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7 Cognitive biases to boost conversion rates in online courses

What makes an online course option more attractive than another?

How can a learner decide faster to purchase a course?

Why aren’t my conversion rates as good as they could be?

These are a few questions that all knowledge entrepreneurs ask themselves regularly. Understanding learner behavior is tricky, but you don’t need to pursue a business degree to get the hang of it.

Consumer behavior is hard to pin down because we’re not “rational” decision-makers, especially when it comes to economic decisions. Instead, we often make irrational choices based on cognitive biases, which are:

systematic but flawed patterns of responses to judgment and decision problems.

In other words, we operate with a set of mental glitches that influence our thinking. A bias is a bias because it’s so deeply ingrained that we’re not aware that we’re irrational. We just roll with it!

OK, so if we don’t make rational decisions, then why bother understanding any of it?

In a way, marketing tactics are psychological tools in disguise that help sell products or services. All marketing messages employ cognitive biases to persuade potential buyers to find a solution to their problem. For example, cultivating a positive brand image is crucial because people base their opinions on their first interactions with your brand. This is known as the halo effect.

Maybe that’s why I still like that band, even if their recent albums aren’t that great? Hmmm...

Regardless of my tastes in music, psychologists have been studying cognitive biases for many decades. We have a lot of insight into how they work!

7 Cognitive biases to boost conversion rates in online courses

Knowing how your learners arrive at a particular decision is crucial for optimizing conversion rates and increasing your revenue. Plenty of brands and companies do this already, and probably your competitors as well, so it’s time to learn about seven cognitive biases that influence buyer decisions:

  1. The ambiguity effect

    The ambiguity effect describes what we tend to do when we feel uncertain about a decision. In reality, we hate uncertainty! When deciding which online course to buy, learners will pick the option that feels safer, e.g., they have more information.

    Your course needs to seem a risk-free option for them. In this case, you can make product information available and as unambiguous as possible. For example, the pricing options should be easy to see and compare. Another idea is to offer social proof by displaying user reviews on your landing pages.

    Read more: 8 Amazing social proof tips to boost online course sales

    The ultimate risk aversion test is offering a money-back guarantee if people are not happy with your course. In other words, the more info they have about something, the likelier it is for them to buy it. They have nothing to lose!

  2. The anchoring effect

    The anchoring effect means relying too heavily on one aspect to make a decision. It’s usually the first piece of information you encounter.

    Let’s say that a learner sees a Facebook ad about your course and sees your tagline displayed boldly — they’ll most likely judge everything they see about your brand based on this message.

    Or, they might visit your course landing page and notice that the original price was $100, but now it’s $75 for a limited time only. They’ll believe that the real value is $100, which they’ll use to justify their purchase. After all, $75 seems like a steal.

    The same is true when they’re scrolling through their Instagram and see that a person they like has just endorsed you. If it’s good enough for that influencer, it must be good enough for them!

  3. Confirmation bias

    We tend to interpret and better remember information that confirms our beliefs, particularly beliefs that we feel strongly about. Once we adopt a position, we’re going to look for evidence to keep it going. How? Mostly by ignoring contradictory facts or information.

    Let’s imagine that a learner believes that their number one problem is procrastination. They stumble upon your website, where they discover a blog post in which you give stellar advice to beat “the procrastination monster.” This blog post confirms what they already believe, so they’ll be motivated to find more about what you have to offer. Your help might just be what they need!

    That’s why many platforms display a “thank you page” that congratulates the user for signing up. It’s just another confirmation. So you can also take advantage of this with a simple message, such as:

    “Congratulations! Thank you for joining 5,000+ learners who have successfully tackled procrastination!”

  4. Mere exposure effect

    The mere exposure effect means that we tend to prefer things that are familiar to us. We like popular brands because we see, hear, read about them over and over again.

    Last week, I noticed that my coffee supply was running low, and no, I can’t have that happen to me, ever! I wanted to try something new, in which case almost always turn to the almighty Google search. After a few days, one particular vendor kept re-targeting me and tempting me with pretty good offers! I ended up writing a note when placing my order: “Good job with the ads!” One has to appreciate a good marketing effort.

    As a course creator, investing in brand awareness pays off long term. One way is to invest in social media ads and target the right people. However, you can also get more exposure by using influencer marketing and being present on other people’s channels. For example, you can guest blog, feature on YouTube videos, or co-host a webinar. These methods attract more people to your channels and help establish you as an expert, which is a big bonus as a course creator.

    Read more: 6 Personal branding tips for knowledge entrepreneurs

  5. Loss aversion

    We fear losing more than we like to win. We care more about losing $5 than gaining $5. That’s why when we invest money, time, or other resources in something, we believe that this investment matters a lot, so we’re going to stick with it to the end.

    Think of people waiting in line for hours to get the newest phone. Would you give up after three hours, even if it’s freezing outside? Research says no.

    In e-commerce, loss aversion is used all the time. A great example is offering a free trial for potential learners. Have them sign in for one week to see how they like your courses. After that, you can also set up a subscription option, which people will hate to cancel, especially if you deliver the content they need.

    Moreover, discount codes are also a form of loss aversion. People will want to use it because otherwise, they think they lose the discount!. The same goes for buy one and get one free. Learners will hate to lose that opportunity.

    Read more: 5 FOMO marketing tips and tricks for online course creators

  6. Framing effect

    The framing effect describes the difference in behavior when the same information is presented positively (in terms of gains) vs. negatively (in terms of losses). This bias helps you create a more compelling marketing message.

    For example, when you write about the course benefits, you can frame them in different ways.

    If I want to sell a course about budgeting, I can frame it as either:

    • My method will save 10% of your yearly income! (positive framing)
    • Without my method, you’ll waste 10% of your yearly income! (negative framing)

    The two options are the same… you’ll retain 10% of your annual income either way. However, the negative framing is more persuasive since we tend to focus more on losses than gains. It’s not about the benefit per se. It’s how you communicate it to the potential learner.

    You can also take a trick from the advertisers’ playbook and use attribute framing. Attribute framing means that people make more positive evaluations of items that are framed positively. In a famous example, researchers discovered that saying “beef is 75% lean” is better received than “beef is 25% fat.” Pay attention to product labels next time you’re in your local supermarket. You’ll see what I mean.

    So, every time you need to make a point, think hard about how you frame your messages!

  7. The serial position effect

    People tend to remember the first and last items they see best and not so much what’s in the middle.

    You can take advantage of this bias to strategically position your courses in the catalog. For instance, always put your priciest options first and then the lower-priced ones next. If potential buyers see that the $180 course follows the $200 course, they’ll immediately think that $180 sounds more reasonable by comparison, which boosts your conversion rate.

    Plus, when you’re creating your landing page, always put the most important information first. Place your tagline at the beginning, the not-so-important info in the middle, and finish strongly with a call-to-action (CTA).

    You always have to ask yourself: what can I do to grab their attention? Many companies use leading titles such as “Subscribe for unlimited knowledge!” or “10% off all courses in March!”

Wrapping up

Cognitive biases are an integral part of marketing. Many marketers use them without actually calling them cognitive biases. They are usually “tips and tricks.” Once you become aware of these, you’ll see them everywhere, guaranteed!

These “mental glitches” help you optimize your website and messages so you’ll be more persuasive and convert visitors into learners at a much faster rate.

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