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Supporting image for The Psychology Behind Better Conversion Rates – Nancy Harhut
The Psychology Behind Better Conversion Rates – Nancy Harhut
The Agents of Change

Nancy Harhut

Behavioral science, and the research we gain from it, helps us to understand an individual’s buying habits and decision making process. Nancy Harhut is passionate about the impact that behavioral science has on marketing, and teaches effective persuasive techniques to businesses so they can really learn to move the needle to increase leads and sales.



Rich: She’s an Online Marketing Institute Top 40 Digital Strategist, Social Top 50 Email Marketing Leader, and the winner of numerous International Echo Awards for Marketing Effectiveness. She has creative directed integrated campaigns for clients such as AT&T, IBM, GM Card, Dell, Nationwide, Bank of America, Sheraton, United Healthcare, American Express, and more.

She is known for her insights that focus on applying behavioral science to marketing. She’s a sought after, top ranked speaker. She’s wowed audiences in Moscow, Stockholm, Sao Paolo, all over the U.S., including attendees at SXSW and the 7th annual Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference – talk about a feather in your cap! Please welcome Nancy Harhut.

Nancy: Hey Rich, thank you that was a wonderful intro. I appreciate that, you make me sound terrific and the check is in the mail. 

Rich: Nancy you are terrific. I have totally enjoyed every conversation we’ve had, and I thought you just killed it at AOC this year. I had the pleasure of sitting in on your session. 

Nancy: It was such a good conference this year, I totally enjoyed presenting, bit more than that I totally enjoyed sitting in on everyone else’s presentations – including yours – which you just knocked it out of the park. I thought that was fabulous. 

Rich: Oh you can hold onto that check now, Nancy. I think we’re even. Alright, so you and I share a love of both marketing and psychology and where they overlap. You’re fascinated by psychology and behavioral science, was that your path to marketing, or what exactly was your path to marketing? 

Nancy: So that’s a good question. You would think that the simple answer would be ‘yes’, but it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I studied journalism actually in college and quickly realized getting close to graduation that I would be a good journalist, I wouldn’t be a great journalist. So I scrambled and I found something else I thought I could be better at, and that led me to marketing. And after spending some time in marketing I discovered behavioral science, and that’s when the lightbulb went off.

Because when you think about it, in marketing what we’re really trying to do is influence people’s behavior. Whether we want them to try something, or buy something, or buy it again, or whether we want them to open and read, or give up some personal data, or refer us to a friend. Whatever it is we’re always trying to influence some kind of behavior, and behavioral science, social science, is ideal for that. And when I first discovered it, it was less in a context of marketing and more just in the general context of trying to influence people’s behavior, whether it’s healthier eating, or exercise, or politics, or something like that. But I thought his was tailor made for marketing and I began to read voraciously and study the subject and look for ways to combine the best practices in marketing with what social scientists and economists were finding out about how people make decisions. And as I began to find out intersections, I began to test out some theories I had on how we might be able to use those in marketing to increase the likelihood that people do what we want them to do, and those tests began to payout and clients were very happy and things just took off from there.

Rich: So how do you take then that information on how people make decisions, their shortcuts, or behavioral patterns, and work them into your marketing material or your copy? And if you have an example of some of the tests that you did, I’d be fascinated to hear what that’s all about.  

Nancy: Sure. That’s a question we get a lot. So I recently co-founded an agency called HBT Marketing, and my co-founder and I often get that questions, “How do you do this?” Well, the short answer is you don’t know what’s going to work. You can have a pretty good hypothesis or two or three, and then you begin to test.

So what we do is we stay up to speed on what the social scientists and economists are finding, and then we start to think where could I use that, where would that be applicable. So for example we were doing some work for an insurance company that sold life insurance to dentists. And the thing about life insurance is it’s hard enough to get somebody to buy it, and once you do, that’s kind of where it ends. They check the box and they really don’t ever want to return. But the truth of the matter is, we usually should tweak what we have as life moves on. Maybe we get married, maybe we have children, maybe our income increases, maybe our responsibilities change. So there’s usually a pretty good case for revisiting what you initially bought. But again, it’s a difficult task, people don’t like to go through the motions of buying insurance and once they do they’re like, “Good, I’m done.”

So this particular client wanted to email their dentist who were customers of theirs and time for you to add some more insurance. And no matter what they did they were only getting mediocre response rates. So we had been up to speed on this notion of the pull of the magnetic middle. There had been some research done around how people make decisions, and all things being equal, we don’t really like to be on the bleeding edge nor do we like to lag behind, but  a tendency to feel more safer and comfortable just in the middle. We have a tendency to gravitate towards the middle and there are a number of experiments that prove this. You walk into a restroom and there’s 3 stalls, you have a tendency to go to the middle stall. I know it’s crazy. When I tell people that everyone has their own theory. But then they did another one with people walking into an empty waiting room outside a doctor’s office and there’s a row of chairs, and they gravitate towards the center chair. There just seems to be this thing in humans that make us gravitate towards the center.

So we said how might we use that in marketing for this particular client who was selling dental insurance. So what we did is we included in our marketing message a graph, and at one end of the graph we had zero dollars, which is the least amount of insurance you can have. And at the other end of the graph we had $3,000,000, which is the most amount that this company sold. We didn’t expect that we could wave a magic wand and get everyone over to the $3,000,000 mark, but we might be able to get them to increase what they had by showing them where they sat on the graph. And on almost every case people were left of center. So you’d open up the communication, you’d see the graph, and you would see yourself left of center. And our hypothesis was while it wouldn’t move people all the way to the far right ot $3,000,000, it would move them closer to center. And that’s in fact exactly what happened and we saw this quadruple lift response in terms of actually selling additional insurance ot these dentists, because you look at it and you have this visceral response that you’re lagging behind, you’re not in the center where it’s safe and comfortable and where most people presumably are. And so people increased what they bought to get themselves closer to center. 

And then of course you say well what if people were going to be right of center. Then what you do is you start the graph at a different place. You start the graph where they are, so left is where they are, right is $3.000.000 and again it would start to push them closer to center. So that’s one example of how we’re able to take something that we read about in terms of academic research and apply it, along with some other marketing best practices, to alter people’s behavior.

Rich: And I’m just curious, the graph that you showed them, this wasn’t the average user because then the average user would be somewhere in the middle already. This must be between zero an $3,000,000, and then the middle point was $1,500,000, which is probably I assume then more than most people were still spending on their insurance. 

Nancy: Right. And everyone that we were targeting was below that. So we would show you exactly where you were so you would have a different mark on the graph than my solicitation would than my friend John’s would. It would always be the exact amount you had. But when we first started the test we made sure that for the test group everybody was going to be left of center, everyone would be left of $1,500,000. 

Rich: Sure, and you can just basically choose to only send it to those people. I’m just thinking of the bar chart in my mind right now of the number of people who need to be listening to the Agents of Change podcast and where you are right now. And so obviously moving people towards the center in that way, too. What are some of the behavioral tics that we have that as marketers we can tap into, what are some of the other things you’re seeing there? 

Nancy: Sure. There’s a lot of them. Some of them are simple and when I explain them you’re going to say, “Of course! I do that. And here’s why I do that.” Now I’ve got the scientific explanation for something that I instinctively knew worked or tested my way into. And then some of them are a little bit more interesting and you would have never thought of that, but let me give it a try.

So one of the ones that you’re probably going to say, “Oh yeah, I do that all the time”, is the idea of social norms. And social scientists and behavioral economists have found that we have a tendency to do what other people do. Particularly if we’re uncertain of what decision to make. I mean, if we absolutely know what we want to do that’s fine, but very often we;re not sure what to do, we’re weighing pros and cons and  what we do is we look to others – particularly like ourselves – and we follow their lead. So that’s why you see so many things , other people that bought what you just bought then went on to buy this product. So that’s an example of social norms. Or, this is our most popular product, or most popular package, or most popular service level. Again, that’s social norms.

As marketers we have a tendency to do that a lot. We talk about things that are most popular or that our are best sellers. We use testimonials, which we know works as marketers, but the reason they work has to do with social norms. Social norms is one of those, “now I get it, I know why that works”. On the other end of the set of examples, there might be something like availability bias. What social scientists have found is people will judge the likelihood of an event happening based on how readily they can recall an example. So the easy way to explain this is if you’re someone who doesn’t fly and someone says to you, “How safe is it to fly?”, you think about the information that’s available to you which would largely be from the news media and you’d think every time I read a story or see a story on TV about a plane, it seems to involve a plane crash and some fatalities. Based on that information you’re going to come to the conclusion that it’s not all that safe to fly. Well of course it’s because the news media doesn’t report about the millions and millions of safe landings, that’s not news. But based on the information you have, you come to a conclusion that it’s not all that safe to fly.

So again, let’ swing this back to marketing. If people are going to judge the likelihood of an event happening, and in this case it’s their need for your product or service based on how readily they can recall an example. What we want to do as marketers is before we ask them to buy we want to get them to think of a time in the past when if they had our product or service, their life would have been so much easier. Or if we can’t do that, we get them to project into the future and imagine their work life or their personal life with our product or service in it and how much better that would be. So that’s a great way to use availability buys and  it isn’t necessarily one that comes readily to us, but when you start to dig into it you think that could really work. And I’ve seen several examples, I’ve created several examples actually, where we’ve been able to successfully use that.

Rich: So one of the things that I always struggle with, and I know a lot of marketers struggle with, is getting people to open our emails. What are some of the techniques that we can use from a behavioral psychology standpoint that are going to increase our chances that someone’s going to open up that email? 

Nancy: That’s a great question. In fact, everybody wants to know the answer to that, and rightly so. We’re sending so much email that we have to get better about getting people to open. And when you think about it, there are two pieces of information aht we have that help us decide whether or not we want to open something. One is the sender line, and one is the subject line. There are experts that will tell you the sender line is absolutely the most critical piece of information. I actually take a slightly contrarian view on that, and I’m not alone in this by any stretch. But I believe the subject line can actually trump the sender line because even if you don’t recognize the sender, but that subject line has something that sounds interesting to you or beneficial to you or has a certain amount of urgency to it, you’re more than likely going to open it. So I think that the words you use in that subject line can make a world of difference in terms of whether or not people choose to open your email. 

There are a number of different words you can use that are proven to work. One of them is the word “new”. As a matter of fact, there’s a whole family of “new” words, there’s “new”, “now introducing”, “announcing”, “finally”, “soon”. All of these suggest that there’s obviously something new on the horizon. And the reason these work so well is the human brain is hardwired to crave  news and novelty. We crave it because when we find something that we think is new, it activates the reward center in our brains and that releases dopamine, and then that feels really good, so we’re always jonesing for that next hit of dopamine. And if we see something that we think is new, we get that release of dopamine and that feels really good.

So if you can write a subject line that has the words “new”, “now”, “introducing”, “announcing”, “finally”, “soon”, “discover” – that’s another great one if you want a verb – that all suggests novelty and that holds out the promise of that dopamine hit. The word “free” is another great word. And in marketing we have a tendency to use “free”, sometimes we get sick of “free”, but our customers and our prospects don’t. Sidekick ran a study and they found you get a 10% lift in opening rate simply by using the word ”free”. And psychologically the reason for that is we place such value on things that are free – we actually over value things that are free – we get this emotional rush when we find something that’s free, and that causes us to place more value on it. So in the moment we quickly respond to things that are free.

Another great subject line word is the word “secrets”. I think World Data ran a study and found you can get an 11% lift in your opening rates by using the word “secrets”. And psychologically speaking, the reason for that is we have a tendency to be more persuaded by things we believe aren’t widely available. So human beings are just more persuaded by information that we receive isn’t widely readily available. So if you have the word “secret” in your subject line, or even some variation of that like “sneak peek”, “the real story”, “the truth behind”, “an inside look”, all of these words and phrases are going to increase the likelihood that people are going to open the email because they’re going to want to find out what is this bit of information that’s not all that widely available. And then there are a number of other words, too, but those are some of my favorites actually. 

Rich: So the subject line for this week’s email is going to be, “New! Free marketing psychology secrets from expert Nancy Harhut”.   

Nancy: There you go! You’re done Rich, that’s perfect.  

Rich: So a couple questions on what you just said. First of all I know that for years they told us never use the word “free” in a subject line, or even in the body of the email, because it’s sure to be tagged as spam. Is that no longer the case? 

Nancy: I know exactly what you’re talking about, and apparently it is not. So World Data is a great company and they test millions and millions of emails and they test them and track them and report on them every year. And what they have found is “free” has been the #1 subject line word for the last four years, I think. And they readily acknowledge that there was a time when you absolutely didn’t want to use it because it would trigger those spam filters. But apparently – and now I’m getting a little outside of my area of expertise – apparently sender reputation is now a bigger deal than the actual words in the subject line. So it’s something that I would at least recommend testing based on the information that I have received from World Data. They’re finding that “free” is literally the #1 word that you can use to get people to open their emails. And that’s been I think the last 4 years running. So definitely worth a test. Again, there are other things that will determine whether or not your email is flagged as spam these days. 

Rich: That makes a lot of sense. So one other question that I had on this is, you talked about the power of “new” and how we’re craving new experiences. And yet in the previous example with the insurance company people seemed to be craving the comfort of being in the middle. How do we know – and I don’t know that this is a question you can answer – but how do we know when we should try and push something new versus  push something that gives people a level of comfort? And maybe it’s just on the product we’re trying to sell, I’m not sure.

Nancy: That’s a great question. And you’ve kind of zeroed in on one of the little hiccups in humanity. On the one hand, we’re craving things that are new, we like new experiences, we like new information because it literally triggers or activates the reward center of our brain. But on the other hand, we’re creatures of habit. We like things that are familiar and when something is too new or too different, it throws us.

For example, if we decide to redesign our website and we don’t follow certain conventions, we end up getting spikes in abandonment rates and we have angry customers. People crave the familiar and there are certain touchstones that just work and  a lot of this has to do with the fact that as human beings we’re cruising along on autopilot so often we’re bombarded with all kinds of information, marketing messages, and lots and lots of data. And the brain has gotten really efficient at screening out all the most relevant, the most essential information for us. And so because of that certain things that are familiar tous actually work very well.

So you’ve actually identified something that psychologists wrestle with, and as a result, marketers who tap into psychology also wrestle with it. So testing is of course the way to go. So  if I were redesigning a website I would want certain conventions that are definitely in place. If I was designing my email, if I was designing my landing page, there are certain things that people expect and I’d want to make sure that I touch those. And then introduce new things in the context of that.

If I have a new product or a new spin on an existing product, I definitely want to emphasize the newness of it, because I know that’s going to get people at least interested. So I think part of it is the idea of something new, adn part of it is the environment that somebody’s operating in and how much novelty you can inject into that. But it’s definitely something that you test.   

Rich: Yeah. And again with the insurance company, insurance is something that’s supposed to give you comfort, it’s not necessarily that you’re looking for something super exciting with insurance. If you were, maybe you wouldn’t have insurance on that motorcycle to begin with. So I think we need to take a look at our products as well as what we’re trying to tap into. 

Nancy: Absolutely. 

Rich: You mentioned landing pages, and that’s another area that a lot of marketers struggle with. And especially these days, I know that here at flyte we’re talking to our clients more and more about using Google AdWords and using Facebook Ads and driving people to a landing page. So what are some things that we can tap into in behavioral science that might help us increase the conversion rates of those landing pages?  

Nancy: That is a good question and we’re always constantly trying to optimize the response on our landing pages. I think one thing we would want to do is we want to think about single focus. When we drive somebody to that landing page we want them to do one thing and one thing only, and a lot of times I see people make the mistake of offering lots of different options. Well you can buy the product, or you can download the video, or you could read this white paper, or why don’t you pop over to our Twitter feed, or come over to our LinkedIn profile and read more about us. And what happens is when people are being asked to do all these different things, they’re not really sure what they’re supposed to do, and as a result their response goes down.

So having that single focus is very important. Trying to minimize your distractions and making sure that everything on that landing page is there for a reason, that nothing is extraneous. So that would include any design or imagery or visuals, as well as any language. Every word should be there for a reason and every design element should be there for a reason, and there really shouldn’t be anything that’s distracting.

And as an ancillary comment to that, anything that moves can be distracting. Movement is great if you ‘ve got an ad on somebody else’s website, but movement is not so good if you’re putting an ad on your own website or if you’re putting some kind of a graphic on your landing page, because our eyes go to motion and that would take the eyes away from the form field and the business at hand.

So I think #1 is have that single focus. If you have the opportunity – and you should really try to make this happen – to make sure that your originating message is reflected on your landing page, both in terms of copy and in terms of visuals. That is really key. If you get and email, for example, and the email sends you to a landing page, if the imagery and the language is very similar you’re going to see a spike in response rates. And if they’re not, there’s that disconnect because we need to reassure people almost immediately that they’ve landed in the right place.  

So single focus, clear, simple, no surprises. I think that’s one good thing to do. Another way that you can start to optimize your landing pages goes back to what I talked about with the insurance company, that idea of the magnetic middle, but in this case it would be the middle option. We have a tendency to go for the things that are in the middle. So maybe you’re offering Tier A, Tier B, and Tier C of your product, or Flavor A, Flavor B, Flavor C, that middle option is very often where people are going to go. And you can put it in the middle, you can highlight it in terms of  size or color to make it jump out more, but people have a tendency to gravitate towards the middle.

If you’re selling different marks of something, you might want to take advantage of something known as “anchoring”, when it comes to pricing. So you’d have your most expensive one at the very top, and then everything under that is going to be a little less expensive. And the reason this works is very often we don’t know what the cost of something is – particularly in B2B – but also B2C. Unless you’re buying it over and over again all the time, you really don’t know what something is supposed to cost, what the absolute value is. So what we do is we look at the first bit of information we find on pricing, that becomes our anchor, and we compare everything else to it. So if you’ve gone to somebody’s website and you can buy several different things, if they start with the most expensive thing, that becomes their anchor. And everything else you’re selling looks like a better deal compared to that.

Another pricing technique that we can consider incorporating into landing pages is “charm prices”, which are any prices that end in “9”. They have been shown to just telegraph to the human brain that it’s a good deal. In fact, there’s a study that came out of MIT where they were advertising a piece of women’s clothing and they advertised it at three different prices, adn the one ending in “9” – which was not the lowest price – was the one that performed the best. So that’s something to think about.

Adding testimonials to remove doubt and increase confidence, which is actually a form of social proof or social norms, that’s a good thing to do. And also adding things like trust icons and credibility markers so that people feel safe and confident transacting. I think those are all great ways to increase the conversion rate on a landing page.

Rich: Now if we’re looking to – we’ve been talking about looking to sell – but what if we’re not looking to sell, what if we’re looking to encourage somebody else, such as trying to convince a client to blog or post on social media more often? Are there different techniques that we can use to accomplish those goals? 

Nancy: So if you’re trying to not get a sale but still try to alter behavior or influence behavior, like post or blog more, sure. One thing to do is provide the reason why. Social scientists have found that people are more apt to do what we ask them to do if we give them a reason why. And it doesn’t even have to be this ironclad bulletproof reason like, “You should post more because if you do we’re going to pay you a million dollars.” Well, that would certainly be a wonderful one, but we’re not going to do that. But if you could provide some kind of reason, “You should post more because we’d really like to hear from you”, “You should post more because people will be interested in what you have to say”, those are fairly innocuous reasons, but they’re reasons nonetheless. And if you can provide the reason why, people are more apt to do what we want them to do.

And all those examples I just rattled off, you probably noticed I used the word “because”. And that’s a wonderful word. There’s a Harvard University professor whose name is Ellen Langer, and she identified the word “because” as an automatic compliance trigger, because when we see or hear the word “because” we start to nod up and down. We start to comply or agree without fully processing what comes next, we just assume that everything that comes after is a good logical legitimate reason, and it just makes us say yes.


There are some theories that say it’s because when we were kids we would be asking our parents these questions and our parents would always say, “because”, and now we’re just kind of conditioned to accept “because”.

But providing the reason why and serving it up, using the word “because” is a great way to get people to do what we want them to do. You don’t have to serve it up using the word “because”, but that’s a nice way to do it.

Showing people that lots of other people like them are doing what you’re asking them to do, like posting or going to the site more often, and that’s a good thing to do. Framing it as a potential lost opportunity could be something worth exploring, too. People are more motivated to avoid the pain of loss than they are to achieve the pleasure of gain. And sometimes that’s counterintuitive. In fact, very often it’s counterintuitive to us in marketing because we talk about benefits and gains and advantages. You know, “Here are all the wonderful things that I’m asking you to do”, “Here are all the great reasons you should be doing this”. But sometimes if we reframe it in terms of what somebody’s going to lose out on, the pain that they can avoid by taking the action or the pain that they might experience if they don’t take the action. Those can also be very motivating in terms of getting people to do what we want them to do.

Rich: When you were mentioning the “because” study – and I don’t know if this is the one that you’re talking about – but I was remembering reading some research where they had somebody trying to cut in line for the Xerox machine, and if they didn’t say “because” they often wouldn’t get it. BUt they greatly increased their chances by saying “Because I’m in a rush” or the boss needs it or whatever it may be. And that worked really well but what worked almost as well was when they said, “Can I cut in front of you in line because..”. And for almost the same percentage, and just like you’re saying they’re geared up that there must be a reason behind that “because”. 

Nancy: Yeah. It’s very interesting, that is exactly the study that this automatic compliance trigger “because” came out of. And yes, they had people lined up at a photocopier or a Xerox machine, and if you went up and just asked to cut, I think 60% of the time if you went up and you asked to cut and you added a reason, “Because I’m in a hurry and I have copies to make”, I think 94% of the time you could. But if you went up and you asked to cut because you had copies to make, that 94% number slipped to only 93%. Statistically that’s significant. Now think about it, everybody was standing in line at the photocopier because they had some copies to make. But it’s crazy, just hearing that word “because” gets people to say yes, and there doesn’t even have to be this really good reason on the other end of it, people just say yes.

I was talking to somebody once and they said to me, “What would happen if you said, “We want you to do this because it’s a bad idea’”? And I said, that’s very interesting, I can’t imagine as a responsible marketer you’d ever want to say that. And what you might do is you might trip them up because it causes confusion. But taken in its purest form, what the person was saying to me was, if people see the word “because” and they start to say ‘yes’ right away and it almost doesn’t matter what comes after it, hat if we say, “Because it’s a bad idea”? And you can certainly test it, I wouldn’t recommend it, but it is interesting how the human mind works. 

Rich: Well if I’m out at a bar this weekend that’s 3 deep, I’m definitely going to try using “because” to get to the front of the line. Nancy, this has been great. I know that there’s a lot of people that want to check you out online, where can we send them?

Nancy: They can find me on LinkedIn, Nancy Harhut. They can follow me on Twitter, @NHarhut. I’m also on Facebook, and if any of your listeners want to just drop me a line via email, that would be great, too. They can reach me at nharhut@me.com. 

Rich: Thank you so much Nancy, I really appreciate your time today. 

Nancy: Rich thank you, this has been a lot of fun. I appreciate being on your show, and I wish you all the best in the coming year. 

Show Notes: 

Nancy Harhut combined her love of behavioral science with her marketing expertise to become a force for businesses looking for creative & tested ways to influence their customer’s buying decisions. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to find out more about her and how she helps businesses. 

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.