Digital Publishing Reader Revenue
5 mins read

The 6 psychological secrets of website conversions and sales

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In this opinion piece, Robert Elding, previously Head of Digital at The Times of London (as well as holding senior consultancy roles for BBC Worldwide, BSkyB, Centaur Media, and Haymarket Publishing), outlines how publishers can drive website conversions through a better understanding of consumer psychology.

Inspiring a complete stranger on the internet to take out their credit card and buy a subscription, service or product is one of the biggest challenges in publishing.

There are a very specific set of 6 psychological triggers that must be activated to move them from a stranger, prospect and then on to a customer. By learning these triggers, publishers can streamline their conversion process in a radical way which, in the end, will mean that people are more likely to buy.

These conversion triggers work for almost any product or service. Knowing them will let you re-program your publishing website to a conversion machine that will generate sales on auto-pilot.

Markets are conversations

Markets are conversations and when we market to someone, we’re trying to enter a conversation going on in their minds. We need to understand their fears, doubts and be the Paracetamol or Tylenol fix for their immediate pain.

People buy from people that they know, like and trust. With our marketing efforts we’re trying to start the conversation that enables us to create that relationship or rapport with the customer that leads to a conversion or sale.

We can do that through understanding some of the conversation starting techniques, and these can be very powerful.

Features tell – Benefits sell

When it comes to any product or service, you are really selling solutions to problems. You’ve probably heard of the phrase ‘features tell, but benefits sell’.

After all, no one buys a drill because they want a drill. They buy one because they want to create a hole. You must realize your customer is buying the benefit (or end result) your product or service will give them.

Persuasive design, as highlighted by Robert Cialdini in his book ‘Influence’, helps us start the conversation with our users and is made up of 6 influencing factors: Reciprocity, commitment & consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity. Let’s start off with the first one called Reciprocity.


Reciprocity is the concept of giving something and getting something back in return. There are three factors that make this principle more effective. If you offer something first it means the end user becomes indebted to you and wants to ‘reciprocate’ to pay you back for your ‘gift’. This often translates to buying the offer. This principle is employed a lot in digital marketing. Adding something exclusive enhances the offer. In a publishing scenario, this could be a piece of content, but it must be something of value.

Interestingly, experiments by Strometz and Fisher showed that if your waiter leaves sweets with the bill, they could get as much as a 23% uplift in tips. This is reciprocity at work.

Persuasive Influencer 2 – Commitment and Consistency   

The next idea is Commitment and Consistency. We’re bombarded with plenty of choices every day yet we generally stick to similar options that we’ve chosen in the past because they are easy. When you go into your local sandwich shop for example, you tend to order the same sandwich every day.

This trigger can be applied to your publishing business and customer loyalty is a good example of this concept in operation. The way to earn loyalty is to make users commit to something.

Often, micro commitments will lead to a bigger commitment down the line. What you are trying to do is to get your user to commit to something on a regular basis. This could be a low-value subscription, such as sampling for a pound for 14 days – a technique often applied in publishing that clearly works.

The hardest part with any sale is getting the first purchase commitment or getting a prospect to add in their credit card details to your web form.

Persuasive Influencer 3 – Social Proof

You are no doubt familiar with social proof. We give more value to things that are popular or endorsed by people we trust. You will have seen many examples of this on travel websites such as TripAdvisor or They use a star rating system, so you can see how people rank the service out of five – prospects go through the reviews and often book based on more positive feedback. Your peer group is a big influencer. We look for approval from friends and people you know and rate this information as being the most important.

Persuasive Influencer 4 – Authority

The next trigger to look at is authority. In a similar way to social proof, we follow people who are authority figures. When we’re not experts in a particular field, we look to industry experts, believing their opinions are more considered than our own. This is particularly important in B2B publishing, but its impact on consumer publishing also can’t be underestimated – the rise of social media influencers being a case in point.

Titles are influential. A Doctor working on a medical related publication is important for a customer, as are people in positions of power or seen to be wielding influence. Indirect cues such as this canbe used in your publications and article content.

Persuasive Influencer 5 – Liking

The next trigger is liking. Facebook adopted this concept of adding a thumbs up or liking a person’s post or activity.

If your company behaves like a friend and uses personalization, you will generate better responses to your marketing than if you behave like a cold, distant brand.

Association and fighting for the same causes as your customers, for example, such as Martin Lewis’s Money Saving Expert, is another reason for your target customer to like a person or a brand.

Persuasive Influencer 6 – Scarcity     

The penultimate item on the persuasive design list is scarcity. In the scarcity principle, we’re always drawn to things that are exclusive. If products are difficult to obtain or we think that there’s a limited time to actually buy something, then we’re much more likely to want to buy it.

In terms of conversion principles, if scarcity is pretty high then the price is too. You can learn to trigger your customer’s sense of urgency through limited numbers, limited times and competitions. eBay, for example, is an exemplary case study in the use of scarcity as a principle.

Bonus Persuasive Influencer 7 – Paradox of Choice

The final bonus influencer is paradox of choice. When you give people too many choices, or make a choice too confusing, then it produces cognitive load. Cognitive load is essentially an overload in your brain and means that customers will make no choice at all and walk away.

So, if you have calls to action on your page or have specific things that you want people to do, always simplify them.


Applying these persuasion techniques in the right way can increase your conversions, your website sales and have a huge impact on your publishing business.

Better still, you can start using this strategy right now, no matter what publishing business you run, your depth of experience or the level of budget you have at your disposal.

If you’d like to see many of these principles in action, an exemplary case study would be Agora Publishing, a global network of financial, health, travel and special interest newsletters and books. Spend some time looking at their conversion funnels – it will be time well spent.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash