Conversion optimization usually focuses on what users want. In this article, I’m homing in on the things that buyers want to avoid.

Broadly speaking, users want to avoid pain.

I’ve discussed the place of pain in conversion optimization elsewhere. I consider pain to play an important part in the conversion process, because it’s a powerful form of motivation. This article, however, explores the issue from a different angle.

The Focus of this Article: Things to Avoid

My goal is to help you understand the power of negative motivation. Motivation comes in several forms — intrinsic, extrinsic, positive and negative.

types of motivation

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All too often, we’re dialed in on a single form of motivation. We think, “Ah, everything is about positive motivation!” And we merrily optimize for positive motivation alone. Meanwhile, we wonder why our conversion rates continue to nosedive, and why we’re not seeing the sky-high rates we were hoping for.

People are driven by a lot of different motivating factors, not just the motivation of desire. When we focus on desire alone, we miss out on some of the negative forms of motivation that cause shoppers to click, do and buy.

What we’re missing out on is the full-orbed beauty of motivation as a whole. Even in the complexity of negative emotion, there are subcategories, subforms, variations and a convoluted mix of other motivational factors.

internal and external factors influencing motivation

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The five areas that I explore below are things that users don’t want — a form of negative motivation. If you can offer the opposite of these things, your site will become more successful.

Knowing the negatives is one of the greatest ways to achieve the positive. Here’s what you stand to gain.

the effects of negative motivation

And here is what your buyers are trying to avoid …

1. Missing out (FOMO)

Marketers all over the world have capitalized on the fear of missing out.

article post on the fear of missing out

Just about everywhere you look — online and offline — you’ll see the ominous warning that you might miss out on something.

This is how people sell stuff.

selling using the fear of missing out

It doesn’t matter what people are trying to sell. This phrase alone turns heads and makes people click.

using the fear of missing out in marketing

From ad copy to article headlines — it’s everywhere.

headlines using the fear of missing out strategy

marketing ads using the fear of missing out, sony

Why is this a thing? Why does it even work?

The condition is called, not inventively, “the fear of missing out.” Insiders call it FOMO, which is way cooler than Yolo, (as long as you don’t get mixed up and call it M0F0).

What is FOMO?

The leading journal research on the subject defines it in the following way:

Pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent. 

(Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 29, Issue 4, July 2013, Pages 1841–1848)

In other words, you’ve got FOMO if you are concerned that someone, somewhere, somehow might be enjoying something that you’re not!

Medical research and testing confirms that FOMO is fueled by social media. With social media, we have the ability to do two things:

  • Tell others the fun we’re having and the awesomeness that we are doing.
  • Find out about what other people are doing all the time.

There’re two phenomena in play, one enacted by the doer and one enacted by the watcher, created the condition of FOMO.
You would not be able to experience the fear of missing out unless you knew that your Facebook friend went on a Caribbean cruise, bought a new handbag, got the iPhone 6 Plus, test-drove a Ferrari, or saw Avengers: Age of Ultron before you did.

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Here is how the term and presumably the condition of FOMO has grown over the years.

how the term and presumably the condition of FoMO has grown over the years

Not surprisingly, the trend reared its ugly head during the dawn of the social media age. Facebook was founded in 2004. The iPhone 4S came out in 2011. Coincidence? (Actually, yes. A New Zealand artist, Liam Finn, released an album titled FOMO in 2011,)

FOMO isn’t just a mind thing. It’s a whole-body experience. That’s why it’s so powerful. The person who experiences FOMO is undergoing actual symptoms including “sweating, itching, pacing, and compulsive refreshing of my Twitter feed.” (source)

the physical effects of FOMO

Research has confirmed that FOMO is a widespread phenomenon, affecting many of the people who spend their days scrolling through newsfeeds and hungrily tapping notifications.

FOMOLOGY exam room

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It sounds like some cruel joke, but it’s kind of sad, really. Call it what you want, the condition of FOMO isn’t fun, isn’t cool, and isn’t desirable.

So, why does it matter for conversion optimization?

Because this is one of the reasons people come to your site. FOMO is a source of motivation. They may not be motivated simply by the desire to buy your product. They may be motivated by the desire to keep up with their social circle. They may be responding to FOMO marketing.

I don’t recommend using the gimmicky headlines like “you’re missing out!” I do however, recommend that your marketing efforts include a heavy dosage of social media. Social media is the currency of exchange among today’s buyers and shoppers.

A customer who raves over the experience on your website or with your product may be sparking an obsessive fascination with others in his or her network, fueling a greater interest in your product or service.

Here are some of the things people don’t want to miss out on:

  • A really good product or service.
  • An optimal online experience.
  • Information, especially proprietary information that is gated by an email form.
  • A really good deal.
  • Something with a limited time offer.

2. Wasting Time

People hate wasting time.

Humans spend millions of dollars to avoid wasting time. We invest in products that keep us from wasting time. We arrange our entire lives to avoid wasting time. Wasting time — whatever “wasting” means — is considered a very bad thing.

Why is this the case? Our culture handles time in the same way that we handle money. We waste it, spend it, use it, save it, invest it, squander it, burn it, lose it, use it, value it and love it.

Speak directly to this need. Since people are highly averse to wasting time, use expressions like these:

  • This will literally take two seconds.
  • You’re almost done.
  • Real quick.
  • Get it now; don’t wait.

If your website causes people to waste their time, they will hate you. Here are some of the popular ways that a website produces time-sucking awfulness. These, might I remind you, are conversion killers.

Something on the site is broken. It doesn’t work.

  • The page 404s, the “submit” button doesn’t “submit,” their credit card information isn’t accepted, whatever.

broken website

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The site’s navigation sucks.

  • People want to get to where they want to go right away. Provide clear and simple navigation, not some labyrinthine maze that makes them desire to smash glass objects against concrete walls.

bad navigation

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The information didn’t meet their needs or expectations.

  • Keep in mind, people don’t mind if your article is long or if your information extremely detailed. They are under no obligation to read it. What they don’t want is to waste their time reading irrelevant information.

There are other things that can morph into a time vortex. The key feature to remember is that people don’t want to waste time. Therefore, give them the information or action as quickly as possibly.

3. Losing money

People don’t want to lose money.

Writing a statement that obvious made me feel inane. So let me dish up a bit of scientific sizzle that will make me not feel inane.

Avoiding loss is a powerful force in the human mind. It’s so powerful that is can be delusional.

Loss aversion is a cognitive bias. It refers to the human tendency to avoid losses to a greater degree than acquiring a gain.

Here’s a concrete example from BeingHuman.org:

One loses $50; the second finds $50. The first person should lose about as much satisfaction as the second person gains, right? Actually, it doesn’t quite work out like that, thanks to a phenomenon known as loss aversion.

In fact, the person who lost $50 will feel way more pain that the finder gets pleasure.

Loss causes more pain than gain causes pleasure — twice as much, in fact. Humans are weirdly wired in such a way that we will fight loss like our lives depend on it, as it very well may have been for humans in a prehistoric age.

There are several ways to use loss aversion to your conversion advantage:

Promise your users that they won’t lose money if they purchase now. Warn users that they might lose money by not purchasing your product or service now. If your price is going to go up soon, give them the warning that they will lose $10 (or whatever) if they buy it in a week.

People don’t want to lose money. But more specifically, they have an overall aversion to loss. As you design your product, adjust your pricing, or plan your sale, keep this in mind.

4. Thinking too hard to get what they want.

A long, long time ago, a guy named Steve Krug wrote a book about web usability. It was called Don’t Make Me Think.

Don’t Make Me Think

That book was published in the year 2000. Yes, at that time, most of us were using Internet connections that made freaking blips and buzzes, rocking Juno email addresses, and waiting four years for an image to load.

That was the Internet of a decade and a half ago. But you know what? Don’t Make Me Think is still relevant today. No, I’m not referring to every detail in the book. I’m referring to the big idea of the book.

By the way, three days after publication, Krug’s book was outdated, so he released a second edition.

Don’t Make Me Think. update 1

Four days later, it got outdated again, so he revised it— or “revisited” it.

Don’t Make Me Think, revisted

Don’t make me think is in its 2014 iteration, and it’s probably outdated, too.

The idea remains: Your users don’t want to have to think. They don’t want to have to work. It’s up to you — conversion god that you are — to bestow gifts and blessings upon them without the user having to tap a second time, read too much or scroll too far.

It’s easy for users to want this level of performance, but it’s hard for you to provide it.

That’s why conversion optimization is so difficult. We essentially have to take people where they are and bring them to where we want them without them having to do any heavy thinking or the hard work of, heaven forbid, clicking an extra time!

Don’t make your users think, work, or do any unnecessary work.

Simply hand over what they came for with as little effort as possible.

As an example of this, check out the page below from TalkWalker. It’s instantly apparent what the user is supposed to do. They are supposed to click that little orangish button.

TalkWalker home page

Ayn Rand wasn’t familiar with web usability, as far as I know, but she did have a grasp of the habits of human cognition:

“People don’t want to think. And the deeper they get into trouble, the less they want to think. But by some sort of instinct, they feel that they ought to and it makes them feel guilty. So they’ll bless and follow anyone who gives them a justification for not thinking.”

The point is this: Since people don’t want to think, they will love you for not making them think. In other words, they will convert more readily.

The reality of today’s users means that you need the sickest, most bad-ass usability on your website. Work closely with usability designers and information architects to develop a flow that coheres with the ease-loving, mindlessly clicking tendency of most users.

5. Anxiety

People crave a sense of confidence when they browse, shop, explore and gain information. When anxiety sets in, conversions go down.

The Internet can be a scary place for some people. They’ve heard stories, maybe lost a few bucks, maybe clicked a few wrong places.

Any site is a potential source of anxiety

Any site is a potential source of anxiety. Why? Simply because it’s on the Internet, that’s why.

E-commerce sites are particularly anxiety-inducing, because in addition to the fear of the Internet alone, it’s layered with the fear of losing money. Now you have a problem.

Overcoming anxiety is tough, because anxiety crops up in the most unexpected places. Anxiety isn’t just a phenomenon that affects the shopping cart. You don’t simply solve anxiety by popping a few trust signals in your footer. Anti-anxiety treatments take legion forms, and require intensive work.

But do anti-anxiety optimization efforts work? Absolutely. For example, one business was able to jack up their conversion rates by 263% through a few anxiety-crushing techniques.

For a few of these anxiety-crushing techniques, I recommend my Kissmetrics article on the subject.

The principle to keep in mind is this: Users are actively trying to avoid anxiety. If they cannot successfully shake their sense of anxiety while interacting with your website, then they will leave the website.

You lose.

Conclusion

Here’s what your users want to avoid.

  1. Missing out.
  2. Wasting Time.
  3. Losing money.
  4. Thinking too hard to get what they want.
  5. Anxiety.

Therefore your role as a smart and savvy conversion optimizer is to work against these forces. Reward your users with the opposite. Caution against the things they want to avoid, and give your conversion rates the kind of full-faceted motivational uptick that they need.