Case Study: 6 Psychology-Based Tips on How to Sell More (Gym) Memberships Online

Simple behavioral changes that meant moving the sales process from face-to-face to online not only did not backfire but actually increased conversions by 2%. 

In this article you’ll discover: 

  • 6 online sales behavioral hacks which pack a persuasive punch; 
  • Why adding a chatbot can help your sales; 
  • Where to place your high-margin option; and 
  • What color to use to create an illusion the price is cheaper.
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The Endowment Effect

When people own something they value it beyond its objective value. Frame your message in ways that make customers feel like they already own your product, discount or benefit.

Picture this: it’s the 2nd of January and you’re wondering how to keep up with your ambitious resolution to lose those last stubborn 5 pounds. Sheepishly, you stop by the local gym; they walk you around, show you the equipment and let you try out the treadmill. You think: “This is quite nice, maybe I could try it out for a month”. As the endowment effect starts to slowly kick in you can imagine yourself using it. Then a personal trainer chats with you and offers you a free class next week. Who could refuse, right? 

Gyms are famous for using a lot of sales techniques associated with meeting potential clients in person. Thanks to this, customers first agree to a free class and as they slowly build rapport with staff, they feel obligated to say yes to more and more. 

Or take the trademark move of a “no obligation chat” in which a trainer maps out your needs and provides preliminary feedback and quick advice (to create a feeling of reciprocity), while stressing that: “the issue should most likely be properly addressed”. In reality, this translates into the not so subtle “with my help and guidance over the course of a month, naturally”. 


People’s natural tendency to reciprocate if they are given something first. Reciprocity is the strongest when what they receive is unexpected, valuable and personal.

“Just come in and have a chat is never just a chat,'' says Patrick Fagan, a behavioral scientist and Chief Scientific Officer at Capuchin Behavioural Science, who was hired by a swanky UK leisure club to help them move its sign-up process online. 

Even though it was clearly more cost efficient, they wondered how they could move their specific sales process online without harming their sales. This concern was justified because online sales don’t allow for a lot of the sales techniques associated with meeting potential clients in-person (building rapport with a personal trainer, imagined ownership of the equipment, etc.). 

The concern of moving the sales process online was justified because it doesn't allow for a lot of the sales techniques associated with meeting potential clients in-person.

Fagan reviewed their online customer journey and made specific behavioral science-based recommendations for the online sign-up process. The move from offline to online subsequently not only did not harm sales, but actually increased conversion by 2%. 

So, what are the elements any promo page should include and what are the things that could unwittingly be harming your conversions? 

The research team began as all research teams do: they conducted a literature review to dig out relevant insights for this topic and reviewed the company's online sales process. They considered the potential opportunities and risks associated with online sign up and came up with suggestions for improvements. Though not all of them were implemented, all can serve as a source of inspiration for those who want to look at a webpage with fresh eyes. 

6 easy to apply tips to improve your online sales process

1. Provide positive reinforcement along the way

To increase the perceived benefits of a purchase while decreasing the perceived costs, Fagan suggested improving the aesthetics and the design of the webpage. 

If you want to get really fancy at a dinner party, this is known as costly signalling; the trick is to make it seem as nice and as high-end as possible, to give the impression that it must be good, Fagan says.

He points out that the glossy fliers sent out by politicians are no accident, they make them appear better and so people are more likely to vote for them. 

In an online funnel, positive reinforcement can come in the form of a design flourish - a treat or a reward could be a green tick box encouraging you to go from page to page, just for the joy of it.

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Fagan offers examples of how adding reinforcement once the client has selected one of the options could look. “(You can use) a little message with a little tick saying: excellent choice, this is our most popular subscription, or Well done! you have good taste.” 

2. Make it more human and personable

To increase a sense of liking to build rapport in an online space, Fagan suggested adding an avatar – a chatbot or a real personal trainer working at a club nearby who would chat with a prospect visiting the site –  giving them some background and building sympathy. 

This may not seem like much but it's a useful feature because, as Fagan points out: “If you have an avatar throughout the signup process the purchase intentions are higher.” 

Notice that in this case the leisure club wouldn’t aim for creating authority by fashioning a fancy title such as “top athlete specialist'' or “gym pro expert”. Even though making a job title slightly more fancy works well in other industries, especially banking, here the goal was to put page visitors – who may not feel confident about their level of fitness to begin with – at ease and to appear approachable. 

The main sentiment therefore was: “You’ve never worked out before? No sweat, we’ll figure it out. I’ll help you to choose the best plan for you.”

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3. Push your high-margin option forward

“The leisure club offered 3 membership options which was a great opportunity for the decoy effect, but they weren’t really using it.” Fagan says.

The Decoy Effect

Decoy is an option which no one is interested in because it’s objectively inferior to other options. It isn’t designed to be sold. Decoy has a different objective – to make other options seem more attractive.

He adds: “We know that people tend to choose the middle option, so the decoy should be positioned at the end. However, in the old design, the preferred option was positioned on the left side and the decoy (a membership option which offered less value for money) was in the middle!” 

That’s why Fagan suggested highlighting the highest-margin option (e.g., by calling it the top choice: “recommended, most popular”, using visual flourishes and positioning it in the center with a decoy option on the right side to make it really obvious which one people should buy. The goal was to avoid page visitors becoming overwhelmed by multiple choices, which often leads to them falling back on the heuristic of choosing the cheapest option.  

Funnily enough, a study has found that consumers infer that prices written on a yellow label are cheaper even when they are not! In this case, a more conservative purple was picked as a highlight.

Ok so now we know where to place your leading horse option, but how to describe it?

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