How to Unleash Psychological Power in Your Conversion Rate Optimization

by Neil Patel

Last updated on July 25th, 2017

You’ve probably heard that psychology is important in conversion rate optimization. And you probably don’t argue over it.

You realize that, sure, psychology and CRO have a lot in common. You understand that a good CRO will use psychological insights.

In my experience, however, that’s where most CROs stop. They know that psychology plus CRO is a magical match, full of wondrous delights and fabulous results. Unfortunately, in the practical day-to-day execution of those ideas, nothing happens.

Most CROs want tricks, hacks, tactics, techniques, and processes. They don’t want some randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study. No way! Give us the tactics!

That’s why I wrote this article.

Here’s what I want to do. I want to show you why psychology is critical to CRO. And then I want to explain how you can use the power of psychology to skyrocket your conversion optimization success.

Prepare to have your psychological socks blown off.

Why is it important to understand psychology in conversion rate optimization?

Question number one: What’s the big idea behind psychology?

Can’t a CRO be content to keep the focus on the split tests, results, variations, analytics, and website tweaks?

Sure. But in order to be a master conversion rate optimizer, you’ve got to step into the arena of psychology.

Here’s why.

Psychology gives you the most direct path to changing a user’s behavior, which is the central goal of conversion rate optimization.

The most obvious way to discover the impact of psychology on CRO is to ask, what is the goal of CRO?

The ultimate goal of CRO is to help people make a decision to buy – a conversion. In many cases, the initial tactical goals may extend only to a “subscribe” or “free download” decision. But the ultimate goal is to bring that user to a decision.

conversion optimization funnel


Since a decision is the goal, we as CROs have to figure out how to get the user to make a decision.


We are instantly in the field of psychology. Why? Because psychology has to do with decision making. Every conversion represents the psychological phenomenon of decision making.

elements of decision quality


In order to best optimize for those decisions, we need to understand how the human mind makes those decisions.

The way that we use the psychology of decision making to encourage conversions is through a branch of psychology known as the psychology of influence, or persuasion.

Persuasion is “a symbolic process in which communicators try to convince other people to change their attitudes or behaviors regarding an issue through the transmission of a message in an atmosphere of free choice” (Source).

That message, of course, is the context of our websites, complete with the headline, the CTA, the colors, the layout, and all the other elements that influence conversion.

persuasion slide


If we understand how to do persuasion better, we will become better CROs. That’s all there is to it.

Many CROs swear by Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.



Though Cialdini didn’t write the book for CROs, it’s become the de facto conversion optimization handbook for those who understand the power of psychology.

Psychology tells you what your customers are thinking and feeling.

A user’s thoughts (motivation) and feelings (emotions) are at the heart of decision making. In fact, you can’t make any decision without using your emotions.

Notice how the brain functions when making a decision. Both rational and emotional factors come into play.

rational vs. emotional brain


Even if you pride yourself on being a “completely rational” person, you can’t escape the indirect effects that emotions have upon your decisions.

immediate emotions


That’s where psychology proves its power. Psychology tells you what emotions users are feeling and how those emotions will drive their decision making.

Psychology allows you to develop a system for CRO without time-consuming early-phase testing.

Persuasion is the most obvious way that psychology influences conversion optimization.

But there is another branch of psychology that has an even larger impact on conversion optimization.

It’s called heuristic psychology.

Maybe the reason it’s not as widely known is because heuristics sounds really boring, isn’t easy to pronounce, and isn’t very sexy.

But it’s important.

Here’s how it works in conversion rate optimization. Heuristics are mental rules that we make up in order to help us to get more results in less time.

There are a few easy ways to understand what a heuristic is:

what is a heuristic


So, what does this have to do with conversion rate optimization?

Whenever you create a landing page, you follow a set of rules to create that page. These rules might not be written down. However, you know from experience that, for example, you should have a headline, an image, a few bullet points, a CTA, etc.

How do you know all of that?

The answer: heuristics.

Your heuristic process is a unique method that you have created in order to shortcut the process of decision making when you are optimizing a page.

What would it be like if you had to start from square one in creating an optimized landing page? You’d have to decide whether to use text, no text, a headline, an image, a text CTA or a graphical CTA, and tens of thousands of other tiny decisions.

Your heuristic process, on the other hand, enables you to make all those decisions in a split second. You don’t even think about it.

The more refined, detailed, and experienced your heuristics become, the better you develop as a conversion rate optimizer.

Several notable CROs have codified their heuristics, creating a defined process that others can use to optimize their websites.

equation of some sort


Where does this heuristic power come from?

It comes from psychology.

Psychology is primarily focused on the user, which is at the core of conversion rate optimization

The final reason why psychology is killer is this: your customer.

  • Understanding them
  • Speaking to them
  • Satisfying them
  • Intriguing them
  • Overcoming their biases
  • Intuiting their preferences
  • Knowing how color will affect them
  • Identifying what page layouts will be most compelling
  • Determining what font will have the best impact
  • Creating a user experience that makes them anxious
  • Using specific words that will create a sense of urgency
  • Knowing what images will have the greatest effect
  • Determining what form fields they will be willing to fill out.

Everything you do to optimize for conversions isn’t really about the conversions as much as it is about the people whom you are trying to convert.

Make sense?

Basically, it all boils down to customer psychology.

This article is not the place to unveil all the dark secrets of consumer psychology. The point I want to make is this: Conversion optimization depends on psychology to understand and create a conversion experience.

Bottom line: You will become a more successful CRO if you use the power of psychology.

I rest my case.

But now we’re left with the obvious question.

How do you unleash the power of psychology on your conversion optimization?

Above, I told you why it’s important.

Now, I’m going to tell you how to do it.

How in the world am I going to bestow centuries of psychological research and insight on you in just a few hundred words?

By providing a framework.

Study the heck out of your users.

This is where it all begins. Your users.

  • Know them.
  • Research them.
  • Talk to them.
  • Understand them.
  • Ask them questions.
  • Spend time with them.
  • Analyze their every click, pause, scroll, and bounce.

It’s tempting to jump directly into the analytics part of understanding your user — bounce rates, on-page behavior, demographics, etc. Don’t give into this temptation.

Interview users.

I encourage you to research a level deeper before you jump right into the data. Find one customer — someone who seems representative — and interview them.

Use psychographics.

Also, instead of just studying the demographic data of your customer persona, tackle the deeper and more motivating issues of psychographics.

demographics vs. psychographics


Study cognitive biases.

Understanding why your users do what they do will go a long way in shaping your conversion efforts. One of the most powerful ways to do this is through a study of cognitive biases.

It sounds boring, but it’s actually quite fascinating.

Read all you can.

The only way you’re going to become a psychological expert in conversion rate optimization is by reading a ton of information.

Here are the topics I suggest:

  • Persuasion
  • User experience design
  • Customer or consumer psychology
  • Cognitive biases
  • Color psychology

To shortcut this process, here are a few killer articles and ebooks that will get you started:

  1. Why Psychology is Crucial to Conversion Optimization
  2. The Psychology of Conversion Optimization: Anatomy of the Brain
  3. The Complete Guide to Understanding Consumer Psychology
  4. The Ultimate Guide to the Psychology of Conversion Optimization
  5. How To Persuade People Online – 17 Lesser Known Jedi Mind Tricks
  6. 67 Ways to Increase Conversion with Cognitive Biases
  7. 15 Psychological Triggers to Convert Leads into Customers

If you read those seven resources, I guarantee you’ll be doing better than 90% of your CRO colleagues.

Practice asking why. Answer these questions using heuristics and split testing.

Scientists are all about asking why. As a CRO, you are a psychological scientist.

You want to know why.

  • Why would a user convert to begin with?
  • Why should we use an image?
  • Why are we using a headline on this page?
  • Why does this page have seven fields on the form?
  • Why does this landing page even have a form?
  • Why would a user fill the form out?

Why, why, why?

You might end up driving yourself crazy, but you might also get some valuable information.

You can answer all those deep-diving questions with two psychologically driven processes: split testing and heuristics.

Hypothesize before you test.

Creating a hypothesis is at the core of psychology, and it’s also at the crux of running split tests.

Whenever you create a split test, you should hypothesize as to which test will win.

If you don’t hypothesize, you’re leaving a ton of free psychological training on the table.


Finally, use what you know.

The minute you gain some sizzling hot psychological insight, use it. Psychology and conversion rate optimization go hand-in-hand. The more you use your psychological insights, the faster you’ll optimize, improve, and profit.

Psychology isn’t some dry-as-dust academic field. It’s at the heart of what we as CROs are doing.

How do you use psychology in your conversion optimization efforts?

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Neil Patel

Neil Patel is the co-founder of Crazy Egg and Hello Bar. He helps companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue.


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