Image of Motivation, Action and Triggers

It’s a time-honored question: Why do people do the things they do? In the digital marketing world, that translates as: “What moves site visitors to action?” When you’re selling online, “action” is the Holy Grail.

Have you heard of the 90-9-1 rule of participation inequality on the web? While developed with social media participation in mind, it applies to many business websites as well. Some 90 percent of your visitors are so-called “lurkers” who rarely or never take action.

But the success of your business depends on high-quality leads – and preferably, lots of them. So how do you get them online? How do you improve your site’s conversion rate and increase the number of qualified leads coming through your website? We need to look beyond the more commonly known techniques of tuning and testing various page elements. Cognitive science researchers in the academic world are studying this problem from a psychological perspective. What they’re discovering could change the way marketers persuade potential customers and – here it comes – move them to action.

Dr. BJ Fogg, psychologist and founder of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, has developed a proprietary behavioral model that describes how behavior change happens. The gist of it is that in order for a behavior (e.g., a click to subscribe, or filling out a form on your landing page) to occur, three conditions must be present at the same time: motivation, ability, and an effective trigger.


There are three basic human motivators. Can you guess what they are?

    • Sensation. The desire to feel pleasure, and the need to avoid pain. Generally, pain avoidance is considered to be the stronger motivator.
    • Anticipation. The hope that good things will occur in the future, and the dread or fear that bad things may happen. Fear is considered stronger.
    • Social cohesion. Our need for social acceptance, and the avoidance of social rejection. Ostracism and shunning are the stronger motivators.

Are you seeing a pattern here? As nice as it would be to think that people are motivated by pleasure, optimism, and the quest for social acceptance, the truth is they try harder to avoid pain, negative or frightful outcomes, and being ostracized. Marketers who understand these powerful motivations and know how to impact people as strongly as possible near one of these extremes can change customer behavior.


In order to perform a target behavior, a person must have the ability to do so. There are two paths to increasing ability. You can train people, giving them more skills. We’ve seen many an eager brand marketer when faced with the question, “But why would they take action here?” give the answer, “Because we’re going to teach them how. We’ll educate them.”

Have you ever seen that actually work? Of course not. People are lazy! They don’t want to have to do more than they have to. Instead, you can just make the target behavior easier to do. Dr. Fogg calls this approach simplicity. Simplicity is a function of your scarcest resource at that moment – which could be time, attention, effort, or money. By focusing on simplicity of the target behavior, you increase ability.


Triggers tell people to “Do it now!” Sometimes a trigger can be external, like the sudden sound of a car horn. Other times the trigger can come from routine: walking into your house reminds you to take off your shoes.

The Fogg behavioral model describes the three trigger types and how to use them:

    • Facilitator. If someone is motivated but not responding because it seems hard (perceived lack of ability), then use a “facilitator” trigger. It should include a call-to-action and some messaging that says “it’s easy.”
    • Spark. If someone can do a task (has the ability), but is not motivated to do it, you should try to design a “spark” trigger. It should include a call-to-action plus some sort of motivator.
    • Signal. If a person has both the motivation and ability to do something, then all that’s needed is a straightforward “signal” trigger. This is essentially a “Do it now” reminder. Don’t try to motivate these kinds of people or emphasize simplicity or ease of doing the task.

You might know “trigger” by another name: call-to-action. Many marketers make the mistake of asking people to perform a complicated behavior. They might think their call-to-action is incredibly simple, but it’s not. It’s also tempting to pack too much into a trigger. “First click this button, then fill in your name and email, vote in the poll, and ‘like’ us on Facebook!” You’re asking the impossible. Note, however, that when done right, triggers can lead to a chain of desired behaviors. An effective trigger for a small behavior can lead people to perform harder behaviors.

Put Hot Triggers in Front of Motivated People

The best way to get a desired behavior, then, in the words of Dr. Fogg, is simply to “put hot triggers in front of motivated people.” You’ve seen this technique used with great success by Amazon, with its special “bundled” pricing that encourages you to buy one or two extra items along with the item you’re looking at. And many e-commerce sites have adopted the “You might also like” offers displaying related products they want you to buy. You’re obviously motivated because you’re looking at product detail pages, and they’re giving you some hot triggers.

Think about how you can apply the Fogg behavioral model to your website to better persuade visitors to take action. Start with your analytics – what are the key pages in your conversion funnel, and how are you currently triggering action? Think about your audience in the context of the three types of triggers and you’ll probably come up with some new ways of prompting action. Don’t just approach triggers from your own viewpoint. Think about them from a behavioral and cognitive science perspective. Using this three-point framework for behavior change, you can turn your website into a powerfully persuasive sales tool.

This article originally appeared in Tim’s ClickZ column August 7, 2012

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