Your Website and the Butt-Brush Effect

Why We Buy, by Paco UnderhillChances are you may have heard of the Butt-Brush Effect, from Paco Underhill’s seminal work, “Why We Buy.”

A brief synopsis of the Butt-Brush Effect: Underhill observed women shopping for neckties at a department store (not in a creepy way, he was conducting research). He noticed that the racks were really close to the entrance and at peak times, women looking at ties might get brushed from behind by a passer-by. When that happened to one of the women, she would almost immediately stop shopping in that section and either go to another or just leave the store.

This is a phenomenon that occurs frequently in stores, but what about online? Is your website guilty of creating “butt-brush” moments of anxiety for your customers? Does your website violate your customers’s sense of security, comfort and control? Here are five common examples of online butt-brush moments that you should immediately purge from your website:


I’m not talking about the standard spammy pop-up ads. Obviously those are bad. They’re so flagrantly bad that there’s no point in discussing them. I’m talking about the well-intentioned pop-ups like customer service chat windows or moving-target survey solicitations; obstacles that interrupt the persuasive momentum of focused shoppers.

Be extremely careful in how you use chat windows. While they can be helpful for visitors that are genuinely lost or confused, don’t interrupt a focused customer on a path to their destination. Be selective about the pages that can trigger a pop-up. Check your analytics data for high exit rates and restrict the use of interruptions to pages that are already failing.

A similar problem exists for survey solicitations. There are ways to invite visitors to take a survey without taking the entire screen hostage. A tool like KissInsights allows you to ask survey questions with a noticeable but modestly placed question box. With this type of approach, you don’t risk frustrating your website visitors to gather a little intelligence. You still want the sale, after all, right?


Hey, get out of my way. I'm trying to give you money!

Auto-play music and video

Sometimes this works for shaping the conversation and producing the outcome you want from your website visitors. For a LOT of people, it’s on par with dumping a bucket of cold water on them or – wait for it – unexpectedly smacking them on the butt.

We’ve all seen it: your default action when a video starts playing without your permission is not to watch, but to turn it off and reestablish control of your experience with the website. Make your video conspicuous enough that people will choose to start it on their own. Assuming control over your visitors in this way is bad manners.

Mind your manners. Let your visitors choose whether or not they’ll watch the video.

Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift's acceptance speech.

Kanye thinks your video is one of the best ever, too, but don't interrupt your visitors to show it.

Dramatic changes in design between pages of your site

This often occurs when shoppers go from a custom landing page to the main website, or if your website uses a third-party shopping cart with low customization capabilities.

Consistency in design is a strong comfort signal to shoppers as they progress from one page to the next. Abrupt changes to the site layout, color scheme, images, font styles/sizes, etc., can spook customers and cause them to abandon the buying process. Make sure that you maintain visual consistency from start to finish in order to keep customer anxiety as low as possible.

Concealing shipping costs until late in the checkout process

Shoppers  aren’t stupid. If your shipping prices are really high, shoppers are going to abandon the buying process regardless of whether you show them shipping price in the shopping cart or on the last page of the checkout process.

When you withhold this information on the shopping cart page, shoppers aren’t thinking, “Oh that’s OK, I’ll just keep going and they’ll show it later.” They are thinking, “Yup, the shipping is a rip-off. If it wasn’t, they’d show it right away.” It’s an instant red flag that will have your customers on high alert for the remainder of their experience with your company.

As online shoppers get more savvy, your only hope is transparency.

What other “butt-brush” moments have you noticed in your own personal experience? Please share in the comments and help us all improve the experience we provide to our customers.

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  1. Justin Germino says

    Good article and analogy about making visitors uncomfortable or more annoyed rather in most cases. With so much competition online all it takes is doing one thing wrong and you can lose a reader or customer for life as they take their business elsewhere.

    Nothing worse than loud music blasting on a website, or video that starts playing and assaults your senses. Too many major brand sites now have auto playing advertisement content, I think it only is okay for Entertainment sites like movie sites, studio’s…etc but it is still annoying.

  2. Dennis says

    You are right about all of these tactics. There is nothing worse than to start reading an article on a web page and all of a sudden there is this big pop-up. My first reaction is to leave the page and look elsewhere for that article. I hate the pop-ups for Google Chrome because you cannot even close them. Music will make me move on from a page also. If I wish to hear music while I browse I will turn on a radio. If you have a video on your site give the person browsing the option to watch. Another thing I hate is if you are reading an article and a pop-up appears on the very top of the page and all of a sudden the article you were reading is scrolled way down the page out of sight. Now you must go looking to find where you were.
    Thanks for the good pop-up free read!!

  3. William says

    Think about how much advertising that each of us is exposed to everyday starting the moment you open the newspaper or turn on a TV or your computer. We get bombarded by so much advertising everyday that we build up a natural resistance to it and try to avoid it or shut it out. If you are reading an article and something else pops up to try to catch your attention, it is considered a distraction and an annoyance more than oh-boy what is someone going to offer me. Many ads are about as welcome as the phone ringing during dinner.

  4. says

    Thank you for citing all the reasons I evacuate those websites with the fervor of a man fleeing a burning building.

    Sadly, these habits are on the increase. Nearly every web hoster, for example, uses the floating “forced help”. (Hopefully they’ll read this.)

    What site developers seem to have lost sight of is the heightened distrust level most folks develop on the buying-side of the web, once they’ve been tricked enough times. A heightened alert-level is tough to ramp down.

    To compare the trust level to that of brick-and-mortar entities, many consumers think of buying on the web on the same level of buying fell-off-the-truck items out of someone’s car trunk. Moreover, unlike physical-location consumption, a consumer can leave in microseconds.

    Even things not _intended_ to be a dirty trick by a site developer will still _look_ that way to a consumer who is already coming to a web-store with an experience-tuned vigilance.

    If it weren’t for price-point and item availability, would there be anywhere near as much Internet commerce?

    Although implied with the checkout process, one “butt-brush” missed is items auto-added to a cart (i.e. a software restore-disc), because I’m told I might like it. Sure, I can find the tiny remove button, or I may view this with the same disdain of a cologne spritzer, on principle, alone.

    The primary strategy used by hostage negotiators is to never take away the hostage takers sense of control – they already have a trigger finger. A leery web-consumer does, also.

  5. Suzanne says

    Josh, You are brilliant to connect Paco’s groundbreaking research and data to the online realm. Some people may not think it, but the same psychological quirks apply!

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