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​Are you being exploited by online marketers using "tricks for clicks"?

By definition, marketing is all about getting people to do something. Make sure the "doing something" is your decision and not the marketers'.

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Image: iStockphoto.com/Rafinade
Marketing psychology has been so successful that commercials and catchy phrases like "Choosy moms choose Jif" and the American Express tagline "Membership has its privileges" create more buzz than the event in which the products are advertised.

If anything, the internet has emboldened marketing psychologists even further, driving them to create new and enticing techniques—or what Elliot Berkman, assistant professor of psychology at University of Oregon, calls "tricks for clicks."

"The insidious, distracting suck of the Internet has become seemingly inescapable," Berkman said. "Calling us from our pockets, lurking behind work documents, it's merely a click away."

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Image: Elliot Berkman

Michael Schulson, writing for Aeon, explained why the internet, an abstract object, exerts that kind of influence.

"A handful of corporations determine the shape of the web that most of us use every day. Many of those companies make money by capturing users' attention and turning it into page views and clicks."

He added, "They've staked their futures on methods to cultivate habits in users to win as much of that attention as possible. Successful companies build specialized teams and collect reams of personalized data, all intended to hook users on their products."

SEE: The undercover war on your internet secrets: How online surveillance cracked our trust in the web

Tricks for clicks

Berkman, knowing a thing or two about psychology, decided to look at some of the tricks that internet writers and web developers use to grab our attention and why.

"22 of the Cutest Baby Animals, you won't believe number 11!"

The above headline is an example of the Pique Technique, where using unusual requests increase compliance because the odd request causes people to give thoughtful consideration to the demand. "An attention pique, such as calling out photo number 11, triggers us to halt whatever we're doing and reorient to the puzzle," Berkman said. "Questions demand answers. Psychologists have dubbed this tendency as the rhetorical question effect, or the tendency for rhetorical questions to prompt us to dig deeper into an issue."

Berkman said click tricks are designed to exploit a particular human tendency. "It's clearly advantageous that unexpected stimuli capture our attention and engage us in a search for explanations," he said. "It might stop us from getting hit by a car, or alert us to sudden and suspicious changes to the balance in our bank account."

We want you back

Besides grabbing attention, Berkman said marketers do everything in their power to get website visitors to return. Some examples are notifications of when someone replies to a post or is interested in power rankings based on up-votes. "These cues trigger the reward system in our brains because they've become associated with the potent reinforcer of social approval."

SEE: Election Tech: How campaigns win with big data, and you can too

The options

The success of tricks for clicks is garnering interest among psychologists. "Not surprisingly, internet use is often framed in the language of addiction," Berkman said. "Psychologists have identified Problematic Internet Use (PIU) as a growing concern."

He said the psychological ramifications of PIU suggest something he calls "precommitment" as a possible solution. He defines precommitment as a self-control strategy that involves imposing a condition on some aspect of a person's behavior in advance. He gave an example:

"An MIT study shows that paid proofreaders made fewer errors and turned in their work earlier when they chose to space out their deadlines (e.g., complete one assignment per week for a month), compared to when they had the same amount of time to work, but had only one deadline at the end of a month."

Why does precommitment work? According to Berkman, "Research supports the reasoning behind these programs: The idea that we often know what's best for our future selves—at least when it comes to getting work done and staying free of distraction."

Self-control versus resisting a temptation

For those thinking that precommitment sounds great but will never work, Berkman cautioned that most people come to that conclusion because they consider "self-control" and "resisting a temptation" to be one and the same. "Instead, good self-control is characterized by the ability to avoid temptations in the first place," he said. "We often think of self-control as the ability to white-knuckle our way through temptation, but studies indicate that self-control can also be as simple as planning ahead to avoid those traps."

Simply put, going online knowing ahead of time what marketers are trying to do is far better than trying to resist the temptation of their click tricks cold turkey.

Also read...

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Do you fall prey to marketers' tricks even though you know you're being played? Share your experiences and thoughts with fellow TechRepublic members.

About Michael Kassner

Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

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