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Don’t Read This: How to Optimize Reverse Psychology Copy


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Students in Dan Ariely’s free online course, A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, may notice a surprising link in the navigation bar: “Don’t Click Here.”

Dan Ariely Don't Click Here link

Ariely has a sly sense of humor. As a behavioral economist, he understands that people frequently don’t act in their best interests. We don’t save for retirement even though we know we should. We eat a few extra cookies even though we’re trying to lose a few extra pounds.

And like Eve drawn to the forbidden fruit, when we’re told explicitly that we shouldn’t do something—well, curiosity gets the best of us.

As Gregory Ng pointed out in a previous post, the camera accessories site Photojojo uses reverse psychology to great effect. On its product pages, the message “Do Not Pull” accompanies a lever image.

Disobey this order and an animated hand appears from the top of the screen and “pulls” the page down to reveal fun, useful copy about the product.

Photojojo Canon camera lens mug page

Students who click Ariely’s link are similarly rewarded. “Despite our instructions not to click on this page, we’re glad you did,” the copy reads. Survey results, podcasts and “other fun stuff” will be posted to the page as it comes in.

“Don’t Click Here.” “Do Not Pull.” It’s hard to resist this kind of call to action. The element of mystery and even danger frequently compels people to act.

But this approach is not without risk. Invoke the wrong tone or use the wrong words and your visitors could miss the joke, or worse, exit your site. Here are five tips for using reverse psychology copy to engage, not alienate, readers:

1. Know your audience.
Who are you writing for? Gather data from analytics, user surveys and other research and create a complete picture of your main visitor segments. Think about age group, gender, income level, education and location. Consider these facts:

  • Studies suggest that women are more risk-averse than men
  • The tendency for adolescents to be more rebellious than adults is well documented (and well observed—just ask any parent!)
  • Nuanced humor may be lost on non-native English speakers
  • Older users may be reluctant to click on any link that looks threatening, which leads to the next point…

2. Choose your words carefully.
There’s a difference between “Don’t Click Here” and “Danger! Click at Your Own Risk!!” One is delivered with a wink, and the other forecasts a possible security threat. That’s why some clever people use the latter principle when naming their personal WiFi networks.

WiFi virus message

Even the most tech-savvy, meme-literate person would think twice before choosing this network. Remember this if you’re using reverse psychology messaging in links.

3. Stay on-brand.
Photojojo’s lever image and “Do Not Pull” message complement the site’s playful design and copy. Similarly, Patagonia’s 2011 Cyber Monday email marketing campaign fit perfectly with its mission to reduce human impact on the environment.

Patagonia Don't Buy This Jacket email

“Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time – and leave a world inhabitable for our kids – we want to do the opposite of every other business today,” the email read. “We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.”

If Patagonia’s identity weren’t so entwined with sustainability, corporate responsibility and environmental activism, this email would come across as disingenuous. Instead, it seems that Patagonia really doesn’t want you to buy this jacket. The company realizes it’s not about making money, it’s about creating a movement—and that’s much more valuable than a one-off conversion.

4. Pique interest—don’t discourage action.
It’s easy to take a “don’t do this” approach to any kind of reverse psychology message. Instead, your real goal should be to stir up prospects’ interest. The “I Hate Steven Singer” billboards in the Philadelphia area do that. So does the tongue-in-cheek tagline of a Chinese restaurant in Raleigh: “Hide your cats.”

Ariely encourages action by having a TA mention the “Don’t Click Here” link in the course’s introductory video. This piques the curiosity of students who might have missed the link or don’t want to risk clicking it.

5. Remind customers it’s their choice.
Recent research (described in this Unbounce post) suggests that reminding people of their freedom to chose is an incredibly effective way to be persuasive. The so-called But You Are Free (BYAF) technique leads people to donate more to charity, agree more readily to a survey and give more money to someone asking for bus fare.

Reminding people that they can make their own decision is a tactic that Miracle Whip has employed in the past few years. Instead of ignoring the fact people either love or hate the condiment, the company has been playing it up.

First, Pauly D from “Jersey Shore” appeared in a video to discuss his hatred of the sandwich spread. (“If I had a girlfriend who liked Miracle Whip, it’s a deal-breaker.” Promise, Pauly?) Recent videos aren’t as heavy-handed, but encourage debate nonetheless.

On its YouTube page, viewers are asked to “Try us, then form your own opinion. And then let everyone else know.”

Reverse psychology can add personality to your brand, delight your visitors and increase conversions. What effective examples have you seen? How would you use or test this strategy on your site?