People don’t often make rational decisions. In fact, the capacity for abstract rational thought is only a recent evolutionary addition to our brains. We’ve mainly gotten by on our emotions and gut feelings. We may think we’re approaching something rationally, but most of the time we use after-the-fact rationalization to justify our intuitive and emotional decision making.
It’s a well-known maxim in marketing that people who are comfortable enough with their current situation aren’t good prospects for buying goods, services, or ideas — they simply don’t care enough to make a change.
All of the specific strategies and tactics that you’ll apply to on-page optimization are aimed at influencing basic human emotions and moving your visitors off their comfortable spot. Direct marketers Bob Hacker and Axel Andersson have defined several key copywriting concepts that motivate people to act: fear, greed, guilt, exclusivity, anger, salvation, or flattery. Not one of these motivations is rational — all of them are rooted in our fundamental and unchanging emotional nature.
The best way to get visitors to act is to appeal to their fundamental emotional motivations.
Our company has developed a set of hierarchical scales to help us rate Web sites. They’re not precise instruments, but rather tools that help us to focus outward (on our Web site visitors) and then inward (on their emotional state).
Each scale is a continuum of feelings and internal states. A specific design change proposal must be explainable within these scales, and should attempt to “move the needle to the right.” Although the scales are distinct, changes that affect one scale will often have an impact on the others as well.
Anxiety vs. Trust
This is the most basic scale and addresses our feelings of safety and security. Just sitting in front of a Web browser produces anxiety. Giving up personal information, allowing people to contact us, and paying by credit card all have significant fears associated with them.
We can’t expect someone to act unless we first guarantee their safety and security.
Anxious visitors viewing your site may be asking: How will my information be used? Will I get on a spam list? Will I be the victim of identity theft? Will the purchase arrive undamaged and on time? Will I actually get what I ordered? Will unexpected fine print charges be added to my order without my knowledge? Will anyone respond if I have a problem after buying? Will it be easy to dispute or cancel my transaction?
Anything you can do to minimize anxiety will help conversion. This includes clear privacy policies, detailed shipping directions, unconditional return policies, client testimonials, certifications, and trust symbols which show that you conduct business with integrity.
Confusion vs. Clarity
Some sites are simple and intuitive. Most are akin to a busy marketplace with loud hawkers vying for your attention. You’re assaulted with bright colors, boxes, and flashing advertisements. You’re overloaded with too many choices and links. You are drowned in too much text displayed in tiny fonts. You aren’t sure how to navigate the site and find the information you need.
Confused visitors viewing your site may be wondering: Is this a button that I can click or just a graphic? Does “Buy It Now” just put something in my shopping cart or does it actually charge me and place my order? Where am I in the site? How do I get back to the page that I read earlier? Which of these 20 links should I click? Why does this page text not address my particular needs?
Often, too many internal company interests compete for real estate and prominence on important pages. Over time, nothing gets taken away — new items are simply added to the Web page.
Unfortunately, this often leads to a phenomenon know as the “Tragedy of the Commons.” If too many shepherds have unrestricted access to the unregulated common grazing lands, the sheep will overwhelm the grass’s ability to regenerate itself — destroying it for everyone. The individual self-interests of shepherds undercuts the common good.
By emphasizing too many items on a Web page, we destroy visitors’ ability to find key information and paralyze them from making a decision.
Most sites and landing pages have poor information architecture and interaction design. Fixing major usability, coherence, and cognitive problems can have a major impact on conversion rates.
Alienation vs. Affinity
Even if we get over our anxiety and confusion to find the information that we need, we still have to deal with affinity and alienation. We want to be recognized for who we are, understood, and valued. These are subtle issues of identity, tribalism, self-esteem, and belonging.
We’re members of many formal and informal tribes in our lives: fans of a specific sports team, employees of a certain company, drivers of a particular make of car, occupants of a specific ZIP code, and graduates of a certain school. The list is endless. Some of these tribes we chose consciously, others unconsciously. Still others chose us (e.g., the “tribe” of orphaned children, or being a member of a specific racial/ethnic group).
A sense of belonging and being understood is a powerful motivator for people.
The editorial tone of the landing page needs to conform to the visitor’s values and beliefs. Any images of people should also help them to self-identify. Graphic color schemes should match the appropriate palette for their sensibilities. Button text and calls-to-action should also use the language of the target community. By segmenting your visitors and personalizing information for them, you’re much more likely to appeal to their sensibilities and move them to action.
Tim Ash is off this week. This column was originally published on May 14, 2008.