Sales & Marketing

Understanding the real-world behaviour of online consumers

Business Advice | 1 February 2017 | 7 years ago

Many consumers shop online to distract themselves
To improve conversion rates and turn users into buyers, online retailers need to better understand the psychology of the buying brain, writes chief operating officer at optimisation specialists AWA Digital, Johann Van Tonder.

Most independent online retailers now understand the importance of tracking the behaviour of online consumers on their website. Many will have analytics and research tools plugged in and gathering data, ready to delve into in-depth research so they can start optimising their site’s performance and conversion rate.

However, one vital step that is often missed is taking the time to understand the basics of the psychology of buying because after all, what you will be trying to influence is human behaviour.

It is easy to see the conversion rate metric as black and white, because ultimately a user has either made a purchase or not. In the mind of online consumers, however, it is not that clear cut.

To improve your conversion rate, you need to knock down the hurdles that trip the buying brain, and that means aligning your website with the way the buying brain works.

Why do people buy?

The terms ‘shopping? and buying? are often used interchangeably, but there is a big difference between shopping, a popular leisure activity, and actually completing a purchase.

Retailer research has shown that a large portion of mobile phone shopping takes place purely because people are trying to find diversion from everyday tasks, so inevitably your website is likely to have far more visitors who are there to browse than buy.

The challenge is to turn more of them into buyers, more frequently, and get them to spend more when they do buy.

What makes people buy?

The reason for making a purchase is not always what it appears to be on the surface. For example, someone doesnt buy slimming tablets because they want to be taking more pills, or even to lose weight their goal is to feel better about themselves.

This is the difference between what you are selling and what your customer is buying. A retailer of outdoor clothing for kids may be selling waterproof coats, but what the mum is buying is the rosy-cheeked smile of her child playing happily in the rain.

It is important in ecommerce optimisation to be aware of the true reasons why your customers buy, and how the decision-making process works.

One of the best-known experts on persuasive psychology, Dr Robert Cialdini, wrote about the six ways of getting people to say yes? without thinking first, something that online retailers can apply directly.

(1) Reciprocation

When you enter a top-end department store and the assistant offers you a cup of warm herbal tea, this is more than just an innocent, generous gesture. That tea is likely to create a feeling of indebtedness towards the shop assistant, easily settled by buying something from the store. The free unexpected gift? method can also be used by some ecommerce retailers.

(2) Commitment and consistency

Once weve committed to doing something, we face internal and societal tension if we don’t see it through. If you want someone to fill in an online form, initially you may just ask for some small piece of information such as a name or email address, and then once theyve started the process by giving you that data, theyve made a commitment and will be more willing to give much more extensive information later.

(3) Social proof

We tend to look at the actions of others for clues on how we should behave. This is one of the most commonly applied techniques in ecommerce, with testimonials and Facebook Likes? as powerful examples.

We find comfort in the knowledge that others are there with us, as was demonstrated in one project, run by AWA Digital, for a large flower selling website. Adding a simple banner stating Over Ten Million Bouquets Delivered? produced an increase of six per cent in revenue per visitor, reassuring customers that it was a legitimate site to order from.

(4) Liking

We tend to buy from those we like. That’s why so many retailers use photographs of attractive people, to invoke liking by creating the suggestion of similarity. We want to associate with people like us, so online retailers should carefully select testimonials and create About Us pages that align with target personas.

(5) Authority

We are easily influenced by authority figures, especially those with credentials like doctor, professor. Influence can also be achieved by quoting from authoritative sources, citing studies, showing excerpts from academic journals or even just a photograph of someone in a lab coat.


Things tend to increase in value as supply is lessened. We are therefore more likely to buy something if stock is low. This is a frequently encountered tactic on ecommerce sites and is partly behind the psychology of daily deals? sites.

Johann Van Tonder is COO of AWA Digital and co-author of new book, E-commerce Website Optimisation.

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