The Four Elements Of Any Action, And How To Use Them In Your Online Marketing Initiative

Marketing is the art of getting people to take a desired action. Common desired actions for online marketing include purchasing a product, donating money, sharing a link on Twitter, or signing up for an email list. Marketing shares this definition with the word “persuasion” which, to a large extent, means that great marketers are masters of persuasion.

Marketers succeed when they get people to take a desired action, but without a proper understanding of the elements that comprise an action, success is difficult to achieve, and problems are difficult to identify. As such, a proper understanding of the core elements of an action, along with the ability to optimize the presence of each, is what differentiates top-tier marketers from the rest.

In this article, I’ll reveal the four elements of any action, and how to maximize each one to increase conversion rates, leads, and sales.

The four elements of any action

Before any action will be performed, these four elements must be present:

  • Opportunity
  • Ability
  • Incentive
  • Willpower

Let’s review the meaning of each one:

Opportunity: Without opportunity, an action can’t be performed. For example, Michael Jordan couldn’t have made the game-winning shot if he didn’t have the ball. Similarly, if potential buyers can’t find your website because it doesn’t show up in search results, they’ll never have the opportunity to buy from you.

Ability: This refers to one’s physical and mental abilities. Website visitors that don’t speak English don’t possess the ability to take an action on your website if they have no way of understanding its content. Similarly, if the “buy now” button on e-commerce website is broken, or the user can’t figure out how to use it, the order won’t be placed..

Incentive: This refers to the incentive one has to complete an action. If an action has no reason to be performed, then it won’t be performed (unless the action is accidental and unintentional). It’s important to note that it’s common to be faced with choices that contain a fair amount of incentive, but are outweighed by a higher level of counter-incentive. Actions where counter-incentive outweighs incentive won’t be performed. As such, incentive should really be viewed as a calculation of “incentive (minus) counter-incentive.” If incentive outweighs counter-incentive, then the “incentive” element is considered to be present.

The element of “incentive” is the most dynamic, organic, and intriguing element of the four. Often, incentive will be present for only a split second, temporarily outweighing even large counter-incentives, usually in an emotionally-charged moment, leading to actions that people later regret.

A common example of this is hurtful words spoken to one’s spouse during a heated argument or during a fit of anger.  Even though large counter-incentives exist to prevent common occurrence of saying hurtful things to one’s spouse, strong emotions typically distort one’s sense of incentive and counter-incentive. In the heat of an angry moment, hurting one’s spouse emotionally may seem like an incentive rather than a counter-incentive.

It’s also important to note that the “incentive (minus) counter-incentive” calculation can only occur based on one’s personal assessment of the variables involved, which will vary depending on an individual’s experiences, desires, and perceptions. For example, an hourly wage of $20/hour may seem like a dream-come-true for a college student looking for work to help pay college bills. But for Bill Gates, the same offer would be ridiculous.

Additionally, different people may include or exclude certain factors from their “incentive (minus) counter-incentive” calculation. One humorous and common example of this is when company brand names or slogans are “lost in translation” and take on a whole new meaning when translated to another language. Here’s a list of examples in which this has happened, but my favorite is this one:

The Dairy Association’s huge success with the campaign “Got Milk?” prompted them to expand advertising to Mexico. It was soon brought to their attention the Spanish translation read “Are you lactating?”

Clearly, if the Dairy Association had anticipated this, they wouldn’t have performed the action because the counter-incentive would have outweighed the incentive.

The ability to anticipate all possible outcomes of an action, weigh their likelihood of occurring, and assess their net “incentive value” often distinguishes leaders from followers. Great leaders are people who consistently make good decisions, and this is due to their superior ability to apply the “incentive (minus) counter-incentive” calculation and take proper action based off their assessment of the appropriate variables.

In the online marketing world, “incentive” is usually the element that receives the most attention from marketers, yet it’s the least understood. Sales and special offers are attempts at increasing incentive, while money-back guarantees, trust signals, and generous refund policies are examples of attempts at decreasing counter-incentive.

Willpower: Willpower refers to one’s ability to overcome psychological or mental obstacles to allow them to perform an action, or to be steadfast in their decision to not perform an action. For example, I have a friend who’s been trying to quit smoking for the last five years, but every attempt he makes ends in failure along with a relapse. Why? He lacks the willpower to do so.

The opportunity is always present; all he has to do is not light that next cigarette. The incentive to quit smoking is strong, as he admits, and greatly outweighs the counter-incentive. However, as his cravings become stronger, his perceived incentive of smoking a cigarette may start to outweigh the perceived counter-incentive. The only required “ability” to not smoke a cigarette is literally the ability to do nothing. So, it’s safe to say he has the ability. What he lacks is the willpower.

In the online marketing world, a lack of willpower often manifests as frustration, leading users to abort an action they have already begun to perform. For example, a user is told it will take 5 minutes to fill out a survey. If the user is still filling out the survey after 15 minutes, they may become frustrated and discontinue it immediately. Similarly, if a user decides to download a white paper but is put through a confusing and lengthy process to do so, they may change their mind mid-way through the process.

How to apply the four elements to your online marketing initiative

Applying the four elements to your online marketing initiative begins with identifying all the actions you want your visitors or customers to take. Common actions include:

  • Make a purchase
  • Follow on Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  • Share an article on Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  • Request information via the contact form
  • Sign up for a newsletter
  • Download a white paper
  • Sign up for a webinar
  • Contact via phone call

After you’ve identified the actions you want your visitors or customers to take, assess each one for the availability of each of the four elements.

Clearly, when it comes to online marketing, many of the four elements can be applied similarly across various conversion goals or actions that marketers want website visitors to take. These similarities highlight the main functions of each of the four elements:

Opportunity: Getting website traffic and attracting attention to the actions you want people to take.

Ability: Ensuring your website and its conversion functions are working properly, as well as ensuring proper functionality across desktops, mobile devices, and monitor sizes.

Incentive: Sufficiently conveying value that exceeds that of your competitors’ products, as well as reducing counter-incentive signals such as poor or unprofessional website design, lack of trust signals, and lack of risk neutralizers (such as a return policy).

Willpower: Simplifying processes to prevent user frustration.


As a marketer, it’s your responsibility to drive actions. But without understanding the elements that comprise an action, it can be difficult to identify why desired actions aren’t happening. Now that you have a good understanding of each of the four elements of any action, assess each of your conversion goals and see if you can identify any missing or poorly-implemented elements. Approaching your goals using this process will lead to higher conversion rates, along with more website traffic, leads, and sales.

By: Jayson DeMers
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