Maximising sign-ups – Some help from Behavioural Economics

This month we take a look at a critically important part of your website - sign-up pages. I have teamed up with behavioural economics expert Bri Williams to apply the science of behaviour and influence to website design. Bri takes us on a tour of the behavioural principles used to maximise sign-ups by big online players such as facebook and amazon. We apply the behavioural principles of following the herd, status-quo bias, impulsivity and loss aversion to maximising sign-ups. If these terms are new to you, read on to learn more about this vital and emerging field - essential knowledge for every business owner!

Like any Internet user, you’ve probably encountered hundreds of sign-up or user registration pages during your online travels, asking you to provide contact and other information in exchange for access to a website’s content or functionality. And because sign-ups are so common, you may have become blind to the elements of what makes a good versus bad process when you come to create one for your business. Well, I think it’s time to look at optimising your website’s sign-up and we will do that using tips from a field that examines the forces that influence our behaviour, Behavioural Economics.

Tips for structuring your sign-ups

In your endeavour to find the balance, take comfort in knowing that when a user is signing-up with you it means they want something you are offering, so you have already started to form a relationship with them. Whilst you should of course work with your legal team on ensuring you meet all legal and regulatory requirements, here are tips for securing that goodwill through your sign-up process.

Other people trust us

We humans tend to follow what others are doing. In behavioural terms, we herd which means we take great comfort in being part of a crowd. That’s why a restaurant with a queue out the door will continue to attract diners whilst the empty restaurant across the road watches on. For your sign-up process, consider promoting how many people have signed-up with you already because this will provide comfort to the user that you have been trusted by others to manage their information. For example, “join over 3,000 subscribers to our newsletter.”

If you are just starting out and you don’t feel the number is compelling, or if it is commercially sensitive, consider including a couple of testimonials from people who have done business with you in order to provide assurance.

Capitalise on our laziness

It’s true, we are inherently lazy. Sure, we might go to the gym and frolic at the beach but un-checking a box in a sign-up? No way. We are prone to status-quo bias which means we typically leave things on their default settings. If your sign-up defaults to a box that is ticked, it is more likely to stay ticked than not. Likewise, an un-ticked box is more likely to stay that way; a suggested amount to donate is more likely to be donated than any other amount, and so on. Consider what you really want the user to do and make it easy for them to agree to that. A pre-ticked statement that “I would like to receive relevant offers…” will get a higher conversion that if you require the user to tick the box themselves.

Don’t be greedy

We hate to feel that we are losing more than we are gaining, and in fact are more likely to act to avoid loss than seek out gain. Think about this in terms of the job market – we stay in jobs we may have outgrown because we are more frightened of losing income, benefits and security than finding our dream job. This is called loss aversion and is important when designing sign-ups because your user will be mentally tabulating what information they are giving up for the service they will gain. If they strike a question they feel is too invasive, they are likely to abandon the process.

How can you manage this? Don’t ask for too much. What’s too much? You need to think about what data you actually need to provision your service and what your user will deem reasonable. One of the biggest blunders is to ask for a date of birth from your user when that has nothing to do with your service. Sure, it helps you know the age profile of your user base, but you are significantly limiting the likelihood of people signing up with you by posing one of the most personal of questions. If age profiling is important to you, having optional age bracket questions (eg are you 25-34, 35-44 etc) is a less invasive way to go.

Keep it simple and get it done

You may have heard that Amazon has successfully patented its One-Click online ordering process, where users can place an order with a single click. Why has this been such an important innovation? Ultimate simplicity for the end-user who wants to get things done quickly and easily. In behavioural terms, this taps into our impulsivity by removing any procedural barriers.

For Amazon, One-Click removes the risk of the customer re-thinking their purchase or getting distracted, or a step of the online ordering process falling over. For your sign-up, the fewer steps the better if you want to capture the user’s impulse to do business with you. Unless vital to your data quality, limit the need for confirmation activation emails that interrupt the user as they sign-up and can leave them open to distraction. Tell the user how few steps they will go through and how far through they are to keep momentum (for example “three simple steps…” ,“you’re almost there”, and “all done!”) are ways to encourage the user to finish the sign-up.

Examples of sign-ups for you to consider

Nearly every website you visit can become a lesson in what you should and should not do. Here are some to get you thinking: One-click is a transactional rather than sign-up example, but worth noting its simplicity. Generating lots of buzz at the moment by using exclusivity and our need for acceptance to create desire to join. You request and invite and then have to wait a day or so to be accepted. This uses herding in an in-crowd/out-crowd way. simple 3 content requirement – username, password and email; checks availability in real-time to remove duplicates; tells user what pressing a button will do; uses Captcha but keeps it simple; pre-ticks agreement to terms nice and easy for the user but requires user to click on email confirmation to get started to ensure data quality. Three step process where the first is to confirm your city. The default city is St John’s which given status quo bias would result in a skew of registrations to this location. The site cues the user as to how far through the process they are, and given the first step is so easy, this would encourage people to continue. Step 2 is an email address which is not validated, and whilst step 3 seems at first to be the deals page, they instead insert a cheeky popup as an extra profiling tool which asks you as “one last thing” to include your gender and postcode. It is at this point you are required to agree to terms of use. This is a clever way of using our tendency to want to complete things once we’ve been engaged in them to finalise the process. In other words, you feel like you’re almost there, so you are happy to knock off the last couple of data questions. an example of sign-up skewed to the business rather than user needs. For instance, asking for date of birth without explaining why (I believe Google say it’s to ensure only people over a certain age can create an account, but they could instead ask the user whether they are over the age restriction.) Also, presenting terms and conditions in a format that is highly legalistic and reduces user likelihood of bothering to read let alone understand them. simple and easy to find sign-up which is no surprise given its their core business to grow users! Facebook asks for your date of birth and explains why – they don’t do the same for gender when it could be argued that this is not relevant. They verify email extensions before allowing registration, but when a registration fails, do not tell the user why. at the extreme end of simplicity, just enter your email to subscribe. However, there’s no safeguard against email address typos and no profiling captured by the business. Whilst you are visiting, check-out a Mashable article that contains nine further examples of sign-up pages.

Sign-up pages serve a key customer relationship function in your business, so it’s important to get the balance right between your needs and those of your users. My final piece of advice is to think first and foremost as the end-user, pare back your requirements to maximise user take-up and at every stage assure them that what they are giving you will give them more in return.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in behavioural outcomes for business. Bri writes a weekly blog on Behavioural Economics for and can be contacted via email at or her website

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