Marketing Psychology 101

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Understanding the power of persuasion

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What makes something persuasive?

This question has propelled me from the earliest days of my career (waiting tables at a shrimp-themed restaurant) all the way through to my present and still, I find that there’s plenty of gas left in the tank.

Occasionally, it seems unanswerable. There exist such an incredible panoply of factors that go into each person’s decision-making that I occasionally throw my hands up in the air and resign to just going with my gut.

That would at least be faster, anyways.

And then, something will hit. A piece of content will explode in a viral firecracker of shares and I’ll be able to trace it back to a single edit - a sole revision where I tweaked the headline just before publication and it made all of the difference.

It’s usually the place where I applied what little I know of psychology.

It’s at those times that I’m reminded how profitable of a pursuit psychology can be in marketing.

So let’s proceed with my best answer to the question: what makes marketing persuasive?

Here are the 4 most important psychological principles to know for YOUR MARKETING:

1. Social Proof

This is your go-to, your right-hand marketing principle: People usually do as others do. When it doubt, try to remind your audience that they need to keep up with the herd. It’s also known as the bandwagon effect, and its effects compound upon themselves because the more people who are doing or buying something, the more who want to join, which convinces yet more people to then hop onboard.

Studies show that 70% of consumers turn to product reviews before buying and that those reviews are 12x more powerful than you saying it yourself. This is precisely why four out of five doctors recommending a toothpaste is more persuasive than one alone. It’s why startups proudly display the logos of their customers all over their website - these are all varieties of social validation that others have taken the plunge, been happy, and that you will be too. 

How should you use this principle? With reckless abandon, I hope. If you don’t have any sources to cite, it’s better to verge on being self-promotional than to say nothing at all. If you’re not going to speak up for yourself after all, who will?

Lines like the following will work just fine:

     “We’re trusted by thousands of companies in the real estate industry"
     “Over 1,000 happy customers and counting"
     “Trusted partner of Sirius Decisions"

However, use highly credible sources if you have them, such as awards, news pieces, and analyst reports. They'll always add volume to your pitch

Just remember: marketing is tough. Sometimes, take a break and let your customers do the talking for you. 

2. Bracketing

Whenever someone offers you two extremes, which do they expect you to take? The middle route. Always. This is also referred to colloquially as the "Goldilocks principle" because people don’t want too hot, don’t want too cold, but will settle for juuuust right. Here are some examples:

  • Are you far left wing or far right wing?
  • Do you want a complex platform with too many features or a simple one with next to none?
  • Do you want the penthouse suite or to stay in the poolhouse?
  • Do you want the premium insurance de-luxe or the minimum possible coverage?

In all of these scenarios, both ends are presented as undesirable extremes which paints a target around the very comfortable middle. People will gravitate there.

Now let's build upon that. If you use a bracket to target people on your middle offering, you can move that offering. Raise the price point and people will still head straight there. 

When it comes to bracketing in pricing, "behavioral economics teaches us that people aren’t always rational and don’t evaluate things in absolute terms,” says Jonah Berger, author of the marketing psychology book Contagious. If you introduce customers at a very high initial price, they'll think that that's the norm. If you then offer them something for less, aka your middle offering, they'll in fact be happier with that purchase than if you had just led with the middle offering to begin with.

This is why men’s suit stores always get you to try on an expensive designer suit first, why jewelry stores carry outrageously priced “aspirational” items, and why online retailers always show a red line through the “before" price.

How can you use this in your own marketing? Bracket consumers into features and prices. If you only offer one service, break it into three options: a premium, a standard, and a degraded version and you’ll find that customers are much happier with the standard that they would have balked at purchasing before. And if you want to raise your middle price point, simply raise the premium price point along with it. 

3. What’s in it for me? (WIIFM)

This is perhaps your one greatest tools for proofreading what you’ve written. Short for “What’s in it for me?” this is a polite reminder of precisely what’s going through your customer’s head when they read your marketing messages. Oftentimes, we’re guilty of presuming that things are important to others because they are important to us - it’s like we’re a toddler who insists that our parents try some of our baby food - if we like it, shouldn't everybody?

Not always.

As a marketer you are not important to the customer until proven otherwise. If anything, you may be an interruption or a bother, so you have to get straight to why they should care. If you use your precious first impression to brag about a new feature or a launch, you'll instantly become the bore at the party who won’t shut up and who everyone wants desperately to peel themselves away from.

It’s not about what your feature does but what it does for them.

To use this in your marketing, proofread everything you write and remove as many of the “I, my, us, we, and our's” and replace them with “you and your.” It’ll turn selfish sentences like:

Our mattresses are crafted with artisanal care and expert precision


It’ll be the best night’s sleep you’ll ever have.

See the difference?

Let them know what's in it for them. 

4. Emotional appeal

People buy based on emotions. No secret there. But do we really have a strong grasp on just how much it sways our decision making?

Invisibilia, a splendid podcast by NPR, did a fantastic dive into whether our personality is constant and turned up some pretty jarring facts: as much as we’d like to think that people (ourselves included) fit into neat and tidy categories like “thoughtful” or “quarrelsome,” our personalities change with our environments and emotions are the levers that cause the switch.

“We see consistency in everyday lives [only] because of the power of the situation,” says Lee Ross, a psychologist at Stanford University. When we have the power to change the situation for our customers and thus change the emotions that they feel, we can change just about everything.

Even things as small as being hungry can make people whose entire profession it is to be rational behave irrationally. A study of 1,000 judges in Israel showed that they were more lenient directly following meals, and less lenient when hungry.

How can you use a touch of this in your marketing?

You should seek to stir up powerful emotions in people. It ends up, negative emotions are just as valuable in marketing as positive ones, too. "What matters," says Jonah Berger in Contagious, "is the level of arousal associated with the emotion." High arousal emotions such as awe, excitement, amusement, anger, and anxiety produce more sharing of content whereas low-arousal ones like contentment or sadness decrease sharing.

For your marketing then, break some eggs and find a way to get people riled up.

Time to put your shrinking cap on

Whew, that’s was a lot of psychological ground to cover there. What have you gained? Hopefully a healthy appreciation for the question that’s plagued me for my entire career: what makes things persuasive?

It's a deftly wielded cocktail of psychological marketing principles like social proof, bracketing, WIIFM, and emotion that move the needle.

Curious to know more? In our next Marketing Psychology 102 post we’ll cover some tactical applications of these principles!


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