris Ashby | Aug, 2021

When it comes to improving the conversion rate of our websites, products, and landing pages, we’re all fairly familiar with the most well-known, commonly cited principles of user psychology.

But dig deeper than those well-known psychological principles and there’s a whole host of others. Lessons and teachings we can draw on from behavioural science and beyond that help us to really get into the minds of our users.

And the more we are aware of, and can teach ourselves to apply (in the right context), the better the performance of our websites, services, and products will become.

Today, I wanted to talk about 3 less well-know psychological principles that we can apply in order to change and guide user behaviour — with the ultimate aim of increasing conversion rate.

But let’s first briefly address conversion rate itself.

Conversion rate can be defined in a myriad ways, and often we just think of it as sales, signups, or orders. Whatever the end results of your user journey is.

For the purposes of this however, what I mean by conversion is simply the action you want the user to take at any given step in their journey.

Conversion is different depending on what we are asking the user to accomplish at any given point, so it stands that we should define it by the individual action at any given point, rather than the outcome of the entire journey.

It could be an email signup, an add to bag action, a checkout, an enquiry made, you name it. What your conversion objective is will be different depending on your user journey, and the stage you user is in that journey.

So with that covered, let’s get into psychology.

As human beings, we understand everything in context.

What I mean by that, is that everything we come into contact with, is interpreted through the lens of our experiences and knowledge up to that point. Our experience and knowledge is the context for our understanding.

Neuroscientist and TED speaker Beau Lotto says “we’re all delusional,” because, in effect, the context through which we interpret the world is a personal delusion of reality — and that delusion is slightly different for everyone.

So why does this matter for business, and for our websites and products?

Well, our users also experience this when they seek to understand what we are offering, and what we are selling. Meaning that everything they come into contact with on your website or product is entirely understood through their previous experiences and knowledge — their pre-defined context.

Because of this disparity in how we understand our service, product, or the experience we are providing, and how our user understands it, we need to take extra steps to connect the two together.

This means making a concerted effort to first understand the context our users are projecting onto what we offer — their personal delusion.

And because that personal delusion will be slightly different for each user, the most powerful thing we can then do is this:

Set the context for the user up-front — instead of allowing them to use their own pre-defined context.

Make the context of your product, service or brand clear before the user engages with it. Give them the framework to understand your product, before they attempt to understand it. Join the dots between their personal assumptions and how you want them to see it.

This is a principle that also crops up in storytelling, and is called ‘defining the outer boundaries’ by Invisible Ink author Brian McDonald in his podcast ‘You Are A Storyteller.’

What ‘defining the outer boundaries’ means, is that for a story to make sense, we need to define the constraints of the world of the story up-front. This way, anything that happens afterwards makes sense.

As human beings we seek to create patterns, to organise information in our heads. Because of this, we need to drop clues that define the constraints for our user, or in this instance the reader of our story, so that they can connect the dots themselves.

In a story, if we establish first that magic allows people to go invisible, then when someone goes invisible using magic, the reader knows exactly why, and won’t be surprised by it.

If we don’t establish that up-front however, it just serves to confuse and frustrate them, just as it would for our users using our product, website or service if we don’t establish its context early on.

This could be explaining the basics behind how it works, setting the right expectation for the user of what happens next, showing the product in use, creating a step by step onboarding journey, showcasing the user interface when the user signs up, or demonstrating how the product functions when the user receives it.

We know from psychology that people who are motivated by an internal drive, outperform those who are motivated by something externally.

This is the difference by intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is when we are motivated to perform a behaviour because it is personally rewarding, or makes us feel a certain way about ourselves.

Intrinsic motivation is built into the core of who we are and how we make decisions, rather than extrinsic motivation which is about incentivising action through external reward, or superficial gain.

Lots of products or services often make the mistake of staying within the confines of extrinsic motivation. Incentivising through reward, sharing progress, or status, rather than digging deeper into the internal motivations of their users.

That‘s’ not to say extrinsic motivation doesn’t have a place. Just that at some point, you should try and transition your users from extrinsic motivations, to intrinsic, in order for them to truly gain value from what you offer.

The use of intrinsic motivation comes through building internal motivation that aligns with your users in increasing amounts through the user journey.

You need to move your users from extrinsic motivation — ie. I need to solve this immediate tangible problem now, to intrinsic motivatino — ie. If I do this then I will feel confident/be happier/have more time/learn the skills I need.

The transition can be difficult to get right, and it often takes a lot of testing, trial & error, as well as user research and sifting through data to understand exactly the right point to introduce intrinsic motivation.

You want your users to get intrinsic value from you, and be motivated to support you through intrinsic motivation, not just external incentives.

And when it comes to brand advocacy, increasing customer lifetime value, and building emotional relationships with your users, there’s no better tool.

Think about how you can align your product or brand with your users internal motivations, how you can introduce new motivations that are driven by internal accomplishment, and how you can even allow your users to track and share those.

Setting and achieving goals is quite a common part of many products and services. They crop up in fitness apps, learning platforms, agency proposals, and so much more.

But the most powerful goals are not those based on performance, but are instead those based on mastery.

And going back to intrinsic vs extrinsic, Mastery is more intrinsic, and therefore more motivating for the user.

Mastery also often allows the user to take what they’ve learnt, and apply it themselves, moving forwards on their own without relying on you to complete a service.

Because of this, applying mastery goals instead of just performance goals, can increase the perceived value from the user, which allows you to not only increase customer lifetime value, and increase conversion, but also increase the price of what you are offering.

When it comes to using goals to drive user behaviour, we need to ensure we have a balance between both performance and mastery, and that both of those types of goals appear in the user journey at the right time.

Think about how you can introduce mastery goals at different points in your user journey, and what mastery goals look like for your users.

  • What new skills are you helping your users master through your product, service, or website?
  • What are you teaching them, and how are you helping them grow?
  • What new process is your product helping your user with, and how can you empower them to master that process?

Once you know that you can then reverse engineer mastery goals that align with your value proposition, your product, and your brand. Think about:

  • What goal can you assign to the mastery of a certain skill?
  • How can you create a journey that allows the user to master something?
  • How can you change any performance based goals you have into a mastery goal?

For example, maybe it would be more useful to get your user be able to complete something from memory than to complete it a certain number of times?

Changing your perspective on setting goals from performance to mastery can increase the engagement from your users, and also increase conversion rate.

You can also use this principle when looking at the copy on your website or product. This works particularly well when combining with a value-add to a purchase or signup as well — for instance, if your company sells coffee grounds, you could offer a free brewing guide with the first order, using the copy: ‘master the art of impeccable coffee making.’

This both increases conversion rate, increases the user’s perceived value of the product, and also begins to build an emotional connection with the user as well — increasing the likelihood of them becoming a brand advocate and ordering from you again.

There are a myriad different techniques we can use to increase conversion through user behaviour, including the three detailed above.

The most important thing to remember when you look to use any of these, or any other psychological principle, to change user behaviour is this:

Use the right technique for the right point in the user journey

There’s no point taking all of this information if you just blindly apply it across the entire user journey. Your user’s experience is a story, and at each point you need to use the right technique to give your user the best chance of progressing.

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