I’m filming right now in Manchester city centre, and if I stepped out of the door and walked down the high street, you can pretty much guarantee that I’d be approached in a minute or two by someone trying to get me to donate to a charity. Now, what will this person say, “Would you like to sign up for a £20 a month direct debit?”. Of course not. They’ll say: “Can you spare two minutes?”, “Can I just ask you a couple of questions?”.
This is the foot-in-the-door technique, also known as compliance and consistency. Once you have complied with this small request (“OK – two minutes”), you are more likely to maintain a consistent approach throughout the conversation, continuing to agree as the results escalate, until they build up to asking you to sign up for that direct debit.
So, the foot in the door technique is alive and well on today’s high street, but – as a topic that’s studied in psychology – it goes all the way back to the 1960s. One of the earliest, and most famous, study was conducted at Stanford University in California.
Researchers phoned up houses in the local town – Palo Alto – and said, “Would it be OK for a team of 5-6 men to come to your house for two hours and rifle through all your cupboards to catalogue the products that you buy, for market research?”. Not surprisingly, 80% told them to get lost (the surprising thing is that 20% actually agreed!).
But in the foot in the door version, they first asked them to complete a simple 8-question market research survey over the phone, and only at the end did they say, “Well that was very useful, but what would be even better would be if you’d agree for a team of 5-6 men to come through your house and rifle through your cupboards…”. In this foot in the door version, over half agreed to this pretty big request.
Since then, there have been lots of follow-up studies – easily a hundred by now – and what they show is that it doesn’t really matter exactly what you ask for in the first place – the key is just getting a foot in the door.
So, what does this mean for your site? Well, if you can get visitors to comply with some small request (for example, answering a couple of survey questions, as long as you can keep it fun and interesting), they are more likely to comply when you ask them if they want to add something to their cart or to check out.
Foot in the door works well for most people, but there’s actually a particular type of person – people who thrive on change and unpredictability – where the opposite works better: a technique called “door in the face”. So, you start off with a totally UNreasonable request (“Buy this jacket now for £2,000?”), then following it up with a much smaller one (“How about this one for £100?”).
A really great idea would be adaptive websites that can detect the visitor’s personality type via their click patterns and use either the foot-in-the-door or door-in-the-face technique as appropriate. The technology for this type of personalisation is out there now, but there are still very few sites that are actually doing this.
In the meantime, the best thing for most people is the traditional approach of making a small request first, and then following it up with a bigger one. The old door-to-door salesman had it right all along – start by getting your foot in the door.