The Psychology of Motivation

Originally published in Website Magazine, Feb. 2012

The post on my Facebook wall from a friend proudly proclaimed, “Congrats KU!.” A few posts later the same day another post from the same friend said, “Walked in to get the shaft replaced on my driver and walked out with 2 new putters, a couple of hats and a towel. Hate when that happens.”

You may not realize it but that kind of thing happens a lot. In fact, people buy more when they are happy. Not only do they buy more, they also socialize more, get out more, exercise more and in the virtual world, surf more. That’s because happiness is one of the subconscious motivations for what we do in the world.

When you want to generate more leads or sales from your business website, understanding motivators like happiness will take you farther than the outstanding offer or big arrow. The reason is that while some of our motivations come from outside forces (like the outstanding offer) the others come from inside. People generally associate motivation with rewards, praise, incentives and self-esteem. And while these are great ideas for external motivators, the majority of our brain works on a subconscious level. The internal motivators are more powerful and can have a greater effect on our actions without our knowledge. These motivations can be broken into 3 general groups: needs, thought processes and emotions.

It’s likely you’ve heard of the needs that motivate, they permeate our very existence. Needs like hunger and thirst are rooted in the subconscious in response to our body’s signals. Needs are defined as those things that are essential to life. So even though you may think you “need” that new iPad, it’s not the same as the need for water. Sex is another basic need which explains the (former) GoDaddy commercials featuring Danika Patrick.

If you want to motivate someone based on needs here are some tips. I would caution, however, that these must be used in context. Putting food on a website for auto repair won’t work no matter how good the food looks.

  • Feature attractive models and people perceived as sexy on the website.
  • Put plenty of photos of food. Restaurants have it made – don’t worry about what the interior of the restaurant looks like, put the food on the front page.
  • Use water in photos. This works well for travel sites, outdoor recreation websites and when selling beverages.

The motivation of our thought processes is based on past experiences and expectations. What has been the previous experience ordering online, what is the expectation during and after the order is placed? You probably would recognize this type of motivation when buying a car or insurance. The stereotypical pushy salesman generally puts people on edge just thinking about the task. Future expectations like having more time or saving money may persuade someone to consider a new piece of technology. But the expectation based on past experience with a product or service failure would lead you to shy away from purchases.

Here are ways to use thought processes to motivate web visitors to take action:

  • Feature reviews. One bad experience can be diminished with positive, objective product or service reviews.
  • Play on the expectation by using benefit statements more than feature lists.
  • Use trust factors like security certificates, business ratings and certifications to put web visitors at ease. By the way, people base first impressions on how the website looks or feels as a basis for trust.

As mentioned, emotions also play a part in the decision making process. We possess a wide range of emotions that effect our daily habits, social interactions and more which energize and direct behavior. Whether it’s the happy shopper in the first example or the frustrated website visitor, there is no way of knowing the emotional state of mind of the prospective customer. Emotions are usually triggered by situations. The exact shade of green on a web page background reminds a web visitor of the hospital walls when a parent passed away thus making them leave the website. This may be an extreme example but it shows how a life experience can transform an otherwise innocuous interaction into a sad feeling.

If you want to give web visitors a good, positive feeling when visiting your website here are some tips to use:

  • Make the website easy to use. We are autonomous beings who get a sense of fulfillment from being able to successfully do things on our own. Having an easy to navigate, useful website decreases frustration which leads to anger.
  • Show photos of happy and laughing people or, if the website is about charity and giving, show the people who benefit. We are wired to be empathetic. Using photos to convey situations triggers our intrinsic empathy and we are drawn in to learn more. It’s also known that photos of pastoral scenes make people feel happy.
  • Watch out for the facial expressions people view or make when visiting the website. If the font size is so small that people have to squint to read it then they are putting their faces in a frowning position which makes them actually frown and become unhappy. If you see an unhappy person in a photo, you tend to empathize and become unhappy yourself.

There are other factors that motivate from inside like the chemical reaction of dopamine in the brain but the main thing to remember is intrinsic motivators are more powerful than incentives and awards. And while I understand the design of most landing pages, they can yet be improved upon by considering the intrinsic motivational factors as described.