How To Get Customers To Take Action, The 3 Second Rule

Here’s a spoiler, it involves you getting out of their way.

Since the internet started its mainstream march in the 1990’s, web developers and designers have widely accepted a rule known as “3-second rule of the web.”

The theory is that you have about 3 seconds to capture a visitor’s attention. Longer than that and you’ll lose them. Some say it’s 4 seconds, and others say 2. The exact number doesn’t really matter, the point is that you have precious little time to capture and keep someone’s attention.

If they don’t find what they’re looking for in those 3 seconds you’ll lose them, and most will never return.

That doesn’t give us a lot of time to work with which is why

No matter how much you like that shiny flashy thing you see on other websites it’s not helping their cause, and it won’t help yours.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. ~ Antoine de Saint-Exuper

Test your website to see how fast or slow it is and then get to optimizing it. That link is an excellent guide on how to do both of those things and you don’t have to be a coder to make it work.

Call To Action

If you really want to get a visitor to your site to take a specific action then the first thing you’ll want to do is get other distractions out-of-the-way. That doesn’t mean you have to go all minimalist on us, visitors expect your site to have some aesthetic, and that can work for you, but don’t go nuts either.

The key here is to ask as little of your customer as possible. The less you ask for, the more they will do what you want because every extra hoop you make them jump through will cause some percentage of people to abandon the process.

The less you ask people to do, the more often they will do what you want.

For example, if you want people to sign up for your mailing list, incentivized or not, just ask for an email. If you really must ask for a name then do so, but if you’re asking for more than that you’re losing people (personally I don’t even ask for the name most of the time).

Another example is for consultants and freelancers. I would encourage you to take credit cards and online payments. While this is not directly related to your website, it’s a good example of making things as easy on your customers as possible. Yes, it’s work and expense to set it up, but it’s worth it.

Losing a 3% in fees is better than spending days, weeks, or months, trying to get a customer to pay you. Not to mention a headache and bad blood that causes.

It’s YOUR job to make it as easy on them as possible and in doing so remove the barriers to getting what you want.

Those are just a couple of examples in simplification, but if you want more:

  • Take Paypal and Credit Cards wherever you can. Square is great for SMB’s. Let me pay you how I want (within reason) and I will.
  • Get rid of your splash page, no one cares, and you’re pushing people away.
  • Keep your registration form simple. Give visitors a reason to fill out a complete profile once they’re a part of your community. Ask yourself how much information you really NEED to sign someone up?
  • If you use a pop-up to gather email addresses, give people a way to close it without opting in. I was almost a customer of Joss & Main, but at the time they required you to provide them an email just to browse the site. Sorry, but that is doing it wrong. I’ll never be a customer now.
  • Don’t cover your content with ads. You just broke my attention, and that isn’t helping your goals.

Know What Your Goals Are, Then Get Out Of The Way

Whether you’re building an email list, selling products or taking donations, the best thing you can do is make it as easy as possible for your site visitors to do what you want. If you put even small barriers in their way and you’ll lose them.

And while we’re on the subject, everything above goes double when you’re on mobile. Would you really want to fill out a three-page registration form when you’re using that tiny little keyboard?

What barriers do you see people putting up on their websites that keep you from converting with them?


  1. Karen on May 24, 2013 at 12:47 am

    You are so right on about Joss & Main – don’t recall if I’ve ever come across that site in particular but I’ve come across quite a few sites lately that require an e-mail to gain access to the site.

    Mind-bogglingly stupid.

  2. Adriana on August 29, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    Even after 3 years the rules still applies. Totally agree with your points.

  3. […] a visitor to your site determine what it is about in the first 3 seconds (sometimes known as the 3 second rule)? In the area “above the fold” your site should clearly show the visitor that they are […]

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