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Have you ever felt that you’ve bought something and not been sure why?

The chances are it’s because you’re the victim of marketing psychology – clever tricks that marketing agencies use to get you to buy something you weren’t even sure you wanted.

In this post I’ll be explaining five methods that are commonly used and how they might be applied to online marketing.

Read on if you want to find out how you can encourage your readers to become buyers!

Five common psychological tactics

Before I really jump in to the detail, here’s a summary of the five techniques that I’m going to discuss further down.

I’ve picked five but there are plenty of other ways that savvy companies help people to reach for their wallets!

For your convenience, I’ve added shortcuts to them so you can jump straight to the section that interests you.

  1. Social Proof (a.k.a. “The me-too effect”).
    People want something because other people want it.
  2. Up-sell from a cheaper product (a.k.a. “The foot in the door”)
    People are more likely to buy a more expensive product from you if they’ve already bought a cheaper one.
  3. Scarcity (a.k.a. “Make them think they must buy now”)
    Making customers believe that they must buy now because the product will soon be unavailable or out of stock.
  4. Loss aversion (a.k.a. “Give them a taste and they’ll want more”)
    People don’t like to let go of something once they have it so let them sample premium features for a limited period.
  5. Reciprocity (a.k.a. “The after-dinner mint”)
    Giving people a gift without expecting anything in return increases the chances of a reciprocal return (e.g. a sale).

All of these methods are used extensively across the Internet but sadly they’re often over-used or even blatantly abused.

Marketing ethics

When using any method to essentially manipulate people into making a purchase, you’re making an ethical judgment.

How far are you willing to go in order to make a sale?

The sad truth is that some people will say or do anything to make a few bucks. Whether they can sleep at night or have many friends as a result, I don’t know.

Bear in mind that aggressively manipulating potential customers with hard sells or clever manipulations will eventually get noticed and your brand’s reputation will suffer.

It’s better to use these methods to gently guide a buyer to making a purchase that they will genuinely appreciate so you can establish a loyal tribe of repeat customers.

Let’s look at the first method!

Social Proof

The basic idea of social proof is that a product looks more attractive if people are already buying it.

Have you visited a site recently that has little bubbles floating up, telling you who has just purchased a product?

They say things like: “Bob from Texas has just bought our Premium Package”.

This is social proof in action.

The idea of social proof is that you see that other people are buying something so it must be worth having and you’re more likely to buy it yourself.

That’s why people are willing to queue in the rain to get into a popular nightclub when there might be another club across the road with no queue at all.

This method is often used on websites in a few ways: social media sharing, testimonials, and customer reviews.

Those social media sharing buttons you see on website posts. If you see that 500 people have already shared an article, subconsciously you can’t help but think that maybe you should share it too.

Testimonials used to be a common method of demonstrating social proof but the trouble is, people are willing to sing the praises of your product on Fiverr for a pittance and people are getting wise to the fact that testimonials might not be proof at all.

Customer reviews are still a solid form of social proof. Most savvy consumers that visit Amazon will gravitate towards the bottom of a product page to see what previous customers have said. The fact that Amazon mark genuine buyers (on Amazon) as Verified Purchasers helps to increase the weight of these reviews.

Incidentally – have you ever noticed that you pay more attention to those customer reviews that include photos of the product in use? So do your customers.

The foot in the door

The essence of this method is this:

“If you get someone to agree to a small request, they’re much more likely to agree to a larger request”.

Have you ever been stopped on the street by a missionary offering to give you a pamphlet? If you accepted you were probably asked a few questions about the purpose of life and then before you know it they were asking if they can visit you in your home. It all started by them asking you if you wanted a free pamphlet.

It’s a trick that’s used commonly in software. You install a free piece of software (often an anti-virus package) because it sounded useful. Then the pop-ups begin, offering to upgrade you to the premium product for a reduced price.

The way this is most often applied online is probably through sales funnels.

If you’ve ever bought an information product (e.g. a downloadable PDF or video about something), you might have then been offered a training course or a Skype call with a self-professed expert for a significantly higher price.

I’ve got to be honest, I’ve become so cynical about these money-grabbing up sells that as soon as I see a landing page is hosted on a funnel provider, I close the tab.

That’s not to say this won’t work for you – you might be selling a genuinely helpful product and there’s plenty of customers that wouldn’t know a sales funnel if it slapped them in the face with a marketing manifesto.


Scarcity is about making the potential buyer believe that their opportunity to buy is limited by time or stock so they need to buy now or they might miss the boat.

If this is applied to physical products that have a limited number of items in stock, it’s perfectly reasonable to warn your customer that there aren’t many left.

In my opinion, what isn’t reasonable is selling a digital product and claiming that there’s only a certain number of left. I have seriously seen this. How can a downloaded product possibly only have five (for example) left?

As the idea that a downloadable product might run out of stock is ridiculous to most smart shoppers out there, another common application of scarcity is to set a time limit on the purchase.

Again, I believe that if you attach an artificial time constraint on a digital product just to make people buy it, you’re guilty of manipulation and you’re an unethical marketer. Feel free to disagree with me in the comments below – we all have different tolerances when it comes to good practice.

A more ethical approach is to offer a discount for a limited period. This will still generate the fear of missing out in the customer’s mind and if they miss the deadline, they’re still free to purchase the product at the full price.

I’ve become a repeat customer in just such a case. They stuck to the time limit when I emailed them about missing it so I paid the full price and I bought some of their other courses the next time a discount was available.

Loss Aversion

When the free-trial expires

Loss aversion is when a customer is more willing to do something to avoid losing something they value.

The most common example used to trigger this behavior is full-featured trial software (or a web service). If you offer all the premium features of your software or service to a new customer for a limited period, they’ll get used to using all the cool tools that they’d normally have to pay for.

If you’ve offered something that’s genuinely useful to them, when the trial ends, they’ll feel a sense of loss that will make them more likely to buy the software or subscribe to the service.

Personally, I think this is an excellent way to bring new paying customers on board. I don’t think it’s at all unethical to give people an opportunity to try out your full product, training or information for free for a period.

If anything, I think it’s highly ethical to give a potential buyer the opportunity to see if what you’re selling is actually right for them, kind of like a test drive.

And a test drive is probably another good example of a loss-aversion trigger.

If you take a nice car for a test-drive (some dealers will even let you borrow the car for a weekend) and you absolutely love driving it, of course you’re going to feel a sense of loss when you have to take it back.

This method worked on me when I joined Wealthy Affiliate. I didn’t think it would be any use but I joined and tried their 7-day free trial that gave me access to all their features. I signed up at the end of the week because the training was awesome and I loved the community.


Technically, this is defined as an exchange the mutually benefits both parties.

In reality, this usually involves giving something of value away in the hope that it will improve your desirability in the eyes of a potential buyer.

The most well-known example of this is the after-dinner mint.

There have been studies that showed that when serving staff included a mint with the bill for a meal, a tip is more likely to be included in the payment. If a mint is offered and then another mint is offered apparently because the member of staff likes the party, the tip was often larger than that offered for single mints.

The way in which this is commonly applied on websites is the exchange of an email address for a freebie.

Website owners will frequently offer an attractive download in exchange for someone subscribing to their newsletter.

A side effect is that if the download is valuable enough to the potential customer, they may return to your site to find out more about what you’re selling, possibly resulting in a sale.

This is fair enough, in principle. The visitor is getting something of value for nothing and you’re generating good will for your brand.

The trouble is, this method is often abused.

I’ve sometimes signed up to a mailing list because a freebie sounded useful, only to find, once I’d received it, that it was poor quality rubbish. Needless to say, I had no desire to buy anything from such websites but I don’t think they cared once I was on their mailing list.

Thankfully, modern communication laws provided the opportunity for me to unsubscribe relatively easily.

I’m not a fan of the opt-in principle to receive a freebie. I think people are more likely to feel an affinity to your brand if you let them download the item without offering their email address and hopefully they’ll sign-up to your newsletter anyway.


The five methods I discussed above are remarkably effective at helping people to make a buying decision but they’re often abused in order to increase sales.

If you’re an ethical digital marketer, there’s no reason you can’t make use of some of these methods as long as you are genuinely trying to help people in the process.

  • If you’re using social proof, make sure it’s genuine (i.e. real testimonials, real reviews and genuine sales being shown)
  • If you’re using a low-cost item that leads to an up-sell be careful how aggressive your up-sell appears.
  • If you’re using scarcity, make sure it’s a genuine reason for scarcity (e.g. time critical training or a time-limited discount).
  • If you’re using loss-aversion to encourage sales, give the customer a reasonable time to try the features.
  • If you’re using reciprocity, make sure the product you offer for free is worth downloading.

Some of these techniques will appeal to you, some of them won’t but always try to put yourself in the shoes of your buyers and ask yourself, “how would this sales method make me feel?”

What do you Think?

I’d love to hear what you think about this article.
Do you have any suggestions or questions?
Click the button below to leave a comment.

6 Replies to “The Psychology of Marketing

  1. This is totally me lol, often a victim of this marketing tricks. It works, businesses are smart.  Although I think I am better at it now, thanks for self-control and self check is it a need or a want? My husband is worse than me though. He is a very impulsive shopper smh.

    1. I think at some point, we can all be victims to the marketing tricks the experts use. 🙂
      Businesses are very clever about how the market their products and target the people they want to sell them to!

  2. Thank you for this post.  I don’t know a whole lot about marketing online and am hoping to learn more about how to do it productively.   I can easily think of websites that follow each of the points you listed.  I’ve seen each and every one, but I had no idea that it had a name or was a specific style.  Thanks for teaching me something new today!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jessica.
      Psychology can be a fascinating subject but it can also be a little unsettling how easily we can be swayed because of the way our brains work!

  3. Thanks phil

    I totally agree with you on this post. Most times customers make buying decisions without knowing why they are buying such items . We often think it is our choice or preference for that particular item due to its colour chic style  or whatever factor we might have considered But the truth is  there are forms of underlining subtle manipulation that greatly influences our choices and decision making before purchasing ,some of which are listed above.

    1. Thanks for your comment!
      I think it’s funny how much we believe that we make informed choices about the things we buy, when, as you said, we don’t know why we’re reaching for our wallets!

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