Hidden reasons why your customers aren’t buying

While walking the dog the other morning I was struck by a racket coming from a gum tree. It was as if the tree itself was making loud screeching sounds.

Looking closely, I began to make the shape out of the birds responsible for the din: lorikeets, dozens of them.

Lorikeets are brightly coloured birds, green with a red or yellow chest and blue head, so you would think they would be easy to spot.

Not so. If it weren’t for the noise you wouldn’t know they were there.

The same is true of behavioural biases and heuristics. We don’t ‘see’ them because they are camouflaged. They are so normal that they are unexceptional.

The hidden faults undermining your business

I review a lot of websites in my line of work and one business I recently worked with had a site that looked professional, contemporary and easy to use. It was beautiful.

So why was their conversion rate less than 1%? In other words, for every 100 people who visited the site, why were 99 leaving without buying?

Beautiful doesn’t mean effective.

Their site was littered with hidden faults that were putting customers off. A missed cue here, a poorly designed call-to-action there; small things that meant the website was putting customers off.

For your website, sales pitch, staff email or marketing campaign to be effective, you need to avoid triggering the hidden behavioural blockers that undermine conversion. There are dozens of hidden blockers but let’s start with examples of three of the most common.

1. Poorly framed value

People usually appraise whether your offer represents great value using their fast-thinking System 1 brain, and in micro-seconds they are either engaged or not. In the case of the Hot Stone special below, this business has missed the opportunity to effectively frame (contextualise) how significant the discount is through the behavioural principle of anchoring.

Rather than including the $130 original price first, crossing it out and then introducing the marked down $99, they have listed them as follows:


Figure 1: RRP should be listed first to anchor the price

The electronics retailer below also failed to explain why their offer represented great value. In this case they didn’t include the original price at all, making it difficult for the customer to understand the relative advantage of buying then and there.

bri williams

Figure 2: A pricing anchor should be included

It’s not just how you anchor value, it’s also how you list the number itself. This fuel card business has pulled its punch when advertising its offer. It starts well enough with the prize represented as “$1,000”, but then switches to “$1k”. Not only is this a confusing inconsistency, $1k shortens the number, thereby diminishing its perception of magnitude.

When you are giving money away you should elongate the number, using commas and decimals that take longer for the brain to process.


Figure 3: Elongate the number

2. Zero positive tension

Your effectiveness requires you to manage two types of tension: negative and positive. Negative tension is what scares customers off, and positive tension is what draws them near.

Here’s an example of a business that has failed to build positive tension between its paid and free options because all three are communicated with affirming ticks. At a glance, the free version seems to give the customer five features without any downside. Sounds like a good option!

bri williams

Figure 4: Create tension between options

To persuade people that one option is better than another – that change is better than staying the same, or that paying is better than getting the free version for instance – you need to create positive tension and draw out the downside of the least preferred option.

 3. Unnecessary negative tension

Negative tension is the number one killer of conversion – if people are anxious about proceeding, they won’t. The survey below triggers anxiety by starting with sensitive personal questions. People prefer to be anonymous until they understand what is being asked of them, and while these questions don’t identify them as such, they do push the ‘this is personal information’ button and decrease the odds of participation.

bri williams

Figure 5: Survey gets too personal, too soon

Other examples of negative tension include failing to include security icons on payment screens, asking customers for sensitive information like their date of birth, requesting their email without explaining why and using call-to-action buttons that don’t explain what happens when they are clicked.

Just like being able to spot a lorikeet in a tree once you know it’s there, once you understand what hidden forces underpin behaviour, you can easily spot and address them in your business. Influence becomes easy once you know what lies beneath.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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