How a Website Made $465,670 in Two Days (Or, the Psychology Behind the Humble Bundle)

Watch out! It's a video game pirate!
A video game pirate approaches! Photo courtesy of Jeff the Troja on Flickr.

When was the last time you saw an advertisement? I’d bet it wasn’t too long ago. Was it on a website? A 30-second pre-roll before watching Modern Family on Hulu?

On my daily walks through New York City I see buses vibrantly painted marketing a new TV show, buildings covered in “happy hands” watch billboards, and even chalk-written notes on the sidewalks reminding people to go to church. Whether we like or not, every day we subconsciously observe psychology in marketing, advertising, and selling.

Enter the Humble Bundle, a site that uses some excellent advertising to entice customers to buy “indie” books, video games, and music. Started about two years ago by the ever-forward thinking Jeff Rosen, the Humble Bundle has been a massive, massive success. In total, the Humble Bundles have generated about $19,500,000 in total revenue. In a field littered with piracy, how were they able to generate so much revenue? Read on as I break down eight different ways the Humble Bundle website pushes you to happily give them money (often more than you expected).

Dubbed as the “greatest threat to the gaming industry” piracy has overtaken the video game scene. Big-name companies like Ubisoft and EA spend millions of dollars a year protecting their intellectual property from illegal downloading. While the methods EA and Ubisoft enact to curb piracy (dubbed “DRM”, which is short for “digital rights management”) can be effective they often hurt customers who legally buy the game.

Hearing the frustration from legitimate customers, Jeff Rosen decided to take a step back and re-evaluate piracy. After chatting with his potential customers he stumbled upon a golden idea: if you make it as easy to buy the games as it is to pirate, people will typically opt to pay. So, he went back to the drawing board (as the old executives in the game industry likely looked on in fear) and only sold games that were DRM-free, created a simple payment system, implemented some great psychology tactics on his site (we’ll get to that in a minute), and made the entire process of buying games easier. Think about that for a minute: in an industry where most companies are panicking and loading their games up with DRM, Jeff did the opposite. Rinse and repeat the strategy for ebooks and soundtracks and the Humble Bundle has been an incredible success.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the persuasion tactics the Humble Bundle website uses.

The Humble Bundle website.
Open up the Humble Bundle website and pay close attention to the psychological hacks the Humble Bundle is using on you.
  • Time constraint: Notice the ticking clock in the upper right-hand corner. You only have a limited time to buy the offer, and the ticking clock reflects that in real-time. This helps push the user towards an “impulse” buy. If I don’t buy it now, then when will it be available next (if ever)? Better hurry before the offer’s over!
Relevant psychology article: BBC News – “The strange psychology of panic buying”
  • Purchase button at the top of the page: See the green “purchase” button at the top of the page? It’s well known in direct sales copywriting that you put sales buttons at the top and bottom (and often middle) of sales pages to easily attract the users who skip, skim, or fully read the text. The more buttons you place, the easier it is for the user to see and quickly buy the product.
Relevant psychology article: Derek Halpern – “What’s the BEST color for high conversions?”
  • Number of items sold: As you scroll down, you see a list of total purchases and the average payment per computer operating system. This tactic is called “social proofing” and it’s defined as using the power of one’s peers to an advantage. So, here, for example notice how the average payment is split into three different computer operating systems: Linux, Windows, and Mac. How would you feel if you’re a Linux user? Would you feel pressure to continue to maintain your place at the top of the pile? Many people would. On the other hand, Windows users may be embarrassed by their low ranking and justify giving away more to push themselves and their Windows peers to the top of the chart.
Relevant psychology article: PsyBlog – “3 Universal Goals to Influence People”
  • Pay more than the average to unlock extras: Self fulfilling prophecy: the average price number keeps going up because people want the “locked” books and are paying more to get them. However, as more people increase their spend to get the extra items the average prices goes up which means, over time, people will have to pay more to unlock the bonus content. Does your brain hurt yet?
Relevant psychology article: Time – “How Overconfidence and Paranoia Become Self-Fulfilling Prophecies”
  • Top contributors: Next to the average prices is a “top contributors”  bucket. There aren’t many rules for this bucket and as you can see people often link to their Twitter accounts (and websites) as a way to advertise themselves or their company. If you want to be featured as a top contributor and drive users to your Twitter account or website the chart’s incentive to pay much more than the average.
Relevant psychology article: Cracked – “5 Psychological Experiments That Prove Humanity is Doomed”
  • Default price of $25: Ah, defaults. Although many people will deny it, as humans, we’re strongly inclined to follow the default options. That’s why most of us never take the time to calibrate our TV contrast, why most of us never disable start-up programs on our computers to optimize performance, and why most of us don’t touch our 401(k)s to gain a few extra bucks. When filling out the payment form for the Humble Bundle, the $25 offer is already selected and–although simple–it requires effort for the user to change to a different price point.
Relevant psychology article: Coding Horror – “The Power of Defaults”
  • Price Anchoring: $25 doesn’t seem too expensive when anchored by $50 and $100! Humans are notoriously terrible at discerning value and understanding price points. The Humble Bundle “anchors” the $25 price with the prices $15, $50, and $100. Why anchor with a $15 price on the low side? Think about buying a bottle of wine, especially if you’re on a date. If you know nothing about wine, you don’t want to seem cheap and go with the least expensive option — instead you choose something more in the middle.
Relevant psychology article: Monica Gupta – “Pricing Model”
  • Choosing how to split the money: The power of choice! You can choose exactly where the money goes. Plus, with the money split, it looks like you’re giving less money overall which may guilt buyers into contributing more.
QoD: What psychology tactics do your favorite websites use?

One Comment

  1. O.K., I’m trying to understand this, but it will take me a few more views until I get it! Fascinating how quickly entrepreneurs develop these things.

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