Every customer comes to a purchase with a set of fears.

The problem with fear is not simply that the customer experiences it. That’s a given. They are going to experience fear of some sort.

The problem is that site users don’t know they are fearful, much less how to respond to their fear. Thus, they act in weird, erratic ways.

Like this guy.

Many conversion optimizers and marketing professionals totally overlook the role of fear in the purchase process. While we obsess over things like shopping cart abandonment, conversion optimization tricks, and other marketing minutes, we’re neglecting the concept of fear.

Why aren’t our conversion optimization “tricks,” “hacks,” “techniques” and “surefire ways” working? It’s because of Factor X — the massive, lurking, hulking, scary, hairy unknown crap that messes with people’s minds.

the massive, lurking, hulking, scary, hairy unknown crap that messes with people’s minds

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  • The cognitive biases …
  • The weird personality quirks of certain psychographic groups …
  • The strange twists of minds that happen in response to various online triggers …
  • And fear.

In this article, I’m going to explain all about that fear, and propose a structured response that will help you to deal with customers’ fears in an online and conversion-focused context.

What kind of fears are customers facing?

Customers will face fear. The issue that we as marketers have to address is twofold:

  1. What’s this fear all about?
  2. What should I do about it?

Fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”

Psychology Today defines it as “an anxious feeling, caused by our anticipation of some imagined event or experience.”

The latter definition circles closer to the nature of the fear that users experience in an online setting. Their fear isn’t necessarily in response to an actual danger. It is a response to an anticipation of a danger — also known as anxiety, fear’s closest cousin.

Their fear isn’t necessarily in response to an actual danger. It is a response to an anticipation of a danger — also known as anxiety

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Scientists have classified fear into five major categories.

The description of these five types of fear are drawn from Psychology Today:

  1. Extinction — the fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist. This is a more fundamental way to express it than just calling it “fear of death.” The idea of no longer being arouses a primary existential anxiety in all normal humans. Consider that panicky feeling you get when you look over the edge of a high building.
  2. Mutilation — the fear of losing any part of our precious bodily structure; the thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part or natural function. Anxiety about animals, such as bugs, spiders, snakes and other creepy things arises from fear of mutilation.
  3. Loss of Autonomy — the fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control. In physical form, it’s commonly known as claustrophobia, but it also extends to our social interactions and relationships.
  4. Separation — the fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness; of becoming a non-person — not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else. The “silent treatment,” when imposed by a group, can have a devastating psychological effect on its target.
  5. Ego-death — the fear of humiliation, shame or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self; the fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability and worthiness.

Psychology Today claims that these are “the (only) five fears we all share.” There can be hundreds of manifestations of fear, but they all fall into one of those five broad categories.

In the online context, the “loss of autonomy” is the primary fear-type that people deal with. However, the psychosocial component of mutilation fears, separation fears and ego-death fears can all be included.

Fear follows a predictable path. Fear spikes in new or undiscovered situations. That’s the situation in which you introduce new customers to your brand or conversion process.

That’s the situation in which you introduce new customers to your brand or conversion process.

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So, what types of fear are customers experiencing? What’s the specific fear-angle?

  • Fear of financial loss.
  • Fear of personal harm.
  • Fear of loss of products.
  • Fear of delayed delivery.
  • Fear of identify theft.
  • Fear of protecting one’s privacy.
  • Fear of being overcharged.
  • Fear of losing money.
  • Fear of getting a dud product or service.
  • Fear of being associated with a disreputable company or brand.
  • Fear of a first-time experience.
  • Fear of being disappointed with the purchase.
  • Fear of what others will think.

And that’s just the starter list. For a list of the top 10 fears of online shoppers, be sure to check out my solution-focused article on the subject.

Face it. Identity theft is a thing. That little two-word term — ”identity theft” is loaded with a ton of emotional baggage. According to First Data, 8.5 percent of total online sales are lost every year because of the fear of identity theft.

The statistics tell a stark story: A whopping 13 percent of all consumers don’t think that the Internet is safe enough for shopping.

Unless your business name is Amazon, Apple or Walmart, then you’re trusted even less.

How has identity theft affected your online shopping behavior

 

The BBC reports, “A lack of consumer confidence is preventing online retailing from reaching its full potential, according to a watchdog’s report.” That’s old news, though. Since then, identity theft hasn’t shrunk. In fact, the sheer quantity of security leaks and security hacks has mushroomed.

People are still afraid. Of a lot of things.

Don't be afraid

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How customers respond to fear:

So far, I’ve just told you that fear is a thing. So, how does this fear affect the online behavior of customers. What is their response to fear?

Their brain is on high alert, and the body responds.

Don't be afraid

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And then this happens …

They stress out.

Stress and fear go hand-in-hand. When a customer feels fear, he or she responds with a rush of the stress hormone.

There’s an entire body of research devoted to stress and decision-making, including branches of behavioral science and ecological impact. The scientific consensus is that humans pretty much suck at making good decisions under stress.

When stress goes up, decision-making ability goes down. Research indicates that the kind of decision-making ability affected by stress corresponds to financial decisions. Unfortunately, that puts us as conversion optimizers in a bind.

They freeze up.

You’re probably familiar with the idea of choice paralysis or analysis paralysis — the fact that when faced with a choice among too many options, the customer chooses none of them.

Fear produces the same kind of response: mental paralysis. A customer’s mind is dominated by a single feeling or emotion. There’s no more mental capacity for a copacetic response.

They go away.

When you see something scary, you run.

When you encounter something scary online, you click away.

Every heard of the fight-or-flight response?

Remember, fear is an unpleasant emotion. The customer is experiencing something negative, something that he or she wants to escape. The solution? Click away, close the tab, clear the history, whatever.

And what happens to you? The customer is gone. You lose the sale.

These three general responses to fear are corroborated in the biology of fear and in the scientific research. Either way, fear is a bad deal.

fight, flight, or freeze

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Unless you’re dealing with your customers’ fear — not just responding, but anticipating — then you’re going to lose a ton of potential sales.

Fear requires a solution.

At this point, 1) we know that fear is real, 2) we know that it trips customers up.

So, what do we do about it?

The best way to deal with fear is through an organized method. Don’t just “try to overcome it.” Instead, follow a set of specific steps:

  1. Anticipate customer fear.
  2. Break down the sales process into its component parts.
  3. Determine what types of specific fears are affecting the purchase at each point.
  4. Implement techniques that assuage fear.
  5. Reward the customer for successfully overcoming a fearful event.

Let’s go through each of these.

Break down the sales process into its component parts.

First, take apart your sales process.

I recommend first analyzing the customer buying cycle. When you understand the customer buying cycle, you can determine the customer’s vantage as she approaches your brand or business as a viable option.

The customer buying cycle

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After you understand the customer buying cycle, analyze your own conversion funnel. Conversion funnels are going to differ based on your product or service.

Here is a broad overview of a conversion funnel:

conversion funnel

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Where does fear play into the conversion funnel? It happens in a big way. Notice this diagram to determine how a simple issue like a poor CTA can cause the departure of massive amounts of customers.

How fear play into the conversion funnel

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Fear has the same detrimental impact. If a customer feels the emotional sensation of fear at any point in the conversion process, he or she will most likely leave.

Determine what types of specific fears are affecting the purchase at each point.

Now you 1) understand the customer buying cycle, and the 2) specific conversion funnel for your site.

Examine each phase of the conversion funnel and ask the question, “What would cause a customer to fear in this phase?

Your goal is to understand their fear at a specific point. It may be helpful to do user testing with a fear-focused approach.

For example, you might analyze your website by asking “what would a customer fear on this page … ?”

And here’s that page (as an example):

an example of a site's fear element

On the above page, I might be thinking to myself “What if the license plate frame breaks or cracks during shipping?”

I’m afraid. Instead of paralysis, I slip into a stressful responses …

I want to call the company and find out how they are going to package it, and what shipping company will deliver the product.

But there is no phone number on the page. Wait! There’s not even an address. What’s going on?

I flip. I bounce. I click off. I escape the situation.

Now that I’m gone from the page, I regain a perspective, search for rhinestone license plates again, and try a different website.

See what I did there? A little analysis. A little issue. And a little fear.

Implement techniques that assuage fear.

Not every fear has a counterpoint solution. But most fears do have a solution. Your goal? Figure out the solution, implement it, and enjoy the uptick.

If you’ve been successful in identifying the fear, then you are much more likely to be successful in solving the fear.

What will it take to make your customers unafraid? Add a guarantee. Put a phone number on the page. Talk to them with reassuring words.

Do something that makes it obvious you understand their fear, and are doing your best to solve it.

Create a sequence of rewards after the customer successfully overcomes a potentially fearful step.

A great way to deal with fear is to applaud the customer when they move to the next phase of the conversion funnel.

What did they do? They did something, even though they were scared.

What should you do? Say “Atta boy!” (in a totally professional way, of course).

Why? Because the customer wants to have their fears acknowledged, sense a forward momentum and gain reassurance that they are doing the right thing.

What kind of reward? This all about your messaging. I would suggest simple phrases like:

  • Great, you’re almost done! Now, please tell us where to send your box. We promise: it’s 100% insured and we work with the nation’s most reliable shipping company.”
  • You did it! You’re all signed up on our mailing list. We’re a lot like you — we hate spam with a passion, so you’ll never get a bit of it from us.

Be human. Just talk to them. The human tone goes a long way in abolishing common fears.

Conclusion

So, where are the sexy tricks and cool hacks for annihilating client fears?

That’s for you to figure out.

Why? Because I’m not into canned and artificial conversion optimization advice. In fact, I’m sick of it. You can’t expect to “just do” any old hack, trick, technique or mind-blowing whatever and expect to enjoy huge awesomeness to happen to you.

You have to know your customers, understand their fears, and address them on an individual basis. And test, test, test.

But I’ll relent and give you five final bits of advice:

  1. Make things as simple and easy as possible. Stress inhibits mental ability and siphons the body’s energy for other more visceral components of the body’s response. Unless you have an extremely clear and simple process on your website, you’re going to lose the customer.
  2. Tell them what’s coming next. Anticipation of coming negative events is a huge source of fear. Assure the customer about what will happen on the next page, when they press the button, after they register, etc. Predict the future, and they will reward you with a sense of reassurance.
  3. Always let them contact you. Be free with your communication. Give them a phone number, an online chat or something.
  4. Put trust signals everywhere. Trust signals are crucial to conversion success. Which signals? That depends. But use them, and you’ll experience the benefits.
  5. Add testimonials. Testimonials are a major fear-killer. When an independent party gives a specific review of your product or service, it helps to eliminate customers’ fear.

Satisfied? Good.

Now, get out there and deal with some fear.

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