Dark patterns in digital marketing

Dark Patterns are a persuasion marketing technique based on misleading people using subtle design and interface messaging to make an offer appear more compelling in order to increase conversion and revenue.

The technique is typically based on misleading people through a lack of information, obfuscation through hiding information or pre-selection of options that enhance conversion and value to the brand. They could be described as a modern version of ‘small print’ since people will often behave impulsively when deciding on online purchases by using satisficing behaviour.

Dark patterns are often described as Dark Patterns in User Experience or Dark Patterns in website design, but ultimately these are marketing ploys. They are arguably unethical, but some would argue They may be illegal in some countries, for example, breaking privacy or distance selling laws. Sometimes, the laws simply haven’t caught up with the practices, so legislation has often taken place to outlaw dark patterns.

DarkPatterns.org gives some common examples of dark patterns. For example:

  • Trick questions: While filling in a form you respond to a question that tricks you into giving an answer you didn’t intend. When glanced upon quickly the question appears to ask one thing, but when read carefully it asks another thing entirely.
  • Price Comparison Prevention: The retailer makes it hard for you to compare the price of an item with another item, so you cannot make an informed decision.
  • Hidden Costs: You get to the last step of the checkout process, only to discover some unexpected charges have appeared, e.g. delivery charges, tax, etc.
  • Bait and Switch: You set out to do one thing, but a different, undesirable thing happens instead.

It might be thought that dark patterns are limited to smaller ‘get rich quick’ schemes, but they also offer big advantages to large brands who test techniques. Econsultancy gives these examples of large brands using Dark Patterns including: Airbnb excluding additional amounts, including cleaning fees and Airbnb’s service fee and Amazon prompting new customers who check out with a default order qualifying for free shipping.

Different dark UX techniques are often tested as part of growth hacking. They may not be initially aimed at being unethical, but that may be the result…

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Dr Dave Chaffey is co-founder and Content Director of digital marketing advice site Smart Insights. We’re a publisher and learning platform that helps our 150,000 active members in over 100 countries plan, manage and optimize their digital marketing activities by applying the actionable advice in our planning templates, guides and interactive e-learning tools.

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