Foot-in-the-door for the digital age

How do you get someone to make a large commitment? By asking them to make a smaller commitment first. For example, you might ask them to answer a survey, click on a link, or do an easy task. This is known in psychology circles as escalating commitment, or the foot-in-the-door technique.

Safe driving sign

The classic study involved homeowners in a high-end neighborhood. When homeowners were asked if they would place a large, intrusive sign on their front lawn about safe driving, 17% agreed.

A different group was approached about two weeks earlier and asked if they would display a small, inconspicuous sign in their window that read “Be a safe driver.” When this group was later asked if they would put the large sign on their lawn, an astonishing 76% agreed (Freedman and Fraser, 1966).

Applying strategy to websites

How does this apply to communication on the web? I’m exploring the web usage of this and many other psychological theories in a class called “Psychology of Digital Media.” It’s part of the MCDM program at the University of Washington.

Classmates.com: a series of simple steps

The instructor described his experience working for Classmates.com. The site draws in the casual visitor one simple, easy step at a time:

  • Click on your state
  • Click on the first letter of your city
  • Click on the first letter of your school

After successfully navigating to the name of your school, you find out that if you register (for free), you can find out about 8,300 other alumni from your school.

At one point in the site’s history, a site designer said it took too many steps to reach the registration form. They reduced the number of steps, and registrations dropped precipitously. Why? They hadn’t drawn the visitor into the site through a series of small commitments.

Every Move: sign up now

I analyzed the “Every Move” website, which offers rewards for exercising. A large “sign up” button is one of the few things on the site’s front page. Does the page provide enough information to persuade the casual visitor to sign up?

The next page of the site:

  • Offers merchandise and discounts from local merchants
  • Mentions that your friends can cheer you on
  • Blogs about prominent people who have signed up
  • Offers a Twitter feed about the brain benefits of exercise

If these items appeared as clickable links on the front page, they could draw people into the site and make them more interested and more likely to sign up.

Think about foot-in-the-door the next time you’re trying to improve your website to better engage your readers.

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