The Art of Online Pre-suasion

Best practice doesn’t sell. Emotion does.

I assume you’d love to believe that you are a rational agent, and before making any decision you weigh the information at your disposal and make the best decision possible.

You’d be wrong.

The truth is that we humans are irrational most of the time. Just how irrational? So much so that we literally can’t function in the real world or perform basic tasks like deciding what to wear or have for dinner without the ability to make irrational decisions.

And it’s getting worse. It may seem counter-intuitive, but there’s evidence to suggest humans are becoming more irrational, not less. As the world becomes increasingly complex and difficult to navigate, we rely more on mental shortcuts.

This is the problem of cognitive overload. Our monkey-like brains simply aren’t designed to process the complexities of modern life, and as a result, we’re less guided by facts and rational thinking. Hello to a world of conspiracy theories, biased thinking and poor decision making. It’s fair to say that modern humans aren’t thinking machines. They’re feeling machines that can think.

Because researchers know this, a quiet field of study has been underway for the past 60 years focused on determining exactly how our biases affect our behaviour and how to appeal to them. It’s the science of persuasion and there’s no doubt that there is hard science as to why and how we’re persuaded and shockingly simple techniques to achieve it.

The best part is, these techniques apply online. We’re a User Experience and Design consultancy located in Singapore and we’ve integrated the principles of persuasion into our pipeline and are constantly finding new ways of working with them. Though it sounds like a dark art of manipulation, if used within the bounds of an ethical framework they offer genuine thought leaders an advantage over their competition.

Before showing you how they’re used, it might pay to define exactly what persuasion is. The term itself gained notoriety in the now famous book “Influence” by Dr Robert Cialdini, known as the godfather of persuasion.

We’d define it as ‘the art of crafting images and copy to persuade people and potential customers into getting them on your side; to establish a relationship, to convert.’

It’s powerful stuff the world of advertising has known for centuries, but it’s nothing compared to its big brother: “pre-suasion” (emphasis on the “pre”).

What’s pre-suasion? If persuasion is simple advertising and directing people’s minds to content, then pre-suasion is the practice of getting people sympathetic to your message before you’ve delivered it. According to science, it’s what you say before you’ve delivered your message that sets the stage and gives you leverage.

How does it work? Here’s a fun fact for all the pick-up artists: If you’re wanting a woman’s number, you’ll double your chances if you’re near a flower store. Why? Because being in the presence of flowers puts women in the mindset of romance. Not consciously, but pre-suasively. The environment changes the perception of the pick-up artist from being a potential threat to a potential romantic.

In an online example: a website selling furniture that features clouds on the homepage changed the behaviour of users in that they sought out more comfortable and higher priced sofas. Simply being exposed to the idea of comfort made them prioritise it over cost.

As you can see, this has major implications for how we talk to users, and because User Experience is a discipline that deals with many layers of content and spread out over a dispersed journey, the tools of persuasion and pre-suasion become all the more compelling.

Now, in order to influence the state of mind of users, it’s important to know what mental shortcuts people take in their decision making.

There are six universal ones:

Reciprocity. The supermarket assistant who gives you a cheese sample isn’t doing it out of the niceness of their heart. They’re doing something that taps into a basic human instinct: to return a favour. Unless you’re a sociopath, it’s uncomfortable to hand back an empty toothpick and walk away. Most people feel obligated to do something in return and as a result, more people buy the product.

A serious study on the subject revealed that restaurant waiters who gave customers a small gift like a mint increased their tips by 3%. If they gave 2 mints it went up to 14%. And if they gave one mint, walked away, paused and came back to give another mint and say “for you lovely customers, you get an extra mint” the number skyrockets to a ridiculous 23% increase in tips, which was influenced not by what was given, but how it was given.

Scarcity. How many times have you acted on the phrases “for a limited time only”, “while stocks last” or “limited edition”? We know that by simply stating “only X number of items per customer”, most people will buy twice as many as they intended. 

Much of human evolution was spent in search of scarce resources so you might say we’re hardwired for it. If something is said to be in short supply, there’s a far higher chance you’ll act on a transaction.

Authority. We all feel better when our doctor’s wall is filled with credentials and certificates. Humans naturally follow elected leaders and experts or those in positions of authority.

What’s important to note is that it’s crucial to display what makes you a credible source of knowledge or authority before you make your attempt to influence.

Consistency. If you’ve said you’re going to do something, most of us feel obligated to live up to it. Interestingly, consistency can be trained (yes, you can train humans, much like any domestic animal) by getting them to do small, innocuous things which later lead to bigger things.

The simple act of asking voters which party they’re likely to vote for makes them more likely to vote. Doctors can reduce their missed appointments by 20% by asking patients to fill out their next appointment card. Why? Because the activity of writing signifies a commitment in the mind of the patients.

Liking & familiarity. The reason why influencers have sway is that people prefer to say yes to who they know and like, and one of the main things which make us like someone is how similar we feel to that person.

Consensus. You’re more likely to order the dish on the menu that says “most popular” next to it. It’s the same reason why online reviews are a powerful form of social proofing. lets you know that “5 people are currently viewing this room” or “have booked this room” and that leads to a significant increase in bookings. 

A whopping 97% of all online buyers check product reviews before making a purchase. That’s higher than the percentage of people that believe in a spherical earth. We all look to our peers for validation, especially when we’re considering a purchase.


Now that you know the mental shortcuts, how can we use them to guide users in our direction? What factors influence their perception?

Setting the Stage/Environment

It’s a well-known fact that humans – and thus, users – respond to the environment around them. Just like how we saw in the example of the pick up artist near the flower store, the environment (or in the online space: the “look and feel”) can change the perceived experience of something entirely.

A number of years ago we were engaged to redesign an airline website. One of the initial findings was that people by and large dislike filling out lengthy forms, so as a design strategy (and because it fits the brand) we made the website look and behave like an arcade game. By creating an environment that reminded users of fun, we were more able to put users in a frame of mind that’s more relaxed and open to suggestions.

Idea Inception

I’m sure by now we’ve all seen Leonardo Dicaprio in the movie that made the idea of “inception” famous. The truth is the idea of inception isn’t just Hollywood sci-fi, it has roots in persuasion science. As mentioned, pre-suasion is about what you say before you deliver the message. “Inception” if you will.

For our airline client, we found that when users were selecting flights and if it was a particularly long journey (let’s say, from Singapore to the UK) and we made them aware of it by saying “it’s a long flight, better get comfy”, they were more likely to purchase items that made their flight more comfortable. A simple headline was enough to plant a seed in the user’s mind that long flights = discomfort, which lead to users being significantly more likely to act.

Suggestions at the Right Time

The wonderful thing about humans (which can be horribly frustrating for UX professionals) is that they’re always distracted and somewhat fickle. How they feel in one moment may be completely different from the next.

It may sound obvious but if you’re going to suggest something to a consumer, it’s important to do it at the right time and when they’re in the right frame of mind.

Our airline client had a big business problem: Because they were a low-cost carrier, their business model was centred around selling ancillary products like wi-fi access, comfort kits, ‘etc’.

Prior to the redesign, these were housed on a single “add-on’s” page near the end of the user flow. At this point in the journey, most users were mentally exhausted and unreceptive to upselling. We redesigned the entire flow so that each additional product was displayed only at a point in time in which users would be most likely to be receptive to them.

Eg: If users were choosing where they’d like to sit, then we’d ask if they’d like a snooze kit or portable TV or anything else related to their seated experience. 

If they were filling out their personal details, we asked if they’d like insurance or VIP boarding privileges. The result was an increase in 25% of additional purchases.

As you can see, understanding these short-cuts and techniques and employing them in an ethical way can dramatically increase the chance that whoever you’re talking to will be persuaded by your request, which in turn has a dramatic effect on the way we design and do business.

Here we’ve only just scratched the surface of persuasion and its application to commerce, but an important step for agencies and design professionals is to recognise that persuasion is a fast-evolving science if used correctly and within the bounds of an ethical framework provides some incredibly powerful tools.

Happy persuading.

About the Author

Mathew Colin is the UX/Design Director of Singapore-based User Experience and Development agency, EIGHTFOUR. EIGHTFOUR is in a class of its own for its intuitive digital creations driven by design, psychology, and business led by a streamlined team of specialists. Some of EIGHTFOUR’s esteemed clients include: Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways, CNN, OCBC, and Playpoint.  

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