Book review: Webs of influence, the psychology of online persuasion

I decided to travel to Berlin today. Something different for a change. So now I am in an Eurocity train from Hilversum to Berlin. Time to read a book again. This time “webs of influence, the psychology of online persuasion”. An interesting book also in relation to cross border e-commerce because cultural differences in persuasion are described.
The book "webs of influence, the psychology of online persuasion" travels with me today.

There is no “silver bullet” for persuasion. Everybody is different, but the book gives nice case study’s and with some creativity of yourself, you can think of some very interesting tests and possibilities to change your website and marketing. The book has (very convenient) after every chapter a “ make this work for you” section. Perfect for a quick reference.

Well as the book teaches me, blue is the colour that is most preferred by people, regardless of gender and culture.
The blue colour is prefered by almost everybody
So probably that is why the book’s cover is also blue :) However other aspects of persuasion that are described in the book, are not always practiced by the book itself :) I would have expected a picture of the author, or some testimonials at the cover :)

The book consists of three parts.

  1. Know who you are targeting
  2. Communicate persuasively
  3. Sell with integrity

Part 1: Know who you are targeting

The book starts with a “brain introduction” and makes a difference between three brain types:

  1. The primal brain: responsible for our basic vital functions
  2. The emotional brain: responsible for relevant stimuli in our surroundings, responsible for emotions such as happiness, sadness
  3. The rational brain: Responsible for rational thinking, problem solving, planning and organization.
To be successful online you have to target all three “brain parts” the book explains.

Luckily the book gives some examples:

Target the primal brain
  • Images of attractive people
  • Include food images (if possible) hunger is targeted by our primal brain
  • Contrast: before/after 
  • Use scarcity
  • Keep it concrete: what’s in it for me
Target the emotional brain
  • Empathy: use photos or video’s that convey the emotional state you want your customers to feel. Be aware of cultural differences!!
  • Storytelling provides an emotional band with your brand
Target the rational brain
  • When customers are emotionally engaged, provide them rational support. 
  • Make use of authority
The following take-away I found interesting;

"One of the best ways to sell a product is to make new things seem familiar and to make familiar things seem new" 

Cultural Quirks

Page 32 is the chapter called “Cultural Quirks”. "The success of any business rests on its ability to engage and respond to it’s target market. Equally if you wish to be influential online, you must research your audience and understand their culture” . A case study from Coca Cola is described. In China the characters for Coca Cola mean ‘delicious and happy’, in Hong Kong, Coca Cola is sometimes served as a remedy for colds and the coke you order in London is physically different from the coke you drink in the sychelles.  As a result Coca Cola's website throughout the world are completely different:

Coca Cola's websites are completely different per country

Well, I am in Germany now, the train passed the border, the train gets crowded now, baby’s start crying, and I am sitting at a reserved seat  for someone else (because this one has a power plug). I just got a cup of coffee and a snack from the train restaurant but because the train is changing tracks or something, half of the coffee went on the ground and my arms. Not the book luckily!! So I can continue reading.

Dangerous cup of coffee in the train that almost went over the book

The book also writes about “Geert Hofstede’s” model, something I wrote earlier about in earlier posts, like here and here. This is highly interesting if you develop global websites.
I will keep it short, but highlight again a few items from Geert Hofstede’s model as described in this book.

Power Distance (PDI) countries/cultures:

In countries with a high PDI there is high inequality between people (e.g. Russia, Saudi Arabia” examples from countries with a medium PDI (e.g. Japan) and countries with a low PDI (Austria, Norway)

When you have a website targeted at high PDI countries think about:

  • National Pride (use cultural and national symbols)
  • Stamp of approval (endorsements from authority figures)
  • Separate section for certain people (make them feel superior)

When you have a website targeted at a low PDI country think about:

  • Transparancy
  • A very good in site “search” function
  • Authority figures real experts, not status authority figures

Individualism vs Collectivism (IDV) countries/cultures:

Countries with a high IDV score (highly individualist) are USA and Australia. Moderately IDV countries, are Austria and Israel and collectivist countries, are India, Hong Kong and a highly collectivist country is China.

When you have a website targeted at a highly individualist country think about:

  • Rewarding your users (e.g.loyalty programmes)
  • Give the users a challenge. 
  • People in these countries are comfortable in sharing information that differs them from others. Very good for personalization/profiling.
When you have your website targeted at a collectivist country think about:

  • Group dynamics: give them a platform they can use collectively.
  • Take pictures of the items you sell with people in a group
  • Wisdom comes with age. Use elderly figures
  • Be clear about privacy 

Masculinity v Feminity countries/cultures

If a country is high at the Masculinity scale, it is most likely there are some stereotypical “gender” roles. Masculine societies as Japan favour assertiveness, heroism and achievement. Norway and Sweden are the opposite.

When you have a website targeted at a masculine country think about:

  • Rich media : motion is a good way of attracting masculine people
  • Role play: investigate the roles in the country for example for product pictures
  • Gamification and limited offers work well.
When you have a website targeted at a feminine country, think about:

  • Product images that reflect relationships
  • A customer support forum

Uncertainty Avoidance (UIA) countries/cultures

The uncertainty avoidance measures how uncomfortable we are with ambiguity. Countries with a high score at UIA (e.g. Portugal and Russia) like companies to predictable and easy to interpret. 

When you have your website targed at countries with a high UIA think about:

  • Structured navigation
  • No pop up windows surprising actions in design or interaction
  • Show what they can expect

If you target your website at a country with a low UIA score, think about:

  • Provide a search box. Layer information.
  • Let people discover new things. They want to be surprised.

Long term Orientation (LTO) countries/cultures

In these cultures working hard, is important. The family is seen as the blueprint for all organisations meaning the older and the more mail you are , the more authority you have. China, Hong Kong and Japan are countries that score high at the LTO. Spain and Sweden are the opposite. They live the moment.

When you have your website targeted at countries with a high LTO think about:

  • Be flexible. Be clear about things that can be altered.
  • Relationships are important
  • Pop ups can work!
  • Focus at long term benefits (e.g. loyalty programme)
When you have your website targeted at countries with a low LTO think about:

  • Use of statistics/facts
  • Trends, new things!

Indulgent vs RestraInt (IVR) countries/cultures

Countries that score high at the IVR list (e.g .Mexico, Sweden) tend to have the feeling that they have control over their life and are happy.

When you have your website targeted at countries with a high IVR thing about:

  • Debate and freedom of expression are important. Be clear and honest in your customer service and products.
  • Work with smiles and happy people in your design
When you have a website targeted at a country with a low score at the IVR list think about:

  • Money saving and limited offers work.
  • Gender roles are very strict. In some societies it is unacceptable to show images of woman at all.
  • Smiling can be seen as suspect, so be careful with that
  • Customer Supprot should follow a formal process and live chat might not be a good choice.
More information about Hofstedes dimensions per country can be found at Hofstedes website.

Part 2:  Communicate persuasively

The second part of the book is about persuasive communication. 

Persusive communication is ‘any message that is intended to shape, re-inforce or change the responses of another or others”  (Gerard Miller, Social Psychologist)

Online campaign success factors:
  1. Clarity of the message and call to action
  2. The amount of time and hassle required to complete the task
  3. The credibility and usability of the website where the action takes place.
Maslows "Hierarchy of needs" is then transformed to online usage:

  1. Psychological:Video’s that appeal to our basic needs.(e.g. ice cream ads).
  2. Safety: Opt-out boxes, payment symbols throughout the site, these kind of things.
  3. Love: relationships and the desire to belong. Viral video’s or interactive viral video’s connected with social media.
  4. Esteem: Feeling good, let people help by giving something back to you. Forms, polls, ask something.
  5. Self actualization ask your customers what they want.
This one is also a nice one to remember and test in your webshop. 

Hide things! Let people think, make them curious. People want to solve a mystery. Think of what Apple does when it opens up a new shop, they put a big curtain in front of the shop with a small opening. 

When optimizing your images, think about and test with these aspects:
  1. Luminance
  2. Contrast
  3. Colour
  4. Content placement
  5. Typhography
  6. Use of images
  7. Hierarchy of information

Colour and value: 

It is very important that the logo, colours you use not only fit the message you want to sent out but also the market that you are trying to reach. In E-commerce specifically look at what colours and branding the leaders in your market are using.  Social conformity can really pay off. 

A case is describe from the American “Wienerschnitzelrestaurant” where only adding “orange” to the company the sales increased by 7 percent.  The colour, orange in this case , would convey the message that the hotdogs were inexpensive.

Trust is the most important factor in ecommerce success. One study found that sites that use pale, unsaturated colours, such as light blue, cream and grey are perceived as more trustworthy, benevolent, competent and predictable then their more colourful counterparts.

10 steps to facebook success:
  1. Target the right audience. Facebook is not everywhere the largest platform.
  2. Social validation: corona case billboard
  3. Reciprocity: give something in exchange
  4. Integrate channels
  5. Become an invaluable resource (add real value to your fb fans)
  6. Support existing fan pages
  7. Special offers
  8. Competitions
  9. Run a local event

10 steps to youtube success

  1. Brand identity (in relation to persona)
  2. Consistency (in relation to persona)
  3. Teaser content
  4. Lead 
  5. Stickiness (memorable)
  6. Video tracking
  7. Link tracking
  8. Video Launch
  9. Engagement (ask for re-mixes)
  10. Reward your viewers

Part 3: sell with integrity

Part three of the book is aimed at gaining trust of your visitors. 

There are two kinds of trust:
Cognitive trust is knowledge driven and in this case refers to your customers confidence in the reliability and competence of your service. The first interactions you might have with a “new” customer are vital if you can meet up expectations.
Affective or emotional trust is your clients sense of feeling safe, valued and cared for. This kind of trust tend to be based on direct, personal experiences and will deepen as the relationship grows.

Designing trust:

  • Website: make it look professional
  • Picture perfect: photo’s are not a guarantee for building trust, chose them wisely and think about cultural differences. 
  • Stay away from stock photo’s
  • Usability is essential in building trust.
  • Competence: testimonials for example. 
  • Be coherent in all your channels
  • Free P&P to build the emotional trust
  • Congruence: accompany a picture from a doctor for example with a website for health products
  • Conversation
  • Similarity

Trustworthiness + Expertise = Credibility

How to keep it credible:
  • Overall credibility: Balanced layout, cool colour tones etc.
  • Source credibility: Boost your websites source credibility by for example trustmarks.
  • Collaborate: Team up with other sources in your field. 
  • Assosiation: write at trustworthy websites, show your expertise
  • Show you are legit: especially for non provit organization, use the correct top level domain
  • Testimonials: (product) reviews or other user generated 
  • Framing: Show case the most important articles and content from experts at your homepage
  • Vested interest: avoid links to other commercial websites. Don’t make it to commercial
The behavior chain

The behavior chain is a technique developed by psychologists for understanding the persuasion over time. This is a 3 phase strategy designed to achiever particular goals or target behaviours. So this can be a newsletter subscribtion for example. Once a particular goal has been achieved the user goes to the next step. 

Phase 1 : Discovery. 

The goal is to make potential users aware of your website. 

Phase 2: Superficial involvement

Compliance is the key . New users are encouraged to interact with the website so that they can discover a particular product or service.  The aim is to prime and engage users in such a way that this establish trust. This can be done via external websites like pinterest.

Phase 3:  True commitment

Phase 3 involves encouraging your users to develop new, long-term habits of interaction with your website. Amazon does this by encouraging User Generated Content. This makes the circle go round, because possible new users are attracted by this user generated content.


The book has much more to offer, do not hesitate to buy it., overall I am satisfied, however many things are for me open doors. Also I think some described theories are not valid for every webshop or website. You got to have your strategy and vision clear first to see how the described theories can fit in to your personal situation. Especially if you are a smaller webshop (e.g. niche, or just starting) the book can help you to guide you to optimize conversion and to think about your e-commerce future. Most likely more testing, a combination between psychology and selling and to understand better how to differentiate from the large global players as Amazon, Rakuten etc. The book also helps you with cross border e-commerce, cultural differences and sources to further investigate. 

What I missed in the book are for cases/examples about e-commerce websites. For example: how to use online pursiasion at product pages, or shopping carts. I have enough idea’s myself, but it would have been nice to read best practices.

Well, I am in Berlin now the train is now at Berlin Central Station. I hope this short summary helps to get your creative thoughts going, whether you are developing new (cross border) e-commerce sites, advertising campaigns oar optimizing your current website.

By the way it is quite fun reading and traveling by train in Germany. The book somehow persuaded me to buy a beer in the train bar :) 
The book somehow persuaded me to buy a beer in the train bar

Ok, It is not yet the experience like traveling by shinkansen (Japan) but the beer bar inside this train (instead of a vending machine in Shinkansen trains) makes up a lot.

Cya, Liebe Grussen.



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