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The six principles of influence in web design

Discover how The Psychology of Persuasion can be applied to improve website design and usability

By Ben Robson
Co-founder, GOAT

In the following article we explore how Dr. Robert B. Cialdini‘s The Six Principles of Influence from the book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” can be applied to website design and how they could be used to improve the usability of your website to make your customers happy.


The Rule of Reciprocation

The Rule of Reciprocation, in its simplest form, is the principle of feeling an obligation to repay someone when they have provided us with something.

A real life example of this in action is the Hare Krishna. They adopted a technique of giving flowers as gifts before asking for a donation. Having received a gift, it subsequently made it much harder for people to refuse a request for a small donation.

How does this rule apply today on the web? Examples include offering free whitepapers and instructional videos. However, companies often get this wrong by requesting something from the user before giving them anything at all.

Don’t ask for too much too early. For example, presenting a user with a ‘sign-up to our email newsletter’ pop up before they have even viewed a page of your website is only going to result in a negative feeling towards your brand.
Avoid asking for personal data before allowing access to content or requiring subscriptions or credit card information for ‘free’ trials.

Start by giving your customers something and ask for as little from them as possible. If you request information later on, your customers are more likely to reciprocate by doing business with the company.

Read more on the Reciprocity Principle in user experience.


The Rule of Consistency

People are driven to be consistent in all areas of life – in what they say and do and their attitudes, opinions, beliefs and values. Once a person makes a decision, takes a stand, or performs an action, they tend to strive to make all future behaviour align to this.

Consistency makes thinking easy, because there’s little thinking needed. If you can get someone to make a commitment, you can trigger the Rule of Consistency and the commitment can be small and seemingly inconsequential.

This can often be seen when consumers stick with brands that they have bought before and trust, even if they are more expensive.


The Rule of Social Proof

The rule of social proof is a fairly straightforward and one we are exposed to a lot on the internet.

Essentially, it’s the act of following others without thinking and can be described as a shortcut for making decisions. If we see others doing something then we often assume that it is the right thing to do. The more people we see doing something, the more likely we perceive it to be correct.

This principle is magnified if the person or people we are following seem similar to us or look like they have similar values, in which case we trust them more.

We see retailers online using this principle in the form of product reviews and trust icons. If you want someone to do something, show others doing it.

Read more on Social Proof in web design.


The Rule of Liking

The Rule of Liking can best be explained using the example of Tupperware parties. Tupperware struggled to sell in store, but when sold in person by people who knew each other, the products then became a success.

People prefer to say ‘yes’ to people they know and like, with the actual product often taking a backseat in the process.
Organisations and brands, both established and start-ups alike, can benefit from this principle and studies have shown the following to be key factors:

  • Similarity – We like people who we perceive are like us
  • Familiarity – Positive interaction with an organisation or person encourages liking
  • Cooperation – We like people who want to help us
  • Association – We like people who share our values
  • Praise – We like people who compliment us, even if we know it isn’t completely without alternative motive

Simple ways to improve the likability of your website include using photos of real people which can help customers remember that they are talking with a human being which may encourage them to be more polite and tolerant.

Including in depth company history and an ‘about us’ web page can also help a customers feel an emotional connection to a brand and not just see it as another website.

Where other rules such as social proof and scarcity can have an instant impact on a user’s action, liking is much longer term and can encourage customer retention.

More on the Liking Principle in website user experience.


The Rule of Authority

There have been many studies that show how people react to symbols of authority such as titles, clothing and reputation of source and users look for similar trust indicators when reviewing a website.

These symbols of authority that are often enough to gain compliance in real life situations aren’t quite so easy to apply to your website.

To establish your organisation or brand as an authority you must first establish genuine credibility through expertise and trustworthiness. Only then can you gain the benefits from clearly displaying ‘as seen in’, ‘awards’ and ‘accreditations’ on your site.


The Rule of Scarcity

People assign more value to opportunities that are less available. Things that are difficult to attain are perceived as more valuable. An example of this in the real world in retail can be seen with the emergence of Black Friday. A limited number of products at discounted prices can send customers into a frenzy.

People fear loss and studies have shown how losses are twice as painful, as gains are enjoyable.

The Rule of Scarcity can be seen in action on product pages highlighting limited stock, another person viewing that product, a sale ending soon, or through invite only social media and flash sale websites.

Read more on the Principle of Scarcity in UX


In conclusion

When looking at your website and business, review with these rules in mind and where possible look to take advantage of them.

The key to effectively employing any of these rules is user research. If you don’t know your users well enough, it is much more difficult to anticipate what will and won’t work.

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