As an online store owner, you have a series of obstacles to overcome. First, you have to build your brand and launch a user-friendly website. Then, you need to drive traffic to that website. And after all that work, you still have to convince visitors through effective product pages, copywriting, and photography to make a purchase from your website.
It can be difficult to get people to say yes to what you’re asking them to do. Anyone who sells in-demand or trending products for a living, online or offline, should know these six ways to use marketing psychology to drive sales.
What is marketing psychology?
Marketing psychology is the study of human consumer behavior and how shoppers react to marketing and advertising, engage with brands, and ultimately decide how to spend their money. The psychological aspect examines why people behave the way they do and make the decisions they make. We look at what influences purchasing decisions, and how brands and marketers can create campaigns to cater to these behaviors.
Six ways to influence customers with marketing psychology
If you read sales or marketing books, you may be familiar with Robert Cialdini’s Influence. This book defines and explores key areas of psychological persuasion techniques for brands to focus on. We adapted these ideas and added some more to the following list.
Now, let's see how to use marketing psychology to build some psychological triggers into your online store.
The principle of reciprocity in marketing psychology means that when someone gives us something, we feel compelled to give them something back in return. Have you ever gone to Costco and ended up with an unplanned sausage purchase because you felt an obligation to buy after you tried a free sample? That was the principle of reciprocity in action.
Of course, online retailers can’t personally visit the house of each person who interacts with them to shove a sample in their hand. So how can you make reciprocity work for you?
Free gift with purchase
You might not be able to offer something in advance, but you can definitely offer something alongside. This tactic is a favorite of cosmetic and beauty products. Your free gifts can also include product samples. Wellness brand Anima Mundi Apothecary incentivizes conversions and higher cart values by offering free samples once shoppers reach a certain dollar amount.
Even if you don’t advertise the gift in advance, slipping samples of other products into your shipped product is a marketing psychology technique that can encourage repeat purchases.
The gift of content
Content marketing is an effective way for online retailers to provide value to potential buyers as they move through your customer journey map. For example, underwear brand Boody taps into this principle with its marketing efforts through a fun blog post breaking down the differences between brief and bikini underwear—two products the brand sells itself.
COOLA, which sells sunscreen and other sun-related skin care products, taps into the psychology of buying by helping potential customers figure out the right SPF and product for them with an interactive quiz. This also gives the brand insightful data into its audience.
Whether it’s a guide for how to make the perfect vinaigrette or an exclusive author interview, use content as an ethical bribe that makes people feel grateful toward your business.
Surprise and delight
While advertising free gifts, pre-purchase is a great way to drive first-time purchases and tap into the psychology of shopping. Using a surprise and delight approach means you don’t tell customers ahead of time about what they’ll get for free. Instead, they’ll find out when they receive their order that you’ve thrown in a freebie.
Not only does this help drive customer retention and word of mouth, but it also introduces customers to new products that they otherwise may not have discovered.
2. Social proof
Social proof is more important than ever—people are engaging with customer reviews now more than pre-pandemic. And brands with ratings less than 4 out of 5 stars are at a serious disadvantage, as consumers don’t trust them.
Social proof is connected to the principle of liking. Because we’re social creatures, we tend to have a cognitive bias toward things other people already like, whether we know them or not. Anything that shows the popularity of your site and your products can be a psychological trigger.
Gluten-free vegan snack brand Partake Foods is a merchant that frequently uses customer reviews on its website.
Using social media for social proof
Social proof psychology can also happen off your website, such as on social media. Influencer marketing has become commonplace in ecommerce. Those online comments about your brand and products can generate interest and, in turn, sales.
One approach to using social proof on social media is to partner with an influencer, creator, or celebrity. That’s exactly what HELM Boots does. By highlighting Liz Lambert in a pair of its boots, the brand has given it a sheen of desirability.
Display what others are interested in
Have you ever mentally saluted someone’s taste who was wearing the same shoes or shirt as you? You probably felt a quick connection with that person based solely on that one commonality.
Stores can play off that idea by presenting products that are similar to what the person is browsing. Amazon is famous for this approach. It has two ways to show other products that are popular among shoppers.
It displays which other products customers researched as well as purchased in the buying process.
Pet care brand Pawtitas has adopted this approach on its product pages. Scroll down beneath the photos and description, and you’ll see a carousel of items others were interested in after looking at the main product.
Scarcity marketing refers to when people are motivated to act by the possibility of missing out on an opportunity. Call it the Eternal Teenager Principle: if someone tells you you can’t have it, you may want it even more.
Announcing scarcity only gets you half of the way there, however. You need to give your audience enough information to act on the opportunity. A simple “we only have 10 left!” message and no obvious path to purchase the product would do a disservice to your message and cause needless frustration.
Sales that are ending
You can run temporary sales with discounts on selected items to incentivize purchases. Be sure to let shoppers know the deal won’t last forever so they feel a sense of urgency to make the purchase while they still can.
The example below from women’s fashion brand Valija shows a promotional website banner highlighting its “limited time only” buy one, get one free sale.
Impending out-of-stock announcements
Items about to be taken off of shelves have an element of scarcity built in. If a product is a sample sale or being discontinued, it may be worth highlighting that fact so interested customers don’t miss out.
Display a counter or a number somewhere to show exactly how many items are left. Note whether the product will be restocked or not. If so, give shoppers the option to sign up for a back-in-stock notification if they happen to miss their chance.
Seasonal or limited products
Every March when my friend gets her green Shamrock Shake from McDonald’s, she crows with happiness all over social media. She wouldn’t be nearly as excited if she could walk in and get it any time—the knowledge that supply is limited motivates her and creates a thrill around exclusivity.
That’s exactly how I feel about my pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks, and Starbucks knows other customers feel the same way.
But you don’t have to have the brand recognition these businesses have to tap into this marketing psychology tactic. Fashion designer Tery D’Ciano has basically found business success on this principle alone. She makes every item by hand and purchases a limited amount of supplies to execute, so every drop has a limited quantity of items for purchase—you have to get the new designs before they sell out!
There’s a whole psychology to product pricing alone. The price of your product represents the size of a risk someone is going to take on. In other words, people will be a lot more choosy over a $10,000 product than one that costs $1.
Product bundling is when you combine two or more items that are typically available for individual sale into a single “product” available for purchase. This bundle of items is available at a flat price for shoppers. In some cases, you might discount the bundled pricing. In others, you might add markup to accommodate extras like gift wrapping.
Regardless of your approach, product bundling can increase the perceived value of a purchase. Customers may be able to get a discount if they purchase all the items at once—if you sell hair care, for example, you might bundle shampoo, conditioner, and hair gel together for a small discount.
In other instances, the value-add is convenience. Maybe you have a bundle of gift items, in which case the customer doesn’t need to worry about shopping around for gifts. You might also package this bundle in a nice gift basket or box so the customer doesn’t have to worry about wrapping it either.
Show price comparisons
Also consider price comparison. A consumer will be a lot more willing to purchase your item if you can show it’s competitively priced. If your price point is more affordable than competitors, this can be a viable way to influence the sale.
You can also do this to compare the price points of your own products. Shoppers might be trying to decide between two of your items, so you can offer product and price comparisons to help. This is exactly what Prolux Cleaners does on its product pages, as you can see here:
5. Loss aversion
Marketing psychology boils down to finding non-obvious ways to reduce perceived risk for shoppers through persuasion tactics. For example, by using appeals to authority, you decrease the risk of a “yes.” Someone who says yes (to your appeal to buy a product) can always point to the authority you’ve demonstrated to rationalize their purchase. With scarcity, there’s an inherent increase in the risk of a “no.” Someone who declines an offer now might miss out down the line.
Using the psychology of influence can decrease the risk of “yes” through social proof, authority, and unity, or increase the risk of “no” via scarcity, consistency, and reciprocity. The idea of loss aversion essentially states we experience losses much more intensely than we experience gains of the same level.
Identify the loss and the gain
Effective marketing addresses specific pain points and how the product alleviates those pain points. The loss is the pain point, and the gain is the product, or the solution that product allows the customer to achieve. When marketing your items, you’ll want to think about highlighting the loss as much as possible, while also describing the gain.
For example, this homepage banner from Pourri does an effective job at addressing both. It highlights the pain point of bad pet odor and how life without its products is smelly. Then the copy talks about how its product Pet-Pourri can eliminate those odors and leave you with a fresh-smelling space—the gain.
Free samples and trials
If you can, offer free samples before someone makes a purchase. The principle of “try before you buy” is one of the most surefire ways to make a consumer feel confident in making a purchase. This approach works particularly well if you sell consumable products, like food and beverage, skin care and cosmetics, and other health and wellness items. If you have a subscription-based business, you can offer a free or discounted first box.
When people can experience the product firsthand, they can see what they’ve been missing out on—and what they risk continuing to miss out on if they don’t take action. No one wants to miss out on a great experience, and you can demonstrate that through free samples and product trials.
6. Commitment and consistency
As it relates to the psychology of selling, the psychological principles of commitment and consistency says that people will go to great lengths to appear consistent in their words and actions, even to the extent of doing things that are basically irrational.
That’s why if you’re trying to make a change in your life (losing weight, for example) it can be very helpful to share your goal. Once you’ve committed publicly, you’ll have much more incentive to keep up your end of the bargain.
As a retailer, if you can understand the psychology of buying and get customers to make a small commitment to your brand—like signing up for your email newsletter—they’ll be more likely to purchase from you eventually. And if you can actually get products in their hand, even if there’s no official commitment to buy them, your chances increase even more.
This is the principle behind Warby Parker’s Home Try-On program.
Warby Parker knows that with a product that sits in your line of vision all day (literally), look and fit are important. It also knows that if it can get a set of frames in your hands, it’s a majority of the way toward making a sale—that’s the power of understanding the psychology of shopping.
So Warby Parker makes it as frictionless as possible: Order the samples, get the box, order the frames you want, and send the box back for free. They say there's no commitment, but they're wise students of Cialdini. They know the customer feels the commitment the minute they open the box.
Make it easy to commit with easy returns
You can apply the commitment and consistency principle to your returns policy, too. In one study conducted by Narvar, nearly three-quarters of consumers said they’d be more likely to buy from a company that has a “no questions asked” returns policy.
Zappos and REI are two brands with famously easy return policies that are great examples of this. There’s less friction for the customer to buy because they know if they don’t like it, they can easily get their money back. But once they have the product in their hands, will they really return it? Maybe not. They’re already committed.
Stay true to your brand
Though it can be tempting to get caught up in the theories behind website personalization and conversion rate optimization (CRO), it’s important to remain authentic. You don’t want to sacrifice your brand identity for the sake of making a sale. In fact, your brand and marketing psychology tactics should work hand in hand.
Authenticity and consistency build trust. When consumers trust your brand, they’re more likely not only to make purchases from your brand but also to spread the word about your mission and products—allowing you to further tap into that social proof benefit we talked about earlier.
Sprinkle these marketing psychology techniques throughout your site and watch your sales go up.
Marketing psychology FAQ
What is marketing psychology?
Marketing psychology is the study of human behavior and how consumers react to marketing and advertising, engage with brands, and ultimately decide how to spend their money.
How is psychology used in marketing?
Psychology is used in marketing by businesses so they can understand how consumers make purchasing decisions. They can then devise strategies to meet those behaviors and trigger specific actions.
Why do we need psychology in marketing?
We need psychology in marketing so we can understand how consumers make purchasing decisions. When we understand that, we can learn how to create marketing strategies to effectively promote products and drive sales.
What is a psychological marketing strategy?
A psychological marketing strategy taps into consumers’ subconscious to appeal to them to take specific actions, be it making a purchase or converting in some other way.