7 Social Psychology Studies to Help You Convert Prospects into Paying Customers

image of brain illustrations

When it comes to converting more prospects into paying customers, it all boils down to how well you understand your buyer’s mind and what they want from your business.

The thing is, your time can’t scale in every circumstance, and there may come a point where you aren’t able to know each and every one of your customers personally. When that’s the case, what’s to be done?

The answer is to turn to rigorously tested research in social psychology.

We’re all different, but in many instances our brains are prone to respond in a very similar manner, and understanding these common elements in the human mind can help you find more ways to ethically move more buyers towards saying “Yes!” to your products or services.

Below you’ll find 7 such studies that will help you understand what makes many of your customers “tick”, and what you can do to create a more effective selling experience.

1. Play the devil’s advocate

Are you familiar with how the term “devil’s advocate” came to exist? It’s actually from an old process the Roman Catholic church used to conduct when canonizing someone into sainthood.

A lawyer of sorts was instructed to be the devil’s advocate for the candidate, taking a skeptical view of their character in an attempt to find holes in their arguments for why they should be considered.

The marketing world has an important lesson to learn from this process.

According to research by social psychologist Charlan Nemeth (and his colleagues), the role of devil’s advocate certainly plays a part in persuasion, but it is not one of creating dissent.

Nemeth concluded that when people are confronted with someone who truly appears to oppose their position (true dissenters), they begin to try and understand their perspective.

Those playing devil’s advocate? They actually increase the effectiveness of the original argument! This is because group members do not take the critiques from the devil’s advocate as seriously, and since the group is now bringing up (and dismissing) possible alternatives or flaws, they are more confident in their original stance.

For marketers, this offers an opportunity: playing devil’s advocate for your own products can actually enhance your persuasive efforts as people see their concerns addressed (and dismissed) before they buy.

The Takeaway: Playing the role of devil’s advocate has been found to increase people’s resolve in their decision making, not hinder it. Be your own devil’s advocate and back up typical objections with solutions for your offerings.

2. Use urgency … the smart way

Creating a sense of urgency in your copy is one of the oldest tricks in the book … and still one of the smartest. To top it off, Cialdini lists “scarcity” as one of the 6 pillars of influence, and it’s easy to see why: great demand leads to great sales.

In spite of this, I have some research that explains how urgency can completely backfire on you and ruin your meticulously written copy.

How can this be? More importantly, how can you prevent it from happening to you?

The research comes to us from a classic study by Howard Leventhal where he analyzed the effects of handing out tetanus brochures to subjects.

Leventhal handed out 2 different pamphlets to participants, both sparing no detail on the horrid effects that the tetanus disease can have on the body.

The difference was that the control group received a version of the pamphlet that had the effects of the disease … and nothing else.

The second group received a similar pamphlet, but theirs had minimal information that indicated where they could schedule an appointment to get vaccinated.

The results?

Those who had the second pamphlet (with the sparse follow-up info) were much more likely to take-action: the rate that they followed through to get vaccinated was vastly superior to the first group. They were also more engaged with the tetanus information they received.

Why?

Even though the follow-up information provided in the second pamphlet wasn’t at all comprehensive, Leventhal concluded that our minds are susceptible to blocking out information that evokes a sense of urgency if there aren’t any instructions regarding what to do next.

Those in the first group were prone to convincing themselves that, “I don’t need to worry about this because it won’t happen to me anyway,” whereas those in the second group had less incentive to feel this way because they had a plan to take action and couldn’t put it aside as easy.

The Takeaway: Urgency can be “blocked” by your customers minds if you don’t give them specific instructions on how to solve the problem that you’ve identified. Don’t give vague instructions, tell your audience exactly what to do when the time comes.

3. Highlight strengths by admitting your shortcomings

Is it ever a good idea to admit to your faults? After all, people don’t really want the “real” you, right?

Research from social psychologist Fiona Lee would assert that it is, and in fact, it may be the best strategic decision to highlight your strengths.

The study she conducted looked at companies who admitted to missteps and examined what effect (if any) these admissions had on stock prices. Lee and her colleagues had experimenters read one of two fictitious company reports (both reports listed reasons why the company had performed “poorly” last year).

The first report placed emphasis on strategic decisions. The second placed emphasis on external events (economic downturn, increased competition, etc.).

So what were the results?

The test subjects viewed the first company far more favorably than the second.

Interestingly, Lee found (after examining hundreds of these types of statements, over 14 real companies) that the companies who admitted to their strategic faults also had higher stock prices the following year.

Her conclusions were that admitting to shortcomings in areas like strategic thinking showcased that a company was still in control, despite their faults. Blaming external forces (even if true) created a sense that the company didn’t have the ability to fix the problem (or were creating excuses).

The Takeaway: Customers still don’t want you to overshare irrelevant details. But admitting to honest errors helps your customers understand that you are in control of the situation and not prone to making excuses.

4. Embrace the power of labels

You might think I’m referring to brand labels, but far from it: I’m telling you to label your customers!

Sounds like bad advice, right?

WRONG!

As it turns, the research has shown us that people like being labeled, and they are more likely to particpate in the “group’s” message if they feel included in it.

The study examined the voting patterns of adults to see if labeling them had any effect on their turnout at the polls.

After being casually questioned about their normal voting patterns, half of the particpants were told that they were much more likely to vote since they had been deemed to be more politically active.

(This wasn’t actually true, these people were selected at random)

The other half of participants weren’t told anything.

Despite this random selection, the group that was told they were “politically active” had a 15% higher turnout than the other group!

Our brain seeks to maintain a sense of consistency (even if it’s artificial), and this is why the foot-in-the-door technique works so well even on prepared minds. We enjoy being consistent so much that if we feel apart of a group by being told that we are, it’s still likely to affect our response.

For instance, smart people are obviously going to be interested in an internet marketing course that’s made for smart people, right? The label is at work to make you realize you’re part of a desirable group.

The Takeaway: Even when given an artificial connection, people tend to take action in order to maintain a consistent image if they are labeled as being apart of a group. Don’t be afraid to label, people like being members of groups that they approve of.

5. Make their brain light up “instantly”

There are few things that our brains love more than immediate stimulation.

As a matter of fact, research has shown that instant gratification is such a powerful force that an ability to control against it is a great indicator of achieving success.

Wow!

In terms of your customers, you’re actually looking to do the opposite: in this case the gratification is about getting instantly rewarded by doing business with you, and your copy should remind customers of this benefit at every turn.

When your customers are on the verge of purchasing a product from you (or about to sign up for your email list), they are heavily influenced by how quickly they can receive their desired outcome.

Several Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) studies, including one on nicotine addiction, have shown that our frontal cortex is highly active when we think about “waiting” for something.

On the other hand, our mid-brain is the one that lights up when we think about receiving something right away (that’s the one we want to fire up!).

Words like “instant”, “immediately”, or even just “fast” are known to flip the switch on that mid-brain activity that makes us so anxious to buy.

Researchers have noted that the key to these words is that they allow us to envision our problem being solved right away; whatever pain point we are seeking to fix by buying becomes more enticing if we know we won’t have to wait very long.

The Takeaway: Our brains love “instant gratification” and light up when thinking about eliminating pain points instantly. Let people know that they will be rewarded quickly and they will be more likely to make the purchase.

6. Know how to sell to your 3 types of buyers

Every business (no matter the industry) is going to have to deal with the 3 types of buyers out there.

All other aspects aside, these 3 groups are defined by the “pain” that they receive when purchasing something. Neuroscientists have defined human spending patterns as a process of “spend ’til it hurts!”, so understanding these different levels of paint points is essential to increasing your sales.

According to the research, all customers are grouped into the following categories:

  1. Tightwads (24%) – people that spend less (on average) before they hit their limit
  2. Unconflicted (61%) – average spenders
  3. Spendthrifts (15%) – people that are able to spend more before they hit their limit

Guess who the hardest group of people to sell to is? Since they take up nearly a quarter of your potential customers, you should learn some of the smart techniques to minimize buying pain for your “tightwad” customers.

Fortunately, the secret boils down to utilizing well-written copy.

According to some remarkable neuroimaging studies, minimizing buying pain for “tightwads” (and everybody else) can be accomplished successfully by incorporating the following strategies…

1. Re-frame the value

If I told you that my product costs $1,000 a year, you’d definitely approach with a little hesitation, right?

Right. That’s because $1,000 isn’t peanuts.

What if I told you instead that my product costs $84 a month? Not bad right? If you got enough utility out of it for your business (or for yourself) every month, it would be a very worthy purchase.

The thing is, that’s the same as $1,000 a year!

If you’re offering something that has a recurring cost or that could be broken down into smaller increments, look into how you might be able to incorporate this into your pricing.

2. Reduce pain points through bundling

Neuroeconomics expert George Loewenstein has noted that all customers (but especially conservative spenders) prefer to avoid purchasing multiple accessories if there is an option to complete their purchase in one swoop.

He cites our willingness to upgrade from different car packages, but how difficult it is for the brain to justify each individual upgrade (“Yes, I will pay extra for the navigation… and leather seats… and…”, etc).

Lowenstein would assert that these individual purchases create individual pain points, whereas a bundled purchase creates only one pain point, even if the price is much higher.

3. Sweat the small stuff

We know that “don’t sweat the small stuff” isn’t all that applicable to copywriting, but just how small of a change matters?

In what I’ve named the goofiest bump in a conversion rate that I’ve ever seen, research from Carnegie Mellon University University reveals to us that even a single word can affect conversions.

Researchers changed the description of an overnight shipping charge on a free DVD trial offer from “a $5 fee” to “a small $5 fee” and increased the response rate among tightwads by 20 percent!

Has the word “small” ever felt so big? With a single added word increasing conversions by that amount, I think it’s safe to say that the devil is definitely in the details.

The Takeaway: No matter what business you’re in, you will always have 3 types of customers. Know how to sell to tightwads, they make up a large base of your potential buyers and you can reduce their buying pain with the right choice of words.

7. Make an enemy

In the business world, meaningful connections are paramount to your success.

That being said, you still need an enemy.

Why? When could this ever be a good thing?

Turns out, it’s a great thing if you’re looking to achieve a cult-like addiction for your brand.

In a hightly controversial study entitled Social categorization and intergroup behaviour, social psychologist Henri Tajifel began his research trying to define just how human beings were able to engage in acts of mass hatred (such as the Holocaust).

His findings were shocking to say the least.

Tajifel found that he could create groups of people that would show loyalty to their in-group and outright discriminate against outsiders … all with the most trivial of distinctions!

In the tests, subjects were asked to choose between two objects or people that they had no relation to (one test had people picking between 2 painters). Despite these trivialities, when it came time to dole out REAL rewards, subjects had a huge bias towards their in-group and avoided handing out rewards to the so-called “other guys.”

Sounds an awful lot like big companies going toe-to-toe, doesn’t it? Like the Mac vs. PC commercials or Miller Lite taking potshots at un-manly light beers.

The thing is, you don’t need a physical enemy, you need to be against a belief or an idea. Copyblogger would assert that real publishers are self-hosted and that well-written content is the centerpiece of the web.

Solidifying your unique selling proposition is as much about deciding who your ideal customer is not as much as it is about defining who they are.

The Takeaway: You’ll never find your brand’s true voice without something to stand against. This doesn’t have to be another brand, but in order to divide your ideal customers into your “camp,” you need to be against some ideal, belief, or perception, the way Apple was against “boring” PC users in their ads.

Bonus Tip: Keep ‘em on their toes

You know that the social construct of reciprocity is a powerful force, but did you know that further research has showed that surprise reciprocity works even better?

Since you’ve made it all the way to the bottom, I’d like to surprise you with a beautiful, free e-book revealing more insightful data on your audience and customers.

All courtesy of the Help Scout team, we hope you enjoy it!

Click here to download it instantly.

Thanks for reading, I’d also love to hear your thoughts, specifically: which of the above studies did you find the most surprising?

See you in the comments!

About the Author: Gregory Ciotti is the marketing strategist at Help Scout, the invisible email support software for small businesses who love taking care of customers. Get more data-driven content from Greg by visiting the Help Scout blog.

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Comments

  1. Greg,

    Great post here. I really like your point about labeling your customers.

    I’ve always admired business that do so because its genius. It makes customers feel cool and important, like they’re a part of an exclusive community. We all know belonging is a human necessity because its one of the ways people identify themselves.

    A great example is the Nerd Fitness community being called “Rebels”. I recently used this tactic with my membership community to test it’s effectiveness. Results coming soon! :-)

    Thanks for the insight!

    • Thanks man, a lot of good insight here into a very pertinent example; the Nerd Fitness tribe is definitely an ideal situation of “labeling” and showing how it can be a good thing. :)

  2. All great advice!
    The running underlying theme seems to be instilling trust into your audience. The more comfortable you can make them, the more likely they are to buy from you.
    If you can do this effectively while not needing to even bend the truth, I don’t see how a person could fail! Believing yourself, every word you put out there, I would think would have huge value!

  3. I nominate Copyblogger for the most useful content on the web. Every article I get–every article–has insightful and immediately useful information.

  4. This is a fab post! “Make an Enemy” was a big surprise for me but once I thought about it – totally made sense. Thanks for this :-)

  5. I’ve seen all of the material in this post covered before (no surprise) but it’s always good to have a reminder. It was a good marketing idea to throw in a freebie at the end. Something I’ll need to keep in mind for my next guest post.

    • I think my comment got caught in spam buddy, but what I was saying was that we should chat books sometime! You can check out my reading list on Sparring Mind, it’s my most recent post. :)

      • Jumping on the books comment – cashvertising by drew Whitman. An absolute given and goes over some of these points in his particular style! Loved the article too. The labelling point ill take the most from right now.

  6. Great stuff…again. Heading out now to make some enemies.

  7. OMG! OMG! OMG! Nothing gets me more geeked out than the intersection of behavioral psychology and content marketing. Thanks for bringing up a topic that not many people are talking about. This is especially effective when you apply the practice to behavioral change (like environmental marketing or health care).

    One of my favorite all-time examples of this in practice is a PSA from the Chesapeake Club a few years ago. They knew people would roll their eyes at another environmental message about saving a species that is not cute and cuddly (crabs) so they turned it into a joke about eating them: Save the Crabs, Then Eat Them. It’s been a very successful campaign. Here it is in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMOBPQ55zKw

  8. Nice work! Very well presented and explained.

    Admitting your shortcomings takes quite a bit of tactical thought, wouldn’t you say? I’ve run across people who do it and it only serves to undermine their expertise. Sure, people want to know we’re human, real people, that we’ve been through life and eventually come up smelling like a rose.

    But, people also want to know we’ve “nailed it” and sometimes admitting errors, if not done properly, will make that rose awfully stinky. It’s really something to be careful about.

    • Very true Carmelo, it’s a tough territory to tread and is largely context based when approaching how to handle the situation. Great points and words of warning there.

  9. Gregory, congratulations on writing one of the best (and most important) articles I’ve read in a long time! Critical points for every marketer to know and understand….

  10. All the insights were helpful and interesting. Was particularly struck by the “make an enemy” technique. Would not have thought of that, but it does certainly speak to our human nature.

  11. It was indeed a great read, really insightful, interesting and informative. Of all the 7, i loved the 5th one, to light up the mid-brain of our prospects. :) Thank you Gregory.

  12. This is really amazing post Greg! I agree with your point of labeling your customers in the above content; this is where a problem falls and I think you have actually helped me a lot! When you label your clients, it makes your business easier since they really feel being taken care of well and crucial in such business. It is actually encouraging. Thank you!

  13. Amazing write up Greg! This is a wonderful site that has got a lot of inspiration! I really loved the quote: ” We’re all different, but in many instances our brains are prone to respond in a very similar manner, and understanding”
    I was actually encouraged by this and I have to agree with you that we all may look different but our brains working on the same side of business; it is time to convince and make sure you win your customer’s mind on the spot in a friendly manner. Thanks a lot for sharing. I love it!

  14. Amazing write up Greg! This is a wonderful site that has got a lot of inspiration! I really loved the quote: “We’re all different, but in many instances our brains are prone to respond in a very similar manner and understanding”
    I was actually encouraged by this and I have to agree with you that we all may look different but our brains working on the same side of business; it is time to convince and make sure you win your customer’s mind on the spot in a friendly manner. Thanks a lot for sharing. I love it!

  15. Awesome write up Greg! I loved your point about making your brain light up. It is really encouraging, inspiring and educating. I think about labeling your customer also serves a very important tip in business and I really agree with you there. I look forward into sharing more. Thank you!

  16. Thanks a lot for the post. I love the info it comes with.

  17. This was an awesome post! It gave me loads of ideas on how to better present content. Thanks a lot!

  18. This is probably one of the more interesting marketing articles I’ve read in a long, long time. I love how you take studies that don’t relate directly to internet marketing and show us how we might be able to apply the findings to our own business.

  19. This is the blog post really differentiate from others. For long time I didn’t read a quality post. Thank you very much. Learn a lot of thing about psychology. :)

  20. Thanks for the great info!

    A related concept is the use of genuine empathy with both outbound and inbound calls to customers. Empathy is a very powerful factor employing two of the most powerful variables in social communication:

    (1) It is important to FIRST engage and arouse the Parasympathetic Nervous system doorway which is emotionally engaged by positive future hope, optimism, & possibilities BEFORE engaging the Sympathetic Nervous System which is emotionally engaged to confront past problems and the gap between hope and real consequences – focusing on rational problem resolution. (See Dr Richard Boyatzis, “How Effective Leaders Coach with Compassion (vs. Coach for Compliance)”, Human Capital Institute Webcast, 12/2/08)

    (2) Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory’s dictum: “If you change a person’s behavior [with minimal justification], his thoughts and feelings will change to minimize the dissonance.” That is, we naturally tend to believe the way we behave. People tend to make decisions emotionally first and then use rational methods to justify those decisions – we tend to believe what we do. Therefore, one must communicate emotionally with the Caller first before moving to rational “we can” solutions to the Caller’s issue.

    In dealing with a customer who is VERY upset with one’s Company, if you communicate genuine empathy to that customer first, these two powerful variables come into play together with the customer thinking: “Hmmmmm . . . I can’t really be this mad at this Company if I like this person this much, can I? Perhaps is should listen to what (s)he is saying . . .”

  21. Hi Gregory,
    I read an insane amount of blog posts everyday. Usually I just skim them for key information, as most posts about marketing and social media (what I’m usually reading about) are terribly dry. I’ve read this post thoroughly, twice. Your information is stellar and the writing is wonderfully engaging.

    Thank you for the break from monotony,

    Sam Parker

  22. This is a very good post. Need to test out the “instantly” point. And it’s interesting to know how a word can increase the response rate by 20%.

  23. Awesome post! All the points are great, but one that stands out to me is the “Make an Enemy”. I think if we can nail down a common enemy that our target market can see as their enemy, it will trigger the defend drive and cause them to want to purchase something that will help them defend against the common enemy.

    And I love the Mac. vs. PC example. :)