Key Takeaways

  • In a sea of online noise, retailers and businesses use our own psychological tendencies to hijack our online attention.
  • Understanding some of the tendencies that online marketing can exploit is the first step.
  • As the online landscape continues to shift, our one-size-fits-all approach to online communications will get less and less impactful. Businesses should take note.

The Internet is a wonderland of opportunity, and users are subject to an ever-intensifying demand for their attention. In order to emerge from the sea of potential connections, retailers and business may resort to less than ethical practices. These tactics use our own psychological tendencies to hijack our attention online.  As we all become more accustomed to this treatment, will we become less susceptible?

Tweet: Are online retailers using your psychological tendencies to hijack your attention online? @JonSchultz_Onyx #StreetSchultz
     “Are online retailers using your psychological tendencies to hijack your attention online? ”    —

In a piece posted in May, a Design Ethicist from Google and co-founder of Time Well Spent . Tristan Harris, reflected on this, and pointed out the human tendencies that can be used to manipulate our online behavior. It’s fascinating to note how our natural inclinations can tend to lead us astray, and technology that appears to be empowering may often instead greatly limit us.

Here are some of the tendencies that online sites are often designed to exploit.

Limited Buffet

It seems contrary to common sense, but it’s nonetheless true that the more choices we’re given via menus, the more our choices are in fact restricted. In other words, when a site gives us a menu of options, we tend to feel that those are our only choices. This is because people don’t usually ask questions, like “What’s NOT on the menu?” or “Why am I getting these particular options and not others?”

Sometimes the choices we’re given online reflect the aims of the provider much more than the needs or interests of the user. As the author points out: “The most empowering menu is different than the menu with the most choices.”

Game of Chance

One thing that keeps us coming back to our phones and the web is the fact that we never know what we’ll find there. This is compared to the thrill of a slot machine.  Will there be a new notification? The average person checks their phone 150 times each day. We have a human tendency to enjoy this possibility of upcoming rewards (a new photo on Instagram; a reply to an email), so we play the game as often as possible.

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Similarly, the Fear of Missing Out drives many online decisions that we make. It’s what makes us stay “friends” with someone we haven’t spoken with in years or scrolling through screen after screen of kitten videos and selfies on social media.

Tweet: FOMO got you making rash decisions? @JonSchultz_Onyx #StreetSchultz
     “FOMO got you making rash decisions?”    —

Understanding the Social Expectations

Even online, we are governed by social norms and they can dictate how we conduct our online lives. Sites play into this, interjecting themselves into the process. We all want to be liked and appreciated, so we’re delighted when a friend likes or comments favorably on something we post. We don’t think about the fact that the friend was prompted to see and approve that item by the website.

Social norms also encourage us to reciprocate whenever someone makes a gesture. –you say “thank you,” I have to say “you’re welcome.”  There are obligations like this created online too, by design. So when someone follows you, you follow back. You respond to email. It’s rude not to, and website design is intended to keep us using those channels as often as possible.

In case you’re not already feeling a little creeped out and harassed, here’s another way that sites get and hold our attention: the “bottomless bowl.” A never-ending supply that encourages you to consume more than you ever would otherwise. This is common on social media and video sites, where the next video is on autoplay, tempting you to just sit tight and keep watching.

Apps and websites can really hook you when they intertwine your reasons for being there with their reasons for wanting you to stay. Mr. Harris explains, using a truly irritating example to which you can likely relate:

“For example, lets you “make a free choice” to cancel your digital subscription. But instead of just doing it when you hit “Cancel Subscription,” they send you an email with information on how to cancel your account by calling a phone number that’s only open at certain times.”

This can’t be good for you. That is the point made by Mr. Harris, who holds that “the ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology that’s on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely.”

Tweet: The ultimate freedom is a free mind. @JonSchultz_Onyx #StreetSchultz
     “The ultimate freedom is a free mind. ”    —

One-Size-Fits-All Doesn’t Work

In a society that is constantly in information overload, the above is going to become more and more of a factor in the way we do business. The way we market to and communicate with our customers will need to become more personalized —a one-by-one business case. As a society, we have a one-size-fits-all mentality, and that just won't work as the online space becomes more and more cluttered.

It would behoove us all to spend more time up front per customer to gain a more personal, focused understanding of what their needs are —and how we can help. Just like in the golden days of sales when you’d sit down with a customer to ask questions about what’s going on in their business, what issues we can solve —not just selling or hustling product.

This one-size-fits-all idea where we’re gaming and manipulating online consumers into action might work in B2C, but in B2B times are changing.

Are you gaming?