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Using nudge psychology to boost your e-Commerce

Two men ice skating, one is pushing the other from behind

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Why read this? : We look at how nudge psychology helps you boost e-Commerce sales. Learn the benefits of making the customer experience easier and more attractive, social and timely. Read this to nudge your e-Commerce activities in the right direction.

It can be hard to find genuine e-Commerce experts among the non-stop stream of gurus and grifters who clog up social media. A good starting point is how they talk about size in e-Commerce. In particular, the size of the job to be done.

You have to do some BIG thinking up-front in e-Commerce. For example, choosing your competitive strategy. Crafting your positioning and competitive advantage. But once you start selling, SMALL things start to matter more. You look for ways to bring in new customers and persuade current customers to buy more. You’re constantly testing to improve your customer experience.

This is where real experts stand out. Genuine e-Commerce experts can do the big AND small stuff. The shonky gurus think it’s all about workshops and presentations, and run for the hills when there’s actual e-Commerce work to be done. 

Testing in e-Commerce

Well-run e-Commerce stores use these small improvement tests to learn what works and what doesn’t. They test everything.

Copy items like descriptions and product offers. Design and style items like images, videos, colours and layouts. Functionality areas, like links, navigation and calls to action. Nothing is sacred.

These tests put different experiences in front of customers. You push the ones which work even harder and ditch the ones which flop.

Two men holding pencils comparing notes on a piece of paper in in front of macbooks

It’s all about learning and optimisation. That’s where e-Commerce growth comes from.

But how do you come up with ideas to test? How do you generate ideas to put in front of customers? Brainstorming, maybe? But for that, you need some stimulus to get your creative thinking juices flowing. That’s where nudge psychology theory can help.

Nudge psychology theory

The idea of nudge theory was popularised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book, Nudge.

It broadly covers the area of behavioural economics i.e. what governments and organisations can do to help people make better decisions. It’s been described as a form of libertarian paternalism. 

The theory suggests the more you try to overtly force someone into thinking or doing something, the more likely they’ll ignore or reject it. You have to be more subtle if you want to influence people.

Most people don’t like being told what to think or do, or feeling like they’re being manipulated.

Even if what’s being suggested logically makes sense, behavioural science shows people mostly make decisions on factors other than logic. Emotions, instincts and biases often drive decision-making. 

Nudge theory suggests if you understand how people decide, you can uncover better ways to influence them into thinking or doing what you want. You “nudge” them in the right direction to make better choices.

Well-known applications of nudging include :- 

  • influencing people to save more for their pension by making contributions the default. 
  • making healthier food choices by changing food labelling laws. Instead of saying 90% fat-free (which sounds healthy), you force labels to highlight the 10% fat content (which sounds far less healthy).   

Nudge psychology writing

Nudge theory crops up in the better behavioural science books such as :-

It’s also central to the excellent Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern.

This is based on the author’s experience running a nudge psychology unit within the British government. It shares stories of how different UK government departments used behavioural science to influence people to, for example :-  

  • be more honest (on their tax returns). 
  • reduce speeding (by rewarding non-speeders with free entry into a lottery).
  • improve job seeker motivation (by focusing on future plans, not previous activities).

One of the challenges with nudge psychology is it sounds like it’ll be hard to do. That it involves lots of research, reading, and deep thinking about how to use it.

It’s true it takes time to master this skill. But Halpern’s book outlines a simple way you can start with nudge psychology. It’s called the E.A.S.T. model, and we’ll now look at how you can use it for e-Commerce ideas. 

The E.A.S.T. model

Halpern’s E.A.S.T. model has 4 principles you can use to stimulate ideas on how you might nudge e-Commerce behaviours :-

  • E stands for Easy. People are more likely to do things if you make it easier for them. So, remove friction and stress points. 
  • A stand for Attractive. People are more likely to do things if it appeals to them. Attractive activities get more attention. They leave people feeling more positive about the benefits of the change.
Hand holding old fashioned looking compass
  • S stands for Social. People are more likely to do things if they see other people already doing those things.
  • T stands for Timely. Get people at the right time, establish habits early, and they’re more likely to keep doing the things you want them to do.

From an e-Commerce point of view, you can use these principles to generate ideas about :-

  • why customers do the things they do.
  • what influences those decisions. 
  • what you can do to influence them to make the decisions you want them to. 

Nudge psychology - Make e-Commerce easy

Customers are more likely to do something easy and low-hassle, than something which isn’t. 

A good starting point for making e-Commerce easier for customers is to walk through an actual purchase. Step into the customer’s shoes and go through the journey of buying your product. List every action you have to do until you buy. 

For example :- 

  • See an advert or social post to prompt you to go onto search.
e-commerce planning process - 5 key steps in e-commerce experience
  • Search activity e.g. keywords you use and how long it takes.
  • The landing page experience on the store website.
  • How you find the product you want. 
  • The number of steps to make a payment and enter your delivery details. 
  • What happens after that – how much interaction you have with the order until the product arrives.
  • How issues or problems are resolved.  

You then apply the nudge psychology principle of easiness to try and remove friction and stress points at each step. You ask, how can we make this easier?

Easy to find what I’m looking for

For example, is your product, price offer and call to action crystal clear in your advertising campaigns? Does it link to the specific product page for the product in the advert? (easier for the customer). Or does it go to the home or category page, so you have to search the site? (harder for the customer). 

Does the meta-description for the product page in your SEO writing make it clear what clicking the link will do? Where it’ll take you, and what to expect. It makes online shopping harder if it’s confusing, or takes you to an unexpected page. 

Google hmne page on a Samsung phone lores

Look at your site and page layout and navigation. Are they easy to read? Easy to use? Will the customer know what they need to do? Are all your call to action buttons crafted to perfection?

These types of questions lie at the heart of usability testing. Sites and experiences which are easy are highly usable. It’s worth reviewing the usability questions outlined by Steve Krug in Don’t Make Me Think, which we cover in our e-Commerce website testing article. These are typical questions for new visitors to a website :-

  • Where am I?
  • Where do I begin?
  • What are the most important things on this page?
  • Where did they put (something)?
  • Why did they call (something) that?

The easier customers find it to answer these questions, the easier it is for them to use your site.

Easy to buy

Keep going with the same principle as you place an order and wait for the delivery. Note anything which feels hard, and look for ways to make it easier. 

For example, inputting your credit card and delivery details each time is hard. That’s why many sites let you auto-fill details, or save them for later by registering on the site. 

Different business models like reminder services and subscription offers also make buying easier. They remove steps the customer has to do and make sure they never run out of your product. 

A subscription model box branded with three-brains on a doorstep

You should also make sure your customer service systems make things easier for the customer. Clear FAQs which answer their questions, for example. Obvious ways to contact you if there’s a problem. Notifications you’ve received their order, it’s on the way, and when it’s been delivered. 

These may seem obvious, but many e-Commerce sites overlook them. 

Using the nudge psychology principle of easiness helps put you in the customer’s shoes. It makes you focus on improving their overall experience by simplifying what’s hard to do. You make it harder for the customer to NOT do what you want them to do.

Nudge psychology - Make e-Commerce attractive

Next comes the nudge psychology principle of attractiveness. People pay more attention to things they find attractive. 

If you run an online store, this is about making sure your brand identity and website design are all in sync. That they look, sound and feel right. 

You want your key visual design features like your colour palette, typography and logo to appeal to customers. You make sure the photography, video content and design of your product pages are pleasing to the eye. 

A keynote page showing product page basics - product name, product information and product images

These should follow good design principles and make your products look their best. If relevant, show people enjoying your products as that’s appealing. It helps customers picture themselves using your products. (See our marketing mistakes article for more on what happens when you don’t do this).

Attractive brands

But attractiveness goes beyond visual appeal in e-Commerce. It’s also how your brand sounds, and how it acts

That means an appealing tone of voice which draws customers in. Advertising and sales copy which grabs customer attention and makes them desire your products. 

Your intangible brand assets like your purpose and values should also shine through in your copy and what you do. 

An old pocket watch dangling hypnosis style in front of a leather chair with a speech bubble saying "Buy me..."

These will attract customers, so they feel connected with what you stand for. Customers choose brands which reflect who they are, and how they want to be perceived.

Attractive offers

Of course, you also want to make your online “offer” attractive to the customer. How this works is down to your competitive strategy.

If you’re a cost leader, offering attractive price discounts makes you more attractive to customers. 

But if you’re more of a differentiation or niche player, your whole sales promotion strategy will be around something else. Exclusive or limited offers, for example. Targeted offers to encourage loyal customers to buy more, or more often. 

Sale sign in white on a red window with outline of a person walking past in the background

(See our advanced e-Commerce techniques article for more on making your offer attractive). 

Nudge psychology - Make e-Commerce social

Now we move on to the nudge psychology principle of sociability. People are influenced by what they see others doing or have already done. 

That means you need a plan to manage early adopters. If you encourage these customers to endorse your product, it creates a positive impression for more risk-averse customers. They’ll see you as more trustworthy. 

Early adopters like to try out new products. They get a buzz from being first with new trends. They’re less risk-averse than the majority of customers.

Close up of a hand with thumb up

You tap into their natural openness to try and use them as influencers for your e-Commerce offer. 

When you run your own online store, you know who these customers are, and what they’re buying. So you can connect with your most loyal customers, and reward them for talking positively about your brand. 

For example, directly posting on social media, or adding comments or reviews on your site. Or, you could send them specific offers. e.g. discounts to “refer a friend” to buy, or to leave positive reviews on relevant third-party sites. 

Customers who don’t know your brand are more likely to trust and believe other customers over your paid advertising campaigns. So, informal nudges (rather than paid endorsements) to your best and most loyal customers to speak positively about you can be a great way to pull in new customers. 

Nudge psychology - Make e-Commerce timely

The E.A.S.T. model’s final nudge psychology principle is timeliness. The better timed your interaction with a customer, the more likely you’ll nudge them towards making the decision you want. 

Again, this is driven by how well you understand their purchase journey. Categories differ based on how big the purchase is, and how deeply the customer has to think about it. 

With big purchases like cars or holidays, you have to land your messages well in advance, as they’re deeply considered decisions.

Close-up of a clock face showing dial sitting between ten and twelve

For example, sunny summer holiday advertising starts when winter’s at its coldest. You see more new car adverts at the end of the financial year, as many companies do pay raises and bonuses at that time. It’s when people think most about big purchases.

For smaller, everyday purchases like snacks or pizza delivery, for example, timing is more about the time of day. People tend to eat healthier early in the day, so you get more healthy food adverts in the morning. But they eat more indulgent things later on, as a treat for getting through the day. That’s why you get more snack and pizza adverts in the evening. 

Whatever stage of the journey, you look at when is the best time to land the right message.

It’s also where areas like priming come in. (See our design psychology article for more on this). People are more likely to remember the first thing they see. That influences everything they see afterwards. So make sure you land the most important, compelling part of your message first. On social media. In CRM emails. And on your website and product pages.

Go over your digital data to identify peak activity times. Look for insights you can use to shape your marketing activities. Timing your activities right nudges customers into being more open to buying. 

Conclusion - using nudge psychology to boost your e-Commerce

You start off thinking “big” with e-Commerce. But, once you get into the day-to-day selling, you test ideas and find it often only takes “small” improvements to make a difference.  

Nudge psychology is a great area to explore to help you come up with these ideas.

This guide worked through the E.A.S.T. model from David Halpern’s Inside the Nudge Unit to show how you could use it for e-Commerce.

Two men ice skating, one is pushing the other from behind

A focus on making the customer experience easy, attractive, sociable and timely can definitely nudge your sales in the right direction. 

Check out our behavioural science and advanced e-Commerce techniques articles for more on this. Or get in touch if you’ve got questions about using nudge psychology in e-Commerce. 

Photo credits 

Two ice skaters : Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash

Two men working together at a desk : Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Person holding compass : Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Google Tablet : Photo by PhotoMIX Ltd. from Pexels

Doorstep delivery : Photo by MealPro on Unsplash

Hypnosis Pocket Watch (adapted) : Photo by MK Hamilton on Unsplash

Sale : Photo by Justin Lim on Unsplash

Thumbs up (adapted) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Clock : Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

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