Things marketers need to know: The foot-in-the-door technique

Most Netflix subscribers started with a free trial. This gave them a chance to watch a few shows and movies, see how user-friendly the platform is, and get an idea of the content library.

But for Netflix, the free trial was so much more than that – not only could they showcase their wide range of movies and shows, customer service, and UI, but also get the customer to agree to sign up, if only for that free trial.

Eventually, as often happens, this initial small agreement – in this case signing up for a free trial – made it more likely the customer would agree to a bigger commitment: A monthly paid subscription.

So what is behind the success of something like a free trial? The answer is rooted in psychology, and grounded in historical success: the ‘foot-in-the-door technique’ (FITD).

What is the foot-in-the-door technique?

The foot-in-the-door technique is a way to get someone to agree to something by first having them agree to a smaller, less committal request. When a person says yes to a small request, they often feel compelled to agree to bigger requests afterwards, as they’ve already made a commitment.

Quite literally, ‘foot-in-the-door’ is a reference to a door-to-door salesperson who has gotten their customer to open the door, and once this is done, sticks their foot in the door, preventing it from being shut.

When it comes to marketing teams, FITD can apply to a lot of different situations. For example, if a website visitor gives their first name to try a service, they’ll be more receptive to later providing their last name, business, email and more. If that same website had initially prompted the user for an email address, name, and industry, the user would have found it much easier to close the door, or browser in this case.

Merging your marketing with the power of psych

When it comes to the foot-in-the-door technique, there is plenty of psychology involved. It is a compliance technique, and though the word ‘compliance’ does have a negative connotation, FITD doesn’t have to be underhanded. In fact, charities often use FITD to get larger amounts of money donated to important causes.

Consistency is the psychological reason that people are swayed by the FITD technique. By having agreed to one thing, we feel more inclined to continue to agree, as breaking off might feel like a breach of our word. This is stoked further by the way we see ourselves, and how we want others to see us.

So how can marketing teams implement psychology when it comes to FITD?

The psychology of framing

How we frame things makes all the difference. It could be when talking about the weather, our job, or an event. If we explain things a particular way, that framing impacts the way a third party experiences or perceives them. If we say it’s pouring outside despite a normal rainfall, someone who hears us might perceive the rainfall as harsher than they otherwise would have.

Now, how does this apply to marketing and the foot-in-the-door technique? Consider the basic steps of the process:

The framing comes before the first step in the foot-in-the-door model, like so:

To understand the framing phase better, let’s take a look at an example. When selling hard drives, instead of asking the potential customer if they’d like to buy a hard drive, you would ask if they’d like to expand their computer space.

By starting with a smaller and less intimidating ask (expanding computer space), the request seems more beneficial and less sales-oriented, so the potential buyer is more likely to say yes. This shift in framing makes it more likely for the customer to agree to the actual request later on (buying a new hard drive).

Creative ways to use FITD in your own marketing campaigns

Here are some methods that involve FITD that will help you in your own marketing campaigns.

Free trial

Consider the difference between these two asks:

“Would you care to commit to a 1-year subscription of our software service?” “Would you like a 30-day, no-commitment free trial, to test if our software is right for you?”

You’ll have more success by getting your foot in the door, so to speak, with the 2nd ask than the 1st.

On top of getting a “yes” from your customer, there are other more subtle benefits. If a team begins using a free trial – entering their data, setting up their processes, creating personalized schedules – it makes it that much harder for them to pull the plug at the end of the thirty days. And at that point, the larger ask of a one-year subscription doesn’t seem large at all. In fact, it will feel like the logical next step for the customer.

Mouse + cookie = milk please

“If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk.”

There are a plethora of ways to interpret this line from a famous children’s novel. Regardless if you believe it to be a metaphor for something more dire, or take it literally, it applies to marketing as well.

If your business sells cookies, it would make sense to also sell milk, and offer it at the right time. Even if the milk is more expensive, the fact that it’s complementary to the cookie makes it easier for the customer to pay the extra price. After all, they need something to wash that delicious treat down with.

So what are some examples of foot-in-the-door in action?

Examples of strong FITD

Here are a few methods that businesses use that play on the FITD technique’s efficacy.

Make them take the first step

When we think of FITD, we envision it is the person making the sale who is putting a foot into the door. However, many businesses start the process by having the potential customer make the first step.

We see this all the time in businesses that sell products and services heavily influenced by personalization. Dating apps are famously (or infamously) known for this method. They request a brief amount of information – What type of person you’re looking to date, their age range, eye color, and more – then leverage the FITD technique to get further information or a signup later. After all, they can already begin customizing their application or website for the customer.

An appeal to goodness

We all see ourselves as relatively good people. When answering questions, it’s easier to give answers in the affirmative if they’re framed in a way that makes answering “yes” coincide with being a good person.

Charities might use this as a part of their process. For example, instead of prompting if you’d like to donate $500 to help feed hungry cats, they might first ask if you care about the well-being of cats. Once they get a yes, they can lead up to the big ask, and now that you’ve already stated that you indeed do care about cats, the donation will feel like a natural step. Saying “no” to helping cats in need would go against the values that you just expressed, so now in order to stay consistent with your image of a good, cat-caring person, you are more likely to make the donation.

Free dash light checkup

For the less-knowledgeable car people out there, getting a blinking warning light on the dash can be quite the headache. What makes it worse is thinking about getting it checked out and being obligated to pay a fee before fixing the problem.

Plenty of auto repair companies began offering a free checkup for when a dash light popped up. This took a lot of the pressure off anyone nervous about paying a lot to fix the issue, on top of the money they’ll have to spend to find out what’s wrong.

And, of course, once they're in the shop and their vehicle is being worked on, they're likely to commit to the whole nine yards anyway, which means they are more likely to agree to and proceed with all the necessary repairs recommended by the mechanic.

Computer system assessment

Unfortunately, a lot of PC health checkup notifications are used in shady popups on websites designed to phish and scam people. However, there are legitimate assessments run by antivirus software systems.

If you are using a free antivirus tool, it may often find errors on your PC that it is capable of fixing for a price. You’re already using the free software, and you likely trust it since it protects your PC from viruses, so why not pay to have it protect your PC in other ways too?

Website SEO audit

SEO can be a black box, but there are legitimate experts out there who are able to analyze your website and give you a rundown of what needs to be done to optimize it.

Many of these experts offer a free SEO audit, doing the first part of the normal process, and then relying on the FITD technique for the rest. It stands to reason that once the potential customers see the improvements that could be made, they’ll be ready to commit to a contract.

Closing thoughts

The foot-in-the-door technique remains a simple way to create long and fruitful relationships with customers. As often is the case, consumers don’t always know which product or service they want. When you get a foot in the door and give them a portion, combined with relevant recommendations, they see the light and want the rest.

By providing a free service and demonstrating helpfulness and competence throughout, you’ll make them feel a strong sense of gratitude towards you and believe they owe you something in return. This reciprocity increases your chances of converting them into new customers even further.