The Psychology of Conversion Optimization: Anatomy of the Brain

Have you bought something online recently? What triggered you to buy, was it a flash sale or an emotional story behind a product?

If it was, then you could have been the victim of conversion rate optimization.


Don't worry, we all at one point or another are being persuaded online without even realizing it. Some of the best brands in the world employ conversion scientists to use psychology to help them sell more. And with good reason, ecommerce sales are expected to reach $145 billion in 2013 and more than $200 billion by 2015.

Digital marketer's priorities have changed. In past years, a digital marketer's top priority might have been email marketing and display advertising. In today's Internet driven world, content marketing and social media engagement are priority number one - Along with Conversion rate optimization.

But for every $92 spent on acquiring visitors, only $1 is spent on converting them. The needs to change, and is why only 1% of marketers said they were happy with their conversion rate optimization process in 2012.


Like any business, you will want to increase your online revenue by spending as little as possible - This could mean using Visual Website Optimizer to perform A/B tests, using Qualaroo to survey customers on site and find out how you can improve their experience or using CrazyEgg to analyze heat maps.

These tools are great, and will help you sell more but tools change over time. There's a technique that's bigger than all of them, and it helps you understand the customer and what makes them buy. In essence, you get to read their mind - Humans don't change so quickly. And by understanding what triggers a visitor to buy, you can multiply sales four, five, even ten times what you sell today.

In part one of this three-part series, we covered how culture affects purchases online. In today's post, we're going to be looking at how we can target parts of the brain to sell more. See, no matter what we're doing, our brains are always active and by being smart about how we market online, we can target different parts to persuade a visitor into buying.

The human brain

Weighing in at around 1.5 kilograms and with more than one hundred billion nerve cells, the human brain is the most complex organ in the human body and is responsible for every thought, action, memory, feeling and experience of the world.

Our brains form a million new connections every second of our lives. No two brains are alike and it's these connections that memories are stored, habits are learned and personalities are shaped.

Scientists have been studying the brain for centuries yet are nowhere near to fully understanding how it works.

The brain comprises of multiple systems, including primal, emotional and rational. If we want to convince someone of something, then we need to target one or more of these systems, and the following provides a framework in order to use the knowledge for greater influence.


The Primal Brain

The primal brain is comprised of the brainstem and is often referred to as the reptilian brain as it is common to all animals.

The primal brain is responsible for basic vital functions such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. Any damage to this part of the brain can have profound effects on consciousness.

The primal part of the brain is what gives us the survival instinct - And the threat response system such as "fight or flight".

One way to target the primal brain is to make your website seem familiar and things that are familiar seem safe.

The brainstem responds well to eye candy and sex. Using images that hint at sex can attract visitors to your website, and one of the reasons why most brands use young people in images is to sell products.

When targeting the primal part of the brain, here's what you need to do:

Use images more than text to sell your products

Use youthful/ beautiful looking people

Emphasize the benefits of how your product can help them

Showcase high contracts such as before/ after or with/ without

Make sure customers see the products you want to sell first

Prioritize content on the website in order of value

Use terminology such as "limited stock", "final reductions" and "likely to sell out soon"

How important is it to showcase your products using images?


Some of the best converting websites online use images to sell their product.

And almost all of the top 10 converting websites online, including Schwan's, Woman Within and QVC make sure they provide high quality images of their products and these websites have conversion rates as high as 40%.

Econsultancy published three case studies showing how better images helped improve click-through rates and conversion rates.

The Emotional Brain

The emotional brain is comprised of the "limbic system", which comprises of amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus and hippocampus. The emotional part of the brain plays a significant role in judgment and trust and is responsible for many of our purchasing decisions.

This part of the brain processes emotions such as happiness, sadness and disgust as well as sexual responses including pleasure and aggression.

The emotional part of the brain is responsible for impulsive buying behavior and is associated with risk taking, reward and motivation.

When targeting the emotional part of the brain, here's what you need to do:

Show happy faces in images and of people having fun

Use photos and video to convey emotion

Create/ tell a story behind the product

Show context of use and how is it used

How important is it to build an emotional connection?


One night, Derek Sivers, founder of changed his confirmation email from the typical "Thank you for your order...." copy to be completely over the top and include "Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.".

In doing so, people started buying more CDs online just to see the email copy for themselves. Derek went on to sell for more than $22 million and is widely regarded as one of the most successful email ever written.

The Rational Brain

The rational part of the brain comprises of the neocortex, which is responsible for helping you plan, organize and problem solve. It helps integrate information for you to form long term goals and plan ahead.

The rational part of the brain is responsible for human language, thoughts and imagination and is what sets us apart from mammals.

When targeting the rational part of the brain, here's what you need to do:

Use authority figures to endorse products

Provide customer a rationale for making the purchase

Verify claims using third party sites

Using secure badges/ logo's to emphasize trust

How important is it to get the customer to trust you?


By including social proofing elements such as trust badges and security seals, Optimeria were able to increase conversion rates by 15% for a PowerPoint template website. In another example, including a Google AdWords certification badge increased conversion rate from 19% to 39%.


Conversion optimization is not as simple as implementing best practices and any increase in conversion rates will only be short-lived. Brands that focus on understanding who their web visitor is and what triggers their purchasing behavior will outlast the competition and see long-term success.

Best practices will change but humans won't.

Have you seen success since focusing on the science of conversion rate optimization? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Images via Conversion Rate Experts

About the Author: Steven Macdonald

Steven Macdonald has been working with online marketing since 2005. Experienced in online gambling and travel, Steven is currently working on International SEO with SuperOffice CRM and regularly contributes to the Tribes blog.


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