Digital Psychology is a relatively new discipline that combines theory from the worlds of behavioural economics, psychology and digital marketing to create digital communications that are compelling and persuasive to our unconscious minds. 

The great thing about combining social science theory with contemporary digital best practise is that marketers are able to hypothesise and test assumptions on a statistically significant number of subjects (customers) in a relatively short period of time.  

Also, through the medium of A/B and multivariate testing, put the lessons learnt into practise almost immediately.

This means that there should be some excellent proven examples of digital psychology out there on the web, and I’ve taken the opportunity to rank what I think are the top performers.

From small companies, to international giants, all those listed are employing some pretty clever tricks from the digital psychology toolkit.

Is your company one of them? 

Please note, I’ve used theory and heuristics* taken from The GUkU’s digital psychology toolkit as judging criteria.

I’m aware that there are other theories/heuristics/biases out there that I haven’t included, and an awful lot of websites that I haven’t seen, so if anyone has examples/suggestions, please do feel free to mention them in the comments section.

I’ll be looking to update this list in 2015 and I’d love it to feature a completely different set of websites based on your feedback.

*Don’t know what a heuristic is?  Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Check out my previous Econsultancy article on heuristic theory here.

Let the countdown commence!

Adidas Zx Flux familiarity example

10. Adidas Zx Flux shoe app 

Digital psychology tactics used: Effort heuristic and familiarity.

Adidas’s new app allows customers to upload their own images and have them printed onto their new trainers before being delivered. Although still in its early days (and some might say, beta mode), the tool is already proving popular amongst those that can use it.  

But why is it creating so much demand? 

Personalisation triggers two heuristic forces. It introduces familiarity into the equation (even more so when the personalisation encompasses photos taken from your own phone) and it provides clear evidence of the effort the customer has put into the product.  

The more effort a person puts in, the more they value the output of that effort, so a customised shoe is considered more valuable than an off the shelf alternative.

9. Airbnb.com

Digital psychology tactics used: Representativeness.

Holidays – what a stress, eh?  But you’d never tell from looking at the Airbnb site (or any holiday site, for that matter).  

It sounds obvious, but when booking an experience such as a holiday, it’s essential that brands overwrite any previous negative experiences that the customer might have had (such as that time I was attacked by a cow on a camping holiday in the Cotswolds) and replace them with positive mental models, such as relaxing on a beach, or cuddling up to a loved one on a plush bed. 

We estimate the likelihood of an event (such as having a great holiday) by comparing it to mental models that already exist in our mind (this bias is known as representativeness).  

Airbnb uses video incredibly effectively to temporarily override these models (or enforce them, if your models are already positive), and show customers what could be, rather than what might have occurred in the past.  

Great marketing done well!

8. Justeat.com

Digital psychology tactics used: Social proof and consistency.

I can pretty much guarantee that anyone who has ordered a meal with Justeat.com has been influenced by their prominent customer feedback system.  

Go to a regional homepage, such as just-eat.co.uk, and the star rating of each takeaway restaurant leaps out at you as the most prominent items on the page (it’s also no coincidence that the stars are the same colour as the “Find a takeaway” call to action).  

But there’s another string to this bow. Have you considered how the act of writing a review may actually influence your future buying behaviour? The acts of writing and sharing a positive review cements your customer’s positive views on the product they’ve experienced, and means they’re more likely to buy again in the future.

So don’t just think of review writing as a means of acquiring new customers, think of it as a means of retaining your current customers, and persuading them to spend more!

7. Ryanair.com/Easyjet.com (and pretty much any airline you care to think of)

Digital psychology tactics used: Scarcity and anchoring.

The anchoring heuristic isn’t always as blatantly obvious as a crossed our RRP (see #2 in our top ten).  

It can be used far more subtly, such as in the case of airlines, which show the same product across a range of dates and prices. The example below, taken from Ryan Air, demonstrates how by prominently positioning expensive flights adjacent to the better value ones, airlines are able to anchor customer’s price expectations and make mid/low-priced products look even better value.

Ryan Air anchoring example

Airlines are also big fans of using scarcity to drive sales – with subtle “one flight remaining at this price” messages compelling customers to spur of the moment purchases.

6. Freelancer.com

Digital psychology tactics used: Effort heuristic, reciprocity and commitment

The more a brand can demonstrate the time/effort/love that a customer has put into their relationship, the more loyal the customer is likely to become.  Freelancer does this in a fun, and highly effective way, by awarding points, credits and level advances to their customers as they complete tasks on the site.  

Example of the effort heuristic

The more a customer uses the site, the further they progress on the journey to Freelancing Nirvana, and the more rewards are opened up to them, such as free upgrades and promotions, triggering obligation to the brand through use of the reciprocity principle.

5. Lingscars.com 

Digital psychology tactics used: Autonomous authority, social proof, familiarity and likability.

Ok, let’s get over the brain embolism on a screen approach to design, look behind the dancing chickens and flying pigs, and examine Ling’s Cars for what it is; a highly persuasive website that plays on all sorts of heuristic devices to convert over 1,000 customers a month.

Ling leaves no psychological stone unturned as she physically assaults your eyeballs with her sales messaging.  

Social proof? With over 1,500 customer testimonials displayed on the website, you better believe it. Likability? I dare you not to develop a soft spot for the irreplaceable Ling after spending time on her site. Autonomous authority? With experts such as Little Jon and Duncan Bannatyne (sort of) giving their seal of approval, Ling removes further barriers to purchase.  

She even makes use of Darth Vader, The Titanic movie and Kung Fu Panda (we’ll ignore the copyright infringements if you do) to build familiarity into an otherwise strange and slightly unnerving online presence. Way to go Ling.

4. Warbyparker.com

Digital psychology tactics used: Visualisation, dissonance mitigation and loss aversion

Warby Parker is an American provider of spectacles that has already featured in an Econsultancy blog, due to a unique approach to try-before-you-buy order fulfilment. However, there are greater forces at play here than simply good customer service. 

Visualisation, or the ability to picture yourself using/wearing a product, is a hard trick to achieve for online retailers.  

In the halcyon days of bricks and mortar, this wasn’t a problem, as highstreets provided ample opportunities for customers to interact with a product and ‘try it on for size’.  Today, with digital taking precedence, there’s limited room for tactile experiences.  So, how do brands overcome this? 

Warby Parker’s approach is quite fun.  Their virtual try on tool allows customers to upload their own image to the site, superimpose a pair of glasses onto it, and then share them socially with their friends. Now, I’m not going to lie – the technology needs a lot of work.

I can’t even find a link to this tool on their site, and had to get to it through a Google search for “Warby Parker virtual try on” (I’m thinking maybe a victim of their own success?) – but the theory behind it is sound.

If customers can see themselves in your product, and better still, share that product amongst their friends, they’re building public commitment to that product, and in line with the theory of dissonance mitigation, are far more likely to go ahead and make a purchase.

We can also see a strong element of loss aversion coming through in their fulfilment model.  People feel the pain of loss far greater than they feel the joy of gain (some studies put this variance at twice as much!), and there’s little doubt that by mailing out five sets of frames for a user to try on, Warby Parker are ensuring customers build ownership attachment to their products, who will be loathe to return them.

I suspect that a number of customers even go on to buy multiple sets of frames to negate this loss aversion – and would love to get some numbers from Warby Parker’s sales teams if they are reading this?

3. Facebook.com (and pretty much every social network, for that matter)

Digital psychology tactics used: Self-actualisation, social connection and validation.

As any 1st year psychology student will tell you, the desire to belong and to be valued are intrinsic human needs.

Social media uses these needs to create addictive online environments where users gain validation of self through the opinions and approval of others.  

Every selfie that has ever been posted on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram is a cry for validation of self worth from others – but I’m not going to go into detail myself here, when Charlie Brooker can say it so much better!

2. Booking.com

Digital psychology tactics used: Social proof, consistency, scarcity and anchoring.

Could social proof be any stronger? Booking.com uses five social proof devices to convince customers to purchase.

Not only do they have the star rating system used by Justeat, but they also show the number of customers that have put the hotel on a wish list, the number of customers that are looking at your selected hotel right now, an award for most booked hotel of 2013, and the time your hotel was last booked.  This is powerful stuff!  

Booking.com also makes use of that old anchoring chestnut of showing you the RRP crossed out next to the actual price, and there’s even a bit of scarcity thrown in for good measure, with, in my case, “We only have 5 left on our site” highlighted in red.

Booking.com social proof example

And finally... 

1. Amazon.com

Amazon Lightening deals scarcity effect

Digital psychology tactics used: Pretty much all of them.

There’s a reason why Amazon is the king of online sales. It doesn’t just use the digital psychology toolkit – it pretty much wrote the thing!

Where to start? From the obvious social proof reviews littered prominently throughout the site, and the “three items left in stock” scarcity triggers, through to the incredibly powerful lightening deals, which show time limited discounts that actually have a clock ticking down as you pause to consider.  

It even has a CTA that, get this, actually tells you that the product is so popular YOU CAN’T BUY IT, but can only be put on a waitlist. The compulsion to buy is almost overpowering.

But they don’t stop there, Amazon even uses heuristics offline to convert online sales. Anyone who is signed up to Amazon’s Prime service will have recently received one of these letters in the post, notifying subscribers of their free upgrade to Amazon’s video streaming service. 

 Amazon Prime example of reciprocity

This letter/card combo achieves two very powerful goals. It triggers the reciprocity heuristic, as the upgrade is presented as a free gift (the card even comes wrapped in a bow to look like a gift) – so customers feel indebted to Amazon, and it triggers consistency, by reaffirming to the customer that they are a very special Amazon Prime customer indeed (look, the card’s even got my name printed on it – I must be a loyal customer!).  

The true genius of this is that the card does nothing apart from triggering these heuristics. Seriously, not a single thing.

You can’t use it to log in, sign up, withdraw cash, get through customs...  It’s just a plastic card, with a hologram printed on it (that’s another heuristic! Iconography of authority).  

Genius. Pure genius.

So there you have it. My completely subjective top ten. Please do feel free to shoot me down in flames, or better yet, come back with your own suggestions.  

Digital Psychology is a new and expanding field – and the more conversation that takes place about it, the more we can define it, and its benefits. Over to you...

Andrew Nicholson

Published 29 October, 2014 by Andrew Nicholson

Andrew Nicholson is the founder of marketing consultancy The GUkU, and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (2)

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Taras

Interestingly, those Amazon Prime Instant Video letters were even segmented by use of Instant Video. Those who are Prime members but don't use Instant Video much got a plastic card, while those who do use Instant Video regularly just got the letter.

about 3 years ago

Andrew Nicholson

Andrew Nicholson, Founder at The Guku

Great insight Taras. I guess the ones that already regularly use instant video didn't warrant the expense of printing a card. Anyone fancy starting a sweepstake on when Amazon will start charging for this service?

about 3 years ago

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