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Get in their head! Understanding user psychology to optimize your landing page - Review.

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Did you know 55% of users will spend less than 15 seconds on your landing page? And in only 5 seconds, users will judge your book by it’s cover and decide no matter how great you are, whether they like your site or not, and if they should stay or should they go. That’s the maximum time you got to reign them into your brand, what you do, and why they should choose you over the competition. 5 SECONDS!

This is why landing page optimization is the special sauce in driving your business and should not be taken with a grain of salt. In this post, we will look into the importance of user psychology and why landing page optimization is crucial for your conversion goals.

Let’s start simple. What is a landing page?

A landing page is not just a homepage. It is the first page that a user “lands” on from any search engine, ad source, or blog post. It is a page that can work independently from your website or app and focuses on a clear conversion goal.

In order to make sure the user will stay with you for longer than 5 seconds, it’s important to understand what’s going on in the users' brain, how the human brain functions, and how cognitive biases can affect your landing page optimization strategy.

Fast vs. Slow Thinking & Cognitive Biases

Daniel Kahneman is a renowned psychologist known for his work in judgement and decision making - i.e. the things users do when they land on your site. He discusses that there are two fundamentally different modes of thinking: System 1, and System 2:

We typically go for System 1 because we don’t have to feel the strain of thinking (System 2). Our brains will always jump to the straightforward, easier way of doing something. Which is why the way your landing page is set up, your content, copy, and design is so important. You have 5 seconds for the brain to opt out of your site because it is too complex, it cannot find the information it needs to or was promised, and so the brain will want to go elsewhere - and it will. This is where “The Law of Least Effort” comes into play:

"The law (of least effort) asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature."

- Daniel Kahnemen

System 2 is exhausting to be in and we are lazy! The more cognitive strain, the more tired one gets. It’s basically asking itself, "is it really worth my energy?" So our lovely brain has created mental shortcuts so we don’t stay in System 2 for too long. There are 3 that are related to Landing Page Optimization:

  1. Priming: Exposure to one stimulus influences response to a subsequent stimulus. When you prime users to get one thing and then they get another, the brain will stop users in their track. For example, let’s say you have an ad that says “click for a 30-day free trial.” Then the user lands on the page, starts to sign up for the trial, and then the next step you ask for is their credit card information even though they will not be charged. That sends a signal to the brain to stop in its tracks and go somewhere else because you did not deliver what you primed the user to expect.

  2. Framing: The way you deliver a message has a direct impact on how it is perceived. If your friend said “Tonight we’re having dead fish with old seaweed for dinner” versus “Tonight we’re having sushi!” An extreme example of course but the point is made. The way you frame things to the user will have a direct impact with how they feel about it.

  3. WYSIATI: What You See Is All There Is. When you move along in everyday life , our reality is what’s in front of us. Our brains like to tell stories and interpret things, and involuntarily put pieces together. If there are gaps in the story, your brain will fill that automatically with whatever is logical to you based on who you are and what your prior experiences are. An example of this is when we meet someone for the first time. Within seconds we can come to conclusions and think they are nice, mean, hostile, dominant - all based on facial expressions and how they move.

You can see how these cognitive biases can affect a user’s experience, and how easily it can backfire in a matter of seconds. This is literally embedded in our DNA.

We want to create the best experience for our users which means we also need to be in tune with the brain chemicals dopamine, and cortisol, and understand how these drive human behavior.

Dopamine vs. Cortisol

Michael Aagaard, a conversion optimization veteran and keynote speaker, who talso teaches online courses with the CXL Institute, discussed the importance of understanding dopamine and cortisol through the lens of optimization. Dopamineplays a central role in motivation and habit formation. However, it does not equal happiness. Dopamine is a mechanism that is released when we are exposed to a reward stimulus, and produces joy when you find things that meet your needs. When that initial reward stimulus becomes a habit, diminishing amounts of dopamine are released which eventually makes you neutral. Any dips in dopamine lead to anger and disappointment which can easily be caused when an expectation is not met.

Cortisol is known as “the stress hormone,” the flight or fight mode that our ancestors once used, the built-in alarm system - it is meant for survival but is released far too often in our modern world. When you have a surge of cortisol, you will feel fear, and when you have a cortisol drip, you will feel anxiety and stress.

So why does this matter?

Well, when it comes to your landing page and every step of your funnel, you always want to answer questions, reinforce users motivation, and address barriers. These are the actions you can take to lower their cortisol, increase their dopamine, and make them stay on your page for longer than 5 seconds, ultimately leading to your conversion goals. Here are some cortisol triggers you want to avoid:

  • Violating expectations (perceived bait & switch)

  • Ambiguity (lack of clarity)

  • Disempowerment (I’m not in control)

  • Multi-tasking (trying to solve several tasks at once)

  • Too much pressure (forced to make a decision)

  • Stop words (e.g. SPAM)

Summed Up

The brain is a powerful machine and hormones can be easily, involuntarily triggered. There are many ways to deter your user from staying on your page, let alone move towards a conversion. Your landing page cohesion, design, copy, colors, images, can all trigger a negative response. However, if you do your research, don’t disappoint your users by failing to deliver on a promised reward, avoid cortisol triggers, be clear, concise, transparent, and honest through every step of the funnel, you are gearing up a successful optimization strategy for users to stay a while, sip a cup of coffee with you, and ultimately convert. Woohoo bring on the dopamine!


Need help with Digital Marketing? Here at McMillan & Phillips we have a team of experts to make all your brand growth a reality. Reach out today and let’s start optimizing your website and ultimately, your brand!

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