7 Psychological Biases to (Ab)use in Your Website Content

It’s a mistake to build your website on the assumption of rational decision making. The human mind is imperfect.

To make decisions in a world of infinite complexity, we abandon rationality and turn to psychological biases. These mental shortcuts help us deal with overwhelming amounts of information.

Your website visitors face infinite complexity as well. Whether they buy from you or not doesn’t depend on an economic equation, but on a collection of psychological biases. The winners are those who know how to play into these biases and structure their website content accordingly.

Here are the most important biases you should use on your website.

1
Social proof

Our Western society glorifies individuality. But how individual are we, really? The scientific answer: not at all.

Subconsciously, we base most of our decisions on what others think, say, and do. And throughout most of history, it's been the smart thing to do.

Natural selection has cleansed ancient societies from those celebrated stubborn individuals, from those that resisted the urge to climb up the trees while everyone else was doing so ("Lion? I don't see any lion?""Behind you!").

This psychological bias for following what others are doing is called social proof , and it comes in many variants.

In a commercial context, the most common variation is the bandwagon effect. It states that people believe things because a certain number of others do. That a product is worth the buy, for example.

50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong Album Cover

A prominent marketing content example dates back as far as the 50s. RCA Records simply named Elvis’ album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, reminding consumers just how many others sing along with them. The huge number of previous buyers is used as proof for quality.

In 2016’s eCommerce, this strategy still very much alive. Showing user or customer numbers is the equivalent to 1959’s hit-single-collection-made-marketing-stunt. Check out Hubspot's social media collection. Who am I to claim all these people are wrong?

Display of Hubspot's user numbers

In a related effect, in-group favoritism, people favor members of their own group. As individuals we are part of many groups. These can be based on similar beliefs, values, attitudes or taste. These ‘scenes’ have a significant influence on how we act.

Your perspective on life comes from the cage you were held captive in.

Shannon L. Alder

Again, social media figures are the go-to way to harness this bias in your website content. Facebook has its default plugin container look up which friends of a user are already connected to a brand or site. If I see my buddy liked a certain service, I'll be more receptive to the offering.

A variation of this content strategy is put to use through the “people who bought this also bought that” method. Like on the below Amazon page, the user is shown a related products section. But instead of being based on labels, Amazon links to those products that others who bought the viewed item also bought. Who am I to argue with someone with such a sophisticated taste like mine?

Related products section on Amazon.com

The in-group bias makes this more trustworthy than a company simply claiming that one book is similar to another.

Peers are indeed a great source of persuasive power. According to the authority bias, experts are too. People tend to adopt the opinion of allegedly knowledgeable others. Exploiting this psychological bias in website content can boost your credibility.

As seen below, developer company 6 Wunderkinder drops the names of brands using their app Wunderlist. It’s a great way to sparkle some fame onto a comparably smaller business.

List of partners of 6 Wunderkinder

Testimonials, user ratings, and endorsements are other crafty social shortcuts to make authority bias work for you. Use the strong voices of industry insiders, influencers, or celebrities to suggest expertise in the field the product belongs to.

Expert testimonials on Userlike homepage
Customer testimonials on Userlike’s homepage. Two CEO's from prominent eCommerce shops, and one influencer in the German eCommerce scene.

2
IKEA effect

A Harvard Business School research found that the more consumers engage in co-creating a product, the more satisfied they are with it. In reference to the Swedish self-assembly concept, they coined the term IKEA-effect.

Add to that MIT’s finding that “customer requirements have shifted from accepting standardized products to demanding highly customized products”, and you have a psychological bias businesses must tackle in their website content.

Product configurators are a powerful lever. Harvard’s research also showed that labor makes the valuation of completed products rise not only for DIY-fans but also for uninterested consumers. So, configurators help satisfy DIY-lovers and attract random web visitors. Since consumers accept higher prices for high-value products, they are especially useful for upselling.

Nike's iD shoe configurator
A fancy configurator example: Nike’s iD-service

These configuration processes shouldn't become too complex, however. There should always be another way to choose products on a site. According to the concept of decision fatigue, too many options support the tendency not to make any decision at all.

3
Framing effect

People evaluate information based on how it is presented. An ugly painting in a beautiful baroque frame is still an ugly painting. But with the right ornaments, it can suddenly appear geniously rough or even classy. The psychological bias to shift of attention from relevant to irrelevant information is quite fittingly called framing.

While the example focuses only on the direct impact of a visual change, most framing happens on a more abstract level. Which is where website content can make a big difference. A popular form of framing is the contrast effect. It says that the attractiveness of an option can be increased by comparing it to a lesser choice.

Compared to a worse product of similar kind, people tend to rate a product higher than they would if they saw it independently. Use comparisons right and you’ll cover several biases at once.

Communication channel comparison on Userlike live chat homepage

It’s good to state what’s great about a product. But it’s even better to show how a product is better than an alternative. It works in direct comparison to a competitor, to similar items, or, as done on our landing page, to rivaling communication channels.

This strategy also connects to the distinction bias, according to which people experience a greater difference between two options when looking at both simultaneously.

Pricing comparison between Help Scout and Zendesk

In comparisons it’s also clever to focus on what a product or service succeeds in, instead of what it doesn’t fail at. This rule builds on the feature-positive effect found by researchers Robert Sainsbury and Herbert Jenkins. This psychological bias says that for humans, the presence of a positive information weighs heavier than the absence of a negative one. Help Scout, as seen above, gives their pricing a sweeter taste by reshaping it as savings in comparison to the competitor Zendesk.

Highlighting a great price is more effective than hiding a bad one. But there’s more than that to pricing on websites, especially anchoring. The concept says that people take the first perceived information as a reference for all later input.

A landing page acts as that super important first impression, so you’ll want to do it right and excite in your website content from the start.

example of anchoring in substriction pricing

At some point though, you will need to drop the veil and name your price.

Especially in subscription pricing, a very useful anchoring tool is to confront users with an overly expensive and an overly cheap option. These options are not expected to actually be chosen by many. But they draw customers to the middle option, the “safe bet”. Anchoring also works with less or more options in this example.

TK Maxx products with high discount display

Ever looked at price tags in a TK Maxx? The global fashion outlet is all about the other famous anchor technique: the illusion of bargains.

The former price of a product should be irrelevant for customers. What should matter is whether an item is worth the current price. Huge discounts makes people value a product much higher than they would without the discount information.

4
Anthropomorphizing

Anthropomorphizing, or less jargony, humanizing, is the tendency to ascribe human attributes to inanimate or nonhuman entities. People’s innate drive is to like, and humanizing helps a great deal in connecting to an object, product, or brand.

Mucinex's mascot Mr. Mucus
Mucinex's unbeloved mascot Mr. Mucus

A business’s answer to that is personification. In advertising, most strategies use visual elements embodying the product. Mars Inc. uses the famous red and yellow M&Ms;, for instance. Storytelling is an abstract form of humanizing.

In website content, Tony Zambito argues, “the target is user-centered experience for a detailed buyer persona.” Direct communication is one way to accomplish this. Live chat is a great way to add a human touch to the web experience, eventually making a company more likeable.

Then there’s website text. And too often, it only tells visitors what they’re dealing with but not who. For companies with 'boring' products, humanizing is one of the most necessary, but also challenging, targets to reach.

Now if you don’t want to drop a brick with a mascot and you have a technical product, it comes down to how you speak to visitors. Human language and the right tone of voice in website content are essential here. Outright cold and formal language, by contrast, makes you unapproachable.

RJMetrics' about us page

Implementing a genuine tone is a long-term project and it requires designated copywriters. A great ‘about us’ page can also help you at short notice. RJMetrics, a data infrastructure business (honestly, there are more attractive industries), has one of the best I’ve seen (above). They've managed to humanize a dry company to perfection.

5
Confirmation bias

This psychological bias covers how people favor information that underpins their beliefs and hypotheses, and reject conflicting information.

As 'the mother of all biases', it's very broad and manifests itself in many disguises.

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored

Aldous Huxley

Some time ago we considered a new marketing tool for Userlike . In a demo we were shown how companies that adopted the tool had grown their inbound traffic by 60% over the following years. Great numbers - let’s do it?!

But then you would fall for the confirmation bias. Instead of only looking at the numbers of the companies that invested in this tool, the rational approach would be to compare it with similar companies that did not make use of it.

The case study is one of the most popular tools for exploiting the confirmation bias. It tells users that their individual situation has been simulated with your product and worked out just perfect. Which is exactly what they want to hear. Most case study pages are based on the format HubSpot uses.

Hubspot's case study page

For consumers, the most important question is whether their buying decision is the best they can make, or one they should make at all, all things considered. Since they’ll never finally know if something else would have been better, businesses can please them by relieving them from their doubts. Before, during, and after a purchase.

6
Scarcity Error

We all know the daunting fear of regret and it’s the driving force behind the psychological bias called scarcity error. It describes how people value something irrationally high in anticipation of the pain of its possible loss. Interestingly, in a trade it’s not about the loss of an actual item but merely of the chance to buy it.

Amazon product page

Which almost commands website owners to highlight the low availability of items. This technique has made its way from infamous teleshopping to the biggest webshops of today, and it’s still on the rise.

Booking.com highlighting number of people looking also at product

Booking.com are real masters at triggering a diffuse fear of regret. Above, they do it as subtly by informing users that others are considering the same offer. From there on, the scarcity error takes on a life of its own.

7
Hyperbolic discounting

This voluminous term describes people’s preference for a reward that comes in right away over a later reward of higher value. Which equals decreasing preference over time.

I can imagine how this stems from ancient times when death was a little closer at everyone’s heels. With a real risk of being eaten the next day, one apple today is better than two next week. Up to the present day, there’s nothing as tempting as immediate satisfaction. Even at the expense of higher payoff, like added interest.

PayPal Credit banner

One way to exploit this psychological bias is to lure users with immediate treats. Give customers what they want right away and confront them with the downside, the bill, at a later point. PayPal Credit, formerly called BillMeLater, is a payment method to help you with this before checkouts. Klarna’s highly successful service is quite similar.

PayPal Pay After Delivery banner
PayPal's other payment treat Pay After Delivery

With a quick checkout process and the promise of a fast delivery process, you can create a feeling that the reward is in close reach. Amazon’s Prime and eBay’s Plus flat rates are examples for when users also pay for unlimited immediate rewards.

Amazon Prime advert

The reverse move is to lure users by tormenting them with waiting times. Which is the trademark persuasion tactic of 1-click-hosters and their biggest lever to win paying customers. Since all of their services are available for free, nobody would need to sign up. But slower downloads, temporary bands after every x downloads, or waiting queues make any free service a drag.

Uploaded.to Premium offer
Uploaded's premium offer

For digital products and service providers, offering instant access offers high payoffs. That’s why software companies like to stress how quickly users will be ready to go with their solution.

In the age of online shopping, consumers like to imagine they’re finally independent. They expect to get the best products in the shortest time, on their terms.

In fact though, they’re pinballing from one bias to the other when trying to keep up with their expectations. Or, as Andrew Nichols of kulea.me put it, “we’re funny creatures, us apes.”