How Using Psychological Triggers Can Increase Your Sales

Adam Conover, best known for his myth-busting series of TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything, states that there is no such thing as Millennials, or Gen X, or Baby Boomers, or any other “generation” for that matter. These terms are an invention to categorize people who happened to be born at certain periods, and on whom characteristics were attached willy-nilly. While some people of the same generation do share some common traits, the group is not homogenous enough to be treated as one group.

Much of the marketing and sales strategies today focus on catering to Millennials because they represent a large portion of the population, and they were born into the digital age. However, no one can really agree on the definition of Millennials, and many of the traits tacked on to the group do not hold true for all. Most importantly, the most aggressive campaigns designed especially for Millennials is not yielding the expected results. In fact, conversion rates were down for the first quarter of 2017, with just 2.48% of website users making a purchase, compared to the conversion rate of 2.94% for last quarter of 2016.

I refer to these facts because I have a point to make. While it seems a great idea to bag and tag online users into neat “generations” and create a profile based on established traits and metrics. However, many sales and marketing professionals forget that online users are individuals and individuals will make buying decisions depending on their psychology, not their label. People are complicated, and no amount of data analysis will truly tell you how they make decisions.

The one thing you need to remember is that people want to make decisions. It gives them a sense of accomplishment, which makes them feel good. However, the brain can be thrown into a loop when confronted with too many options, and it ends up not making any decision at all. To increase your sales, you need to make it easy for your customers to make a decision using the principles behind psychological triggers.

This is why it is essential to know what will compel your audience on a subconscious level to respond to your call-to-action and convert. For that, you need to know what moves people to act regardless of their generation.

Don’t be alarmed by the term. A psychological trigger is simply anything that will set off a response. For example, if you love coffee, the smell of coffee beans will prompt you to brew some or buy a cup. The trigger is the smell, and the response is to get some coffee. In most cases, psychological triggers are instinctive, but people can also learn the right action to a given situation through experience, such as negative reinforcement.

Your goal in this article is not to try to change how people will behave. Instead, you will learn the principles behind psychological triggers in order to use them to influence people and get them to behave in a way you want.


People have an innate fear of shortage, and the mere idea of missing out on a great deal can compel them to act. One study showed that people would pay a premium for a product marketed as a “limited” edition because we tend to think of them as having greater value. For example, this Shopkins character Gemma Stone toy sold for $21,500 because it was one-of-a-kind. Shopkins toys typically sell for just $2.99.

You might think it is a ridiculously high price to pay for a one-and-a-half inch of crystal that has no intrinsic value but the fact that it is the only one makes it very scarce, and hence, desirable. We have all experienced wanting what we can’t have and that is the principle behind the scarcity trigger.

Note, however, that the scarcity trigger only works when you operate in good faith. If you say a product is a “limited edition,” you should make sure that the issue is truly limited. Otherwise, it can backfire on you badly.

You can drive your conversion rates up by creating scarcity in surprisingly easy ways. The popularity of Snapchat is primarily due to its ephemeral nature, poking at people’s innate fear of missing out. Send a promo code that will disappear in 10 seconds or less using Snapchat to your FOMO-phobic customers and your click through rates will rise. You can also simply use a countdown on your site to indicate products are in limited quantities, or a deadline for an offer, so they should buy now.

Another side of the scarcity trigger is loss aversion, where people hate to give up what they already have. This is the reasoning behind offering free trials for services, or money-back guarantees for products. Offering your customers a chance to try your service or product without risk is betting on the probability that they will pay for it because they want to hang on to it. Free trials also touch on the reciprocity trigger.


One of the most basic of human urges is to give back what we receive. When someone sticks out a hand for a handshake, for example, we automatically put out our own hand without even thinking about it. We feel compelled to respond in kind, and this is a very powerful trigger.

As mentioned earlier, free trials impinge on both the scarcity trigger (loss aversion) and reciprocity trigger, but perhaps more on the latter than the former. When we receive something free from a merchant whether online or not, we feel compelled to show some gratitude by purchasing a product or signing up for the newsletter. Not everyone feels that way of course, but enough to make it worthwhile. Costco has been giving free samples away for decades with much success.

For your own online sales, you can offer your own freebies to trigger that need to give back. It can be a physical item, an e-book, an online course, basic plan, or anything free that will get your customers to respond to your CTA. A good example is Dropbox, which offers 2 GB of free online storage space. It has more than 500 million users, of which only 200,000 have paid plans.  That may seem like the freemium strategy isn’t working so well, but as of 2013, Dropbox was making more than $200 million a year. Another great example is MailChimp. Get creative with your own paying it forward, and you may just get back more than you expect.


Another innate quality of human beings is the response to authority. We naturally look to some person or entity to tell us what to do, or at least point us in the right direction, because we are social creatures. We want to feel part of a community, so we look to others we perceive as wiser, more powerful, or more experienced in setting the rules.

The authority trigger in online sales relies on the perception of authority. Social psychologist Erich Fromm observed, “Authority is not a quality one person “has,” in the sense that he has property or physical qualities. Authority refers to an interpersonal relation in which one person looks upon another as somebody superior to him.” To help you convert more using the authority trigger, you need to establish yourself as an authority in your niche and build trust in your brand, and people will respond.

The easiest way to do this is to use endorsements. It may be in the form of logos of past and current clients, badges of established online security companies, or testimonials. Your privacy policy and terms of use or service also establish authority, and although few people bother to actually read them, it does prop up the appearance of authority.


How likely are you to buy from a stranger, when you can buy the same thing from a friend or even an acquaintance? In most cases, you will choose to deal with someone familiar, all things being equal. This is the liking trigger and the basis for many principles of social media marketing.

Information is fine, but people ultimately make decisions based on emotions rather than logic. No matter how masterfully you present your product with scientific data and facts, people will not listen or buy from you if they do not like or know you.

It makes no sense, but that is how people make buying decisions for the most part. They may not acknowledge it, but that is how it is. You can make use of this trigger to increase your sales by establishing a presence in social media and developing relationships with your customers. Sharing experiences and telling stories to create rapport and familiarity, and thus liking.  One study shows that shared emotions are contagious, especially happiness.

Remember that your marketing or sales strategy does not always have to push for direct sales or conversions. This trigger is about getting to know your audience on a personal basis and vice versa. This is the best way to build your following and increase sales.

Social proof

As I mentioned earlier, human beings are social creatures. We tend to look at what other people are doing or saying before we make decisions. For example, an empty restaurant in a heavy foot traffic area indicates to us that there must be something wrong with it since no one is going in, so we tend to avoid it. On the other hand, if we see a long line at a doughnut shop, we are more likely to think the doughnuts must be really good. We might be right, but the fact is we base our conclusions on how other people act or what they say.  This is the social proof trigger, and it often determines if the eating ever comes later.

The same is true for the online population. We tend to flock to sites and pages that get a lot of traffic, which is why search engines tend to index popular sites high in the ranking. We also look for and trust customer reviews and testimonies before purchasing a product or service. In fact, we are equally likely to believe online reviews from strangers as personal recommendations from friends and family members because we think strangers are more likely to be objective.

The easiest way for you to use the social proof trigger is to encourage your own customers to supply the social proof by liking, sharing, and posting reviews of your offerings. Make sure you make it easy for them by prominently including social media buttons on your posts, and customer feedback forms on your site.

Consistency and commitment

Finally, we have the consistency and commitment trigger, which is quite an interesting study in persuasion. The principle behind this trigger is that people have a deep drive to align their actions to their beliefs or values in order to appear consistent. This is not an obvious trigger at all, as many people want to be thought of as spontaneous and freethinking.  The truth is people will act based on their perceived belief system, or find justification for acting in an inconsistent manner.

The most common strategy for this trigger is something called the “foot in the door” tactic, which works well when you are trying to persuade your customer to change an established behavior, such as switching brands. Essentially, getting your foot in the door is inching your way into their value or belief system by asking them for something easy, like an email address or a review in exchange for a free sample. Once they agree to a small request, they are more likely to agree to a slightly larger request, such as signing up for a newsletter.

At some point, you will encourage them to take the plunge, and sell to them. By this time, they can justify this departure from consistency by saying they have tried the product and found it works better than their regular brand. They consider it a free choice but in reality, you led them by baby steps to your way of thinking.

Alternatively, you can get people to commit by making them jump through hoops in order to be part of the group. People feel compelled to see a transaction through when they feel they have already invested time and effort in the relationship. A good example of this is applying for membership for a certain service to avail of discounts. Make it too easy and they give it no value (scarcity). Make it a little more to join, and it gains value and compels commitment.


As you can see from the descriptions above, psychological triggers are not mutually exclusive. Your most successful sales or marketing strategies may activate two or more triggers at once, and that is to be expected. After all, people are complex, and your strategies to increase sales and conversion rates should reflect that.


Author: Eddy

Eddy is the editorial columnist in Business Fundas, and oversees partner relationships. He posts articles of partners on various topics related to strategy, marketing, supply chain, technology management, social media, e-business, finance, economics and operations management. The articles posted are copyrighted under a Creative Commons unported license 4.0. To contact him, please direct your emails to