The theories behind online persuasion

For those of you who are in the business of shaping consumer behaviour online, you know how important it is to understand the science behind online persuasion. On the internet, you have only a few seconds, if that, to persuade your customer to click on your website, product, button, link, or whatever it is you’re after.

There are numerous theories in the persuasive communication field, older or newer, that can give you useful insights on how to improve your online strategies to get more conversions. One of the classics is the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM), a theory created by social psychologists Richard Petty and John Cacioppo back in 1983. Their goal was to offer a new perspective on the communication process to help the construction of the most appropriate message for the target group taking into consideration their level of involvement with the subject. The model works on three main components: the motivation a person has to process the message based on his or her needs, involvement or interests; the ability to understand the message, appealing to his knowledge or intellect; and the opportunity to interact with the message.

The ELM presents two routes of persuasion, a central route and a peripheral route, the difference between them being the degree of information processing. For the central route, the target group has the ability, opportunity, and motivation to process the persuasive message and needs solid proof and cognition for their behaviour to change. In contrast, the level of involvement in the peripheral route is low; the audience is more passive, and the message is based on heuristics that arouse the individuals. When taking this route, the target group lacks motivation, opportunity, and ability. They form their perception without too much effort and reflection, and with less cognitive processing.

The central route is for those who are highly involved in the communication process, who take the decision to engage in such behaviour after processing the pros and cons, as they can be very critical of the message being decoded. Let’s take, as an example, a customer who’s looking for a professional camera. To persuade him to buy your product you could include a long list of product attributes, a video with a product demonstration to show that it works, tips and tricks on how to take the best photos to prove your expertise, testimonials from other buyers, etc.

For those who are not highly involved with the topic, heuristic cues need to be used via the peripheral route to get the message through to them, as they don’t care about the quality of the arguments that are presented. An excellent example is the Dutch fashion label Afriek because they use empathy and storytelling to sell the clothing they make together with artisans in Rwanda.

A similar theory had Daniel Kahneman, in his book written in 2011 Thinking Fast and Slow, saying that our brain is like a dual-core system, one emotional – the fast-thinking bit (System 1) and one cognitive – thinking slow (System 2).

“Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. […] When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment.”

Applying these theories to our online strategies, we have to ask ourselves in what state of mind are our customers when they’re at a touchpoint with our business. Should we create a message that is emotionally appealing or an intellectually engaging one? Nathalie Nahai, web psychologist and author of Webs of Influence, thinks that in an online context, it pays to remember that we are emotional creatures and that if we want to engage with and influence our online audience we’ll have to appeal to both their emotional and rational minds.” Nathalie just launched her second edition of the book, which is full of insights from the worlds of psychology and behavioural economics, explaining the underlying dynamics and motivations behind online consumer behaviour. If you are curious about the book, there’s a chapter available on the psychology behind persuasive videos at Nir Eyal’s website.

The best part about building online persuasive messages is the ability to test them. Compared to traditional offline advertising, on the internet, there are several ways that can indicate you (pretty fast) if the message you created is convincing enough. For example, you could use Google Adwords to place variations of a single message to see which generates the highest click through rate. Or you could create an A/B test on your website using tools like VWO to compare two versions of a page to see which one performs better.

Online persuasion can be an art if done right. It’s all about knowing your consumers, what they like, when they like it, what they dislike, how involved they are with your product or service, what they react to, whether they are rational or emotional about your business, etc. Your target group should be more than a slide in a presentation.


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
Nahai, N. (2012). Webs of Influence: The Psychology of online persuasion. Pearson UK.
Petty, R. E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Schumann, D. (1983). Central and peripheral routes to advertising effectiveness: The moderating role of involvement. Journal of Consumer Research.

About Georgiana Floroiu

As a Digital Strategist and Account Manager with seven years experience in PR and communication, and a degree in persuasive communication, Georgiana is passionate about consumer behaviour and positive psychology.

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