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What Can Animal Behavior Teach You About List Building? A Lot

Four months ago, I had no idea that a huge responsive email list was considered the most important asset in the online marketing world.

In my fledgling online business awareness, I naively thought that my assets were knowledge of my topic, my teaching skills, and my charisma.

Since then, I’ve had a pretty steep learning curve, and my brain kicked into overdrive integrating all the new information on A/B split testing, opt-in bribes, and setting up Facebook ads. While I still have a long way to go—my list is small and I have yet to produce an online product—I have some insights to share.

From blogs and newsletters, I’ve absorbed a lot of discussion on details like the quality of the copy, the details of the call-to-action button, and the merits of exit-intent popups in attracting prospective customers to your email list.

While all of these are important details in triggering responses, I was missing the big picture about some crucial factors that determine behavior.

image001As a scientist and animal trainer, I teach about behavior, motivation, and learning. Things like:

Teaching your dog to stop barking at the door and jumping at visitors. How to deal with the cat scratching your favorite couch. Overcoming and preventing fear of fireworks or thunder

And I realized there are some obvious parallels in animal training to online marketing.

While we are different from say a dog, when it comes to learning and decision making mechanisms, there are more similarities than differences.

You don’t have to be an animal trainer to subscribe to this notion, it just so happens to be my background.

Let’s look at the problem.

What is your prospective lead required to do? What are the actual behaviors? For someone visiting an unknown website and signing up for some interesting content—opt-in bribe—a hypothetical series of responses from start to finish may be:

  1. navigating the website
  2. finding the relevant offer
  3. clicking the “get it now” button
  4. reading the squeeze page (the fill-out form)
  5. filling out the first name
  6. filling out the last name
  7. filling out the email address
  8. clicking the “gimme my stuff” button
  9. reading the landing page
  10. switching from the browser to an email program
  11. finding the “please confirm” email
  12. opening the “please confirm” email
  13. reading the “please confirm” email
  14. clicking the “please confirm” link
  15. after being redirected back to a browser, looking at the “thanks for confirming” page
  16. changing back from the browser to the email program—again
  17. finding the “here’s what you signed up for” email
  18. opening the “here’s what you signed up for” email
  19. opening the attachment/clicking the link to access the opt-in bribe. The goodies.

I’m counting 19 responses, and some of them contain tasks within tasks.

Filling out an email address means typing the @ sign, which for me requires looking down at my fingers, typing, and then lifting my head to reorient to the computer screen.

Finding an email might involve scrolling, getting distracted, and understanding that the unknown person’s name in the “from” field corresponds to the completely different business name from a website visited a few hours ago.

Is there any wonder so many people give up before reaching the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

This is a very daunting behavioral sequence to carry out without receiving any rewards (in technical terms: reinforcement).

As an animal trainer, I shake my head in wonder. Only well-trained animals with a good relationship with their trainer would play along with this kind of game.

It takes time to build that kind of response fluency, and it might only be expected if there is a solid relationship between trainer and animal. If there’s no relationship or reinforcement history, that approach would be doomed to fail.

Put simply, it’s a no-no.

complex tasksBut in this hypothetical sign-up scenario, we’re asking strangers to go through a 19-step response sequence—without any obvious reinforcers.

And even more surprising—a fraction of them actually do!

But, it’s only a fraction of them.

I think that number could be vastly increased by thinking like an animal trainer.

Attention Marketers! Here’s one animal trainer’s suggestion: when planning your list building campaign, consider responses, reinforcers, and relationships.

In addition, expand your focus from settings/triggers to also include consequences.


Responses may be simple and fun, or they may be boring and time-consuming.

The example above involves repeating the same behavior twice (changing from browser to email program; opening an email).

When I train an animal that doesn’t know me, I never start out by asking for a repetition of a behavior without reinforcing the previous response. I always start by showing that the behavior has effect.

“Look, if you sit, you get a cookie.”

earn a cookieAfter repeating this a few times, I might ask for two sits before delivering the treat. But if I were to ask a novice trainee for two sits, they’d likely stop behaving if the first response didn’t result in any desirable outcomes.

Behavior that isn’t reinforced tends to extinguish fading to nothing.

By requiring people to carry out the same response twice without receiving reinforcement, we risk extinguishing their response.

Since distractions abound in the online environment, people find other things to do rather than keep repeating a behavior that doesn’t pay off.

In the animal training world we call this Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behavior (DRI): if one response doesn’t pay off, animals start doing other things that do.

Theoretically, to drive people through the sign-up sequence at optimal conversion every single response should be reinforced in one way or another.

I see basically three approaches to getting more people to complete the response sequence.

  1. Shorten the sequence
    1. Eliminate all the steps that you can—or at least make it easier, more fun, or quicker to finalize, and avoid the need to repeat responses. Facilitate all the steps, reduce distracting clutter and choices, and provide clear instructions.
    2. For example, skip the “last name” requirement. You could also consider eliminating the double opt-in. But I’ll admit there are arguments in favor of keeping the two-step opt in. .
  2. Reinforce responses: if not all of them, at least mid-way through the sequence.
    1. Rather than having to carry out 19 responses before they get what they want, drip a few golden nuggets along the way. For instance, half the opt-in on the landing page immediately after signing up, and all of it in the first email.
  3. Turn cold leads warm before guiding them through the sequence.
    1. Give value and deliver part of your opt-in even before people sign up, like a teaser. In animal training, we call this a jump-start or reinforcer sampling—and it’s used with people, too.

jump-startIn animal training, this is done if the dog seems distracted. Wave a toy in front of his nose before starting the training session—that gets his attention!

In online marketing, jump-starting should increase the momentum to at least getting started on the sequence.

Then some mid-way reinforcers should increase the likelihood of seeing the prospective clients through to the end.

Jump-starting should also reduce the risk of people being snared by distractions.


wavingAs animal trainers, we capitalize on the fact that behavior that produces desirable outcomes persists.

The cat waves, and gets a treat. The cat then offers another wave in the hopes of getting another treat.

Behaviors that are not reinforced will extinguish: if there are no treats, the waving stops.

Studies have found that behavior is maintained or repeated because of consequences (C) that follow after the response occurred, rather than by the settings that triggered the behavior (A).

A B CResponse unit (ABC). Behaviors (B) can only be understood in context: what happened before (A) and after (C).

So, consequences affect behavior to a greater extent than triggers.

I’ll say that again: C affects B to a greater extent than A.

But what I see in the blogs I’ve read and in the sign-up processes I’ve gone through myself is an over-reliance on the settings (A), and consequences (C) being all but ignored.

From my perspective, what we’re seeing in these long and tedious sign-up sequences is responses disappearing because they don’t produce any desirable outcomes before your potential subscribers finishes the sign-up process.

As an animal trainer I would immediately look in the consequence section (C) of the response unit (ABC) to address that.

Which consequences am I providing—and when?

If desired behaviors aren’t occurring despite triggers, animal trainers change consequences.

But it seems to me that marketers spend almost all their efforts on setting up environments to trigger responses (section A) rather than rewarding responses as they occur.

Sadly but importantly, behavior without valuable consequences will extinguish.

What’s a desirable outcome we marketers hope for to someone signing up for an opt-in?

Well, the opt-in, or parts of it, is a no-brainer.

But we can throw a wider net.

A gamification approach might do the trick: carrying out the responses leading to other reinforcers than what’s promised in the offer. They could be visual, auditory, or social, or something else.

Attractive images that appear after, rather than before, responses. Badges or empty squares that gradually fill as you move along the sequence.

A child’s voice saying “you’ll be done in less than 30 seconds… now it’s 20 seconds.” An inviting photo of people with the caption “Welcome to the Tribe” shown after hitting the “Yes, I want to join” button.

Reinforcers are more efficient if they’re small and frequent rather than large and infrequent, especially if there is no established relationship between trainer and trainee. I expect more people to follow through and finalize the response sequence if they receive reinforcement every few steps rather than only at the end.

If faced with the choice of two responses, such as following through the sign-up sequence or giving in to distractions, animals—and people—will choose the one that has been reinforced the most often, a phenomenon called the matching law.

Thus, for every response in the sign-up sequence that is not reinforced, the allure of distractions increases.

After 19 unreinforced responses, it’s surprising that we get any subscribers at all.

Removing Punishers

punishmentFor many prospective clients, the double opt-in process (having to confirm that you really want what you just signed up for) does not reinforce behavior.

It doesn’t even discourage the behavior.

For some people, like myself, it’s a punisher, an aversion stimulus that stops behavior.

I frequently get annoyed when I arrive at a landing page displaying the cheerful “almost there!—check your email and confirm!” which then marionettes me to mindlessly dance back and forth a few times between the browser and my email program.

Punishment stops behavior.

In my own list’s double opt-in days, I had 108 people provide their email addresses, 83 confirming they wanted the opt-in and 52 actually opening the email containing it: an overall conversion rate of 52/108 = 48.1%.

In this small data set there was thus a bigger confirmation-conversion (83/108 = 76.8%) than open-first-email-conversion (52/83 = 62.7%).

Baffling as that may seem (why would all those people bother to confirm and then not open the bag of goodies?) I think part of the explanation is because going through the confirmation punishes behavior more than the previous step in the response sequence.

Both reinforcement and punishment act on the probability of future behavior, not current behavior.

In effect, I essentially punished my tribe for clicking the confirm link. Luckily, for some people, the promised future reinforcement outweighed the punishment so they completed the response sequence and opened the email containing the offer.


Say someone stumbles onto your business website. Hasn’t heard about you before, is likely to leave soon and never return: a cold prospect.

In animal training, it’s a well-known fact that animals may offer trained complex responses to someone they know but are less likely to do so when asked by an unknown person.

In other words, whether reinforcers are deemed valuable and responses carried out depends to some extent on the quality of the relationship.

complex requestsAnimals are often more likely to respond to complex requests from a well-known person.

Many online businesses offer tantalizing opt-in bribes like “How to Lose Weight and Still Eat All You Want!” and “What You Need to Know About Online Advertising” or “10 Ways of Getting a Hot Date” on their website.

While these are all powerful incentives and potential reinforcers, their value isn’t maximized until there is at least the beginnings of a relationship.

I often read that people are hesitant to give up their email address, but I suspect that part of the problem is that they simply drop out of the sign-up process at some point.

Indeed, perhaps they don’t sign up because they don’t know you, your business, or whether what you’re offering is of any value to them, rather than because they’re hesitant to share their email.

I frequently get overwhelmed and easily distracted when I visit an unknown webpage. I don’t want to scroll, click on links or have to sift through and analyze a lot of information: if there is an opt-in I might be interested in, I am more likely to sign up if the opt-in is clearly linked to some valuable content presented next to it.

If I were interested in optimizing Facebook ads, I’d want the two best tips right there, before signing up to access the rest.

Incidentally, when I used a Facebook ad directing people to a blog post to provide some content ahead of time, the fraction of people who completed the subsequent sign-up form (first name and email) was (60/88) 68%.

When people were directed to the same sign-up form from a Facebook ad without the route via the blog post, or jump-start page, the corresponding number was (22/267) 8%.


Jump-starts could increase conversions by a factor 8.

Providing free content, jump-starts, is not the only approach to forming a relationship. Raving reviews, testimonials or recommendations through peers are also ways of warming up a prospective client.

Shifting the Focus From Settings to Consequences

A conversion funnel is the technical term for the decrease in numbers that gradually occurs as people navigate a website and finally convert to a subscriber or customer, and I’ve seen the drop-off explained in terms of disconnects between ads and landing pages, poor content, and sub-optimal headlines.

Most blogs discussing how to maximize conversion funnels seem to focus on the behavior of the marketer: optimize your homepage, product service page and contact page, do everything to boost the setting.

And it does pays off. For instance, Jeanne Jennings helped a client increase conversion rates on a sign-up page from less than 10 to 45% by changing copy, reducing distractions and using a jump-start: all this achieved by changing settings (section A in the response unit).

It seems to me that one obvious and large issue explaining the funnel shape of the list building process (people gradually dropping out) is not too many steps required, or the wrong color scheme, but the fact that responses required by the prospective client are not reinforced enough through the funnel.

In animal training, we don’t ignore A, but our main focus is on C. It is consequences, in the form of reinforcers, which bring about consistent behavior—which is needed in the sign-up sequence.

A B C 2While triggers may be important, reinforcers are crucial. Without them, responses will dwindle away.

So when list-building, I suggest focusing on and facilitating people’s responses, eliminating punishers, considering available reinforcers, and using jump-starts as relationship builders to increase the likelihood that prospective customers will complete the sign-up sequence rather than drop out.

This implies expanding the current focus of online marketers from the setting (triggers, occurring before the behavior), to also include analyzing the consequences (reinforcers or inadvertent punishers, occurring after the behavior).

How could you apply animal training principles in your business? What changes could you make right now? Leave a comment below!

About Karolina Westlund

Karolina Westlund, founder of ILLIS Animal Behaviour Consulting, is a scientist and educator on the topic of animal behavior management. She’s new to online business but has a versatile understanding of learning, motivation and behavior in humans and other animals. Her passion is helping people and their pets have a better life together. Learn more about list-building at ILLIS Animal Behaviour Consulting.


  1. Pre written Essays says:

    Wonderful articles in this post it’s very beneficial for me. Thanks to share this post.

  2. Megan says:

    Great stuff! I’m sure this is going to help me. Will let you know. Confirms and explains why my plan to have a short video teaching something right on thank you page, in addition to a bigger reward that requires a couple more steps, is a good idea. I’m excited about making the sign-up process rewarding even faster (I hope). I also love the idea of using a FB ad to send people to a blog post rather than straight to a landing page. I look forward to trying that one out. Thank you!

    1. Karolina ( User Karma: 0 ) says:


      Yes! sounds like a great idea with the video – showing some personality connects with people, too! 🙂

  3. Calvin Black says:

    Thanks for your unique perspective on list-building and opt-ins. I love thinking about the behavioural economics side of online business. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “… half the opt-in on the landing page immediately after signing up, and all of it in the first email.” Could you clarify?

    1. Karolina ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Dear Calvin,
      I was thinking along these lines: person jots down name and email address and then clicks the submit button, and is taken to a landing page/thank you page. At that page a fraction of what you’re offering as opt-in bribe awaits. Say your offering ten tips to…. write better copy. Then a few of these tips are the first thing the person sees after clicking “submit”. That way, you’ve reinforced the first part of the behaviour chain, which builds momentum for the next part of the chain: switching from browser to email and opening the right email. In that email, I would suggest that access to the rest of the opt-in awaits.

      I would guess that momentum is important and you don’t want to “stuff” or overwhelm the person mid-way, rather just serve a teaser. So maybe less than half of the opt-in is more appropriate. If what you’re offering is hard to divide in pieces I would try thinking of related content that could somehow be sprinkled into the sign-up process.

      I made a short film explaining some of these ideas in more detail:

  4. Pamela Alexander says:

    This is a really interesting perspective on the set of prompts and behaviours. I agree, we all still have those “animal” parts of our brains! Lots in there, I’ll have to read it again. One thing I would say for Canadian audience members: as of July 2014 the Canada Anti-Spam Legislation says that you must have permission to add someone to an email list. The gold standard for that is still (according to my mail provider) the double opt-in process. I’m not a lawyer, but as a business owner I’ve been informed that skipping that step puts you in a grey area. It’s a choice someone could make. But it “might” mean your list is not permission-based, and if they tighten the rules further in the future it could mean you risk losing a list you worked hard to build. Just something for folks to consider.

    1. Karolina ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Aaaah. I see. That sets my wheels spinning… I”m assuming that one of the reasons behind this is that some marketers buy email lists and send completely unsolicited emails to people who did not sign up for anything. A few rotten apples is spoiling the lot, so to speak.

      It just seems to me that a double opt-in, such as it looks today, is such a crude and unelegant way of ensuring that people want what they just signed up for.

      What about cropping away everyone who didn’t open the first email? Or first five? Or clicked some link? The inactive people weeded out really soon, not after 6 months?

      If there is no way around it, due to legislation, I would not put “please confirm” in the heading. I’d go for the “here’s what you wanted”-equivalent and then perhaps add a sentence mentioning that by clicking the link you’re confirming the sign-up. The link would simultaneosly confirm AND lead to the opt-in.

      The person signing up is not interested in the confirmation. That needs to be under their radar, not in subject lines and main copy.

      One of the punishing aspects of the confirmed opt-in as I see them today is that they imply mistrust. “I don’t trust that you’re not a malicious bot or won’t give me spam complaints so I’m forcing you to confirm that I can now send you anything I want and you can’t complain – but you can always unsubscribe”… I get affronted by this. But I’m a sensitive soul.

  5. Doc Champagne says:

    Wow – I hope you’ll spread this message far and wide. There are sooo many people that need to hear this because it likely explains why so many fail in their email marketing. They follow the rules and the formulas exactly and it still fails. And it sounds like you have the answer why! They aren’t incorporating the consequences. I’m going to start applying this immediately, thanks so much for the huge insight!

  6. Corey says:

    I love when people jump boundaries like this and bring two worlds together! I always like to know the “why” behind things and this gives me better understanding of those funnels and how i could apply them better. If I can clicker train a Monitor Lizard then I should be able to set up a good funnel!

    Anyone have additional specific examples on how to sprinkle these consequences into these set ups and where you would put them?

  7. Antoniya says:

    Karolina, this was super powerful article. Real eye-opener about the consequences.

    As marketers we almost always focus on the trigger, and once the “dog sits” we forget to give the cookie!

    But actually it’s the consequence that makes the person open the your emails again and again every time, week after week. Thanks!

    1. Karolina ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Dear Antoniya – spot on! I think also that crumbs will often be enough – not much is needed to get that momentum…

  8. walter says:

    Are the unconfirmed all bots? That must be the reason to do this. Does telling the reader this increase confirmation numbers?
    This information should be included in this post.

  9. Luis says:

    Great article Karolina!

    I have a website where people fill out a long form to buy my product. Two things were confirmed while reading your article:

    1. I tested a shorter version of the form and it converted much better. (shorten the sequence)

    2. In the first version of our website the user had to sign up/login first in order to see the form to buy our product. We removed that step and just ask for their details on checkout (remove punishers). That also increased our conversions and sales!

    Thanks for the explanation!

    1. Karolina ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Luis, great that you’re providing some real life examples! Do you have any actual data? 🙂

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