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We Are All Psychologists Now: How The Web Became About Your Mind Not Your Money

Mike Essex

by Mike Essex on 24th September 2012

Blotch TestThere have never been more ways to understand human psychology, or a bigger desire to do so. There are now books for fat people, thin people, smokers, romantics, pickup artists, you name it. You can buy a book on how to stop procrastinating, and also a book on why you should procrastinate. Every possible side of every argument is at your fingertips, and people are devouring them at a rapid pace.

Psychological books are nothing new, and Dale Carnegie made some fantastic discoveries in 1936 with “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, but what is different now is the sheer scale in which psychology has become a part of normal life. Every issue of every men and women’s magazine will contain something psychology based. There’s even entire magazines based on psychology.

Have you ever hesitated before sending a text message, hoping it’ll be received well? Wondered if your body language is giving of the wrong signals? Pondered if your will power is enough to get a job done? Or have you people-watched someone else and tried to understand why they are acting a certain way?

It’s in-built in all of us to consider psychology, and there are now more ways than ever to do so – as well as more psychological studies and data than we could ever read – that can be found with a quick web search.

With all this data it’s no surprise that psychology provides a huge competitive advantage in marketing. Everything you do online, you’re almost always a guinea pig in some experiment. You may not be trapped in a maze, or hooked to a machine with 100 wires, but the actions you take online can tell marketers more about you than you’d think.

Psychology On The Web
When companies first started making websites it was more about trying to create something that loaded quickly and pushed people to call or visit a store. Then as Ecommerce took hold and web speeds improved, brands realised they could create more interesting sites that could be monetised.

Then after you’ve built a website that makes money, what do you do next? Marketers realised they could do two things; attract more customers with other marketing methods (and thus SEO and Paid Search were born), and convert more of those existing customers in to sales.

Unlike other outbound media, where you can simply press Go and move on (such as creating a billboard advert, or TV advert) online marketing has this insanely desirable draw to keep going. There is no “Go” moment in online marketing. You ship something new, and then you monitor it, and then you improve it, and then you tweak it some more, you review the stats and then you ship the next version. It’s an infinite loop and customers sit at the heart of everything.

Psychology Of Design
Google Analytics made website tracking free and available to everyone. It became very easy to see how people had interacted with your website and you could then make judgements on your website design to better promote content that was underperforming. No guesswork was required, and that’s when everything changed. Now marketers could get real data they could make decisions based on fact.

I hate the Facebook redesign


That’s why no matter how much you hate the new Facebook redesign, it’s as inevitable as the sun rising and setting each day, that there will always be updates to the look and layout of the site. The designers track everything you do, gather data and refine the design to push you towards the services they want you to find. Every single second you spend on a website is tracked and used to offer you a better journey in the future.

The Facebook timeline isn’t just a sporadic change bought in one day to ruin your experience. It’s a well thought out strategy that is designed to be as visually appealing as possible and to tap in to your base desires to share content and interact with friends.

We Are All Lab Rats
But then something weird occurred.

It became clear that just because something made sense it wouldn’t always work. “A bigger submit button must convert better?” would seem like a reasonable statement, but that wasn’t always the case. Likewise, in some cases, a particular page element may convert better, and in other scenarios it might perform poorly.

Green may mean “go”, but that doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to convert better on every single website. In some cases “red” may convert better – even though logic would dictate otherwise.

Red Button


So human psychology isn’t enough on its own. Even bit of common sense can be thrown out of the window, with people reacting completely different to how you’d expect when a website is live.

So although psychology in online web design began to boom, there was still some element of trial and error. Switching an entire design for an radically different design didn’t really make it possible to tell what people preferred. So Conversion Rate Optimisation grew as a new industry, that has really taken hold in recent years.

No longer did website owners have to guess if a green button would convert better than a red one. CRO meant you could set up page variations with even small changes and then see which worked best. The winning version could then be kept and a new trial started. This was part of a pursuit to understand how people worked through websites and make the process easy.

That continued in to over channels with the ability to split test different advert variations on Google AdWords, helping you to determine which one encouraged more clicks and sales. Every time you go online you are a lab rat helping to pioneer a better experience for the next person. As you click on pages you may be doing a marketer a favour without even realising it.

Psychology As Manipulation
Once Social Media entered the word of online marketing it raised a whole new psychological challenge. How to get people to share your content. Blog post after blog post was written with a look at why the human mind would want to share content.

In some cases blog posts would be written with controversial headlines (called “clickbait”) or really long pieces of content were made, so enough people to land on a page and share it. I have seen on countless occasions people share content on social media with the message “I haven’t read this, but it looks great”. “The content looks good, and it’s long, therefore it must be good”, was likely their thought process, and it worked.

This worked even better with the introduction of social sharing buttons that proved other people had shared it too. You can often get this bizarre scenario where people are sharing things they haven’t read, and then other people see it and share it too (without reading it). The website gets tons of views and social shares thanks to this psychological trick.

Let’s try an experiment now. If you’ve actually read this post, when you tweet it include the hashtag “#wearenotlabrats”. I can guarantee far more shares will just be the generic headline, because it’s easy. What I’ve just asked of you is hard, it means you have to have read this far, and wrote a specific tweet. Psychologically it’s an effort, whereas landing on the page, scanning and thinking “this looks good, I’ll share it” is easy.

I’ll write in the comments whether you guys beat the lab rats or not.

Back to the topic of psychology as manipulation, when Squidoo hands you a dozen badges, it’s a psychological mind game. “Look you’ve done well, tell your friends” says the website, and millions of people can’t resist showing off their achievement. And why wouldn’t you?

This week when training for a run I set a new personal best and the app promptly handed me a badge and asked if I’d like to share it. I felt proud for hitting a new milestone, and although I know the mind trap of badges and achievement notifications I couldn’t resist. I felt proud, and the app hit me at exactly the right time.

It was a master stoke in timing and ego stroking, that resulted in free advertising for the app.

Exercise App

It’s no surprise that this type of ego stroking has grown over time and been given an entire subset of marketing called “Gamification”. Badges, points, league tables; they’re all very effective ways to keep people coming back to a website, and sharing it with other people and best of all everybody wins. You feel good and the website gets promoted, although it’s not so good if people get a bored of your constant messages asking for sheep on Farmville.

Websites (Brands) As People
The biggest area for growth in online psychology, and something that there have been positive steps towards is for websites and brands to reposition themselves as people online. A presentation by Brian Cugelman sums this up really well:

How do you feel about a website that

That’s the stance of most websites. A one way conversation where they are right and you should listen. That’s not what people want, and brands are waking up to the idea that humanising their business can lead to improved sales and better opinions of their brand in the future.

We like transparent brands. When a brand does something wrong and they hold up their hands and apologise we are far more likely to forgive them than if we hide the issue.
If we ask a brand a question on Social Media, we expect them to respond. If we have an issue, we want help. The businesses who have truly mastered human psychology online understand all of these things. They encourage questions, practice transparency in their business and are always seen to be on the side of customers.

The below video from SEOmoz is a great example of this. It’s a transparent video about how they are a transparent business. That’s a lot of transparency.

SEOmoz on Radical Transparency in Business from Dan McComb on Vimeo.

Psychology Is Your Job Now
If you work in online marketing, psychology is your job. Whatever you do, if it has even a small ounce of interacting with the public or your customers; or if just one person will see what you do, then you need to understand psychology.

Everything we place importance on online now – SEO, Paid Search, Creating great content, Gamification, CRO (and the rest) was born from psychology. It surrounds the industry and by thinking of the human element in a campaign, you’ll get a far better response.

By understanding the way people think and feel towards your business and website, you can make huge steps in improving corporate success and keeping customers happy. You don’t need a PhD, just a desire to help give people a better experience.

Image Source

Rorschach Inkblot Test via BigStock

Mike Essex

Mike Essex

Mike Essex specialises in digital marketing and everything search. A recent project of Mike’s was featured on BBC News, Radio 5Live and the Times here in the UK, whilst also featuring on USA Today and ABC News in the US. He will be writing throughout the month about digital marketing and much more...


  • Gemma Holloway

    Gemma Holloway 24th September 2012

    I really enjoyed this post Mike – especially the study of your own you conduct, very fitting with the theme and am intrigued to discover the outcome. It’s interesting to consider how psychology influences parts of our lives which we would not conventionally expect.

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 24th September 2012

      Thanks Gemma, and so far it seems like the lab rats are “winning”, but it will be interesting to see the overall spread.

      Psychology has an impact on everything and I think it’s just as valid to say “every SEO should understand Psychology” when people say things like “every SEO should be able to code”.

      Reply to this comment

  • Patrick Hathaway 24th September 2012

    Really enjoyed that post Mike. I think it’s a real shame that social media has resulted in this mindless sharing. Particularly since it often means that users no longer comment on a post, which is an opportunity to engage properly and add value. Google+ is not a bad alternative to blog comments however, particularly as they are less transient than tweets.

    Gamification can have this negative affect too – pick any old SEOmoz post and you will see hundreds of pointless ‘BACN’ comments like ‘This is great, thanks for sharing’. Would they bother if they didn’t get a MozPoint?

    Your article reminded me of AJ Kohn’s from last week, and I think there are a lot off crossovers:
    (by the way, check out the comments on that post – better than a few empty tweets right?)

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 24th September 2012

      That’s a great post by AJ Kohn. Tying in to those ideas I wrote an SEOmoz post on how to build links with free stuff that bombed. So I wrote a new post on 99 ways to build links with free stuff that was the same concept but expanded with 99 examples and it did far far better (at least by a factor of 20).

      People reading the original post could probably have created any number of examples in their own mind, but actually saying 99 ways, produced a lot better results.

      Going back to your first point I do like Google+ for comments, although it’s a shame when people comment on Google+ (or other sharing sites like Inbound) without commenting on the original post, as it fragments the discussion.

      Reply to this comment

      • Patrick Hathaway 24th September 2012

        Yes, you can get comment streams on Twitter, discussions on Google+ (on a variety of different profiles) and also in the actual comments. It is a shame these can’t be threaded together as they will often just get lost in the non-existent ether.

  • Anthony Pensabene 24th September 2012

    Mike, you do not ‘follow me back’ on Twitter. It keeps me screaming out of a sound sleep at night and is the reason my ego is not strong enough to find a wife..but I digress.

    I celebrate your experiment here. I think it will make people..think. You hit at a good point in your closing. Those with ‘desire’ to please WILL CONTINUALLY TRY to please their customers. Some bigger brands can rely on sheep-like consumerism once the machine is set in motion.

    [I'm typing beside a $2+ cup of coffee from... a well-known brand. I'm sitting in their cafe, using their wi-fi; so, it's 'all good in the hood,' but c'mon. For a few cups, I can make it at home all week and then some. People come here because of the psychology of branding and aligning the brand with morning 'routines.']

    “We appreciate your business.” What? Who, you the disgruntled cafe worker? Oh, the CEO? He/She personally thanks me? Where are they? They know me? Oh, they appreciate my contribution to their pocket? I understand.

    They’re using me and I’m using them. A business with a true desire to serve would never become so detached from that original desire. It’s just a moneymaker.

    If you really want to make an impact with consumers, break that wall of disconnection. See them as individuals; allow them to see that the competition may see them as ‘sheep,’ but your brand does not.

    It’s not only an invitation for a different mindset by brands. But it’s an invitation to be an ‘I should expect more’ type of consumer as well. Perhaps, being marketers, we’re able to see ‘both sides,’ and make better assessments from both ends.

    Reply to this comment

  • Liz Wilson 26th September 2012

    Thanks for the thoughtful post – it was a joy to read. Maybe the title should be “about your mind AND your money”. I had a huge argument with someone recently who insisted “content marketing is just manipulation by another name” and I defended it to the hilt. But all content has an agenda, even if it’s not obvious. I’m wondering how we can be more honest and upfront, yet still market ourselves and our products.

    Reply to this comment

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