6 Ways to Use Cognitive Bias to Market to Humans

Andrea Fryrear on B2B Marketing Strategy

As we enter the full swing of the holiday marketing season, let’s take moment to remember who we’re actually marketing too.

Andy Crestodina wants us to remember that we should stay too fixated on the giant robot whose name starts with “G.” Instead, we are (or should be) marketing to real people with brains in their heads.

Sometimes that makes our jobs harder, but it also means we get to use great neuromarketing techniques like cognitive bias to influence behavior.

These six tips and tools will help you subtly adjust your audience’s behavior in order to improve the results of almost any campaign.

Better Conversions Through Social Proof

According to social philosopher Eric Hoffer, “when people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”

That means our job as marketers to make people feel that using us is really just an act of imitation. Easily the best way to do this is through things like endorsements, “as seen in,” and “used by” sections.

All of these create what is known as the halo effect. Essentially this type of cognitive bias causes us to transfer positive feelings about one thing (like other people’s glowing reviews) to other adjacent things (like signing up for a service).

Making use of this bias can help people feel safe trusting your brand because others have already done so. You’re not asking people to take the relatively high-risk step of being the first in the crowd to give you a try.

All you’re asking is that they do what other smart people have already done.

At the end of the day, a call to action is really just a call to confirm.

It may seem logical to collect all of these types of testimonials and endorsements into their own section, but according to Andy, there can be no worse place for valuable social proof than on a conversions page.

Instead, they should be concentrated near decision points like sign up forms or call to action buttons. These are the times when you need to remove any hesitations for prospects to proceed; these are the time to call in the big names and glowing reviews.

Here are Andy’s top 10 ways to offer social proof:

  1. Testimonials
  2. Endorsements
  3. Social media shares
  4. Social media widgets
  5. Certifications and awards
  6. Number of happy customers
  7. “Our most popular” bestseller
  8. Studies and statistics
  9. Press mentions
  10. Reviews

Keep in mind that even if you’re saying the exact same thing as your biggest fans when you say it, it’s marketing; when they say it, it’s social proof.

Loss Aversion and Scarcity: Use It Or Lose It

This is a sales and marketing tactic that we’re all familiar with because it chases us around all day long.

It’s easy to see why: our pain at losing out on something greatly outweighs our pleasure at finally getting it.

For B2C companies like Groupon, it’s easy to elicit feelings of scarcity in an audience. They can determine exactly how many items they’re going to sell during a particular time and/or at a particular price, and then let potential customers know that there’s a risk of missing out on the limited deal.


Those of us working in the B2B space have to be a little bit more creative; it’s unlikely that our software or services are going to actually run low.

Andy illustrates a great way to do this through time-sensitive promotions, like a webinar:

Your goal with invoking loss aversion and scarcity is to remind your audience what they’ll miss, risk, or lose if they don’t choose you (right now!).

Andy suggests these six ways to tap into this part of a potential customer’s brain:

  1. Rebates
  2. Trial periods
  3. Free samples
  4. Early Bird registration
  5. Countdown clocks
  6. Limited supply

Drive Conversions Through Reciprocity

This isn’t a terribly complicated idea; in fact, it’s at the heart of most content marketing efforts: “Give them what they want first, then they might give you what you want.”

Nearly every single sign up for that you see is using this tactic. They’re offering you something (most likely an ebook or online course) so they can get something from you (probably your email address).

Content upgrades, what Andy calls “ethical bribes,” are another great way to make use of our natural affinity to reciprocate.

If people have just consumed our content, they’re more likely to be receptive to our suggestion that they give us something in return, such as an email or other contact details.

Here’s Andy’s full list of ways to leverage reciprocity:

  1. Free download or “value add”
  2. Holiday and birthday gifts
  3. Influencer marketing
  4. Useful content

Wondering what influencer marketing is doing in that list? It’s not as much of a non-sequitur as you might think.

Andy offers up a big, long list of ways you need to be adding value to your targeted influencers before you can expect anything in return:

  • Follow blogger on Twitter
  • Retweet blogger
  • Favorite a tweet
  • Mention blogger in a tweet
  • Follow on Quora, Instagram, etc.
  • Subscribe to blog via feed/email
  • Comment on their blog
  • Like their comments on G+/Disqus/Livefyre
  • Add them to a G+ Circle
  • +1 blogger’s content on G+
  • Friend them on Facebook
  • Like their content on Facebook
  • Invite them to connect on LinkedIn
  • Mention/link to them from your blog or website
  • Email them
  • Phone call/Skype/Google Hangout
  • Meet in person
  • Collaborate

Writing Tips for Creating Cognitive Bias

The first thing we need to get out of the way is that lists aren’t going anywhere. Love them or hate them, list headlines simply work.

Interestingly, they’re even more effective for female audiences, as this recent study by Conductor reveals:

If you use them in your content, make sure to pay particular attention to the items that begin and end your lists: they’ll get the most attention and retention from your audience:

You’ll also want to stick to odd-numbered lists; they get 20% more clicks than their even numbered counterparts.

Writing Smart, But Not Too Smart

When it comes time to choose the individual words that make up your content, you’ll want to keep your focus on Anglo-Saxon words rather than Latinate words.

Anglo-Saxon words feel less formal, are typically shorter, and seem more forceful and direct. Latinate words, on the other hand, are longer, more formal, and sound a bit fancy.

Take a cue from Andy and think about whether your writing would be more at home in conversation with Sir Grantham or the Dude:

This doesn’t mean that your audience isn’t smart, or that they aren’t advanced readers. It just means that marketing copy, particularly online marketing copy, tends to do better when it’s written at about an 8th-grade reading level.

According to Andy, one healthcare site was rewritten to move down to an 8th-grade level, and its success rate went from 46% to 82% for lower-literacy users, and from 68% to 93% for higher literacy users.


A good rule of thumb: 0% of your audience should feel dumb when reading your website.

Evoking the Right Emotion

Now that you’ve got an idea of the particular words to use, it’s time to figure out how they should make your audience feel when they’re all strung together.

If you can create feelings of anxiety, anger, awe, or surprise in your audience you bump up the chance that your content will be shared:


You’ve also got to embrace the fact that most people aren’t going to be carefully reading your content. You need to create a helpful structure with headlines and formatting that caters to casual readers and scanners.

Easy ways to make your content more scannable:

  • Headers and subheaders
  • Bulleted lists and numbered lists
  • Bolding and italics
  • Internal links

Creating Visual Value With Imagery

This article is all about neuromarketing and tapping into how people’s brains work. Does it seem more believable if it has a picture of a brain scan in it?

Turns out that for most readers, the answer is yes (even if the picture has nothing to do with the article’s content):

Multiple Visuals, Better Engagement

Adding visuals to your content marketing can be time-consuming and tedious, particularly if you don’t have the right tools. But the good news is that if you include an image, your chances of your audience retaining your information increase more than six times:


Images also increase our chances of getting shared on Facebook and Twitter, yet Orbit media reports that only 44.5% of bloggers are using more than one image in their articles.

Given the effort required to find relevant (and not appalling) stock imagery, this isn’t terribly surprising.

Add in the fact that you’ve got to be aware of scroll depth and screen size to make sure that pictures aren’t competing with one another during scrolling, and it’s easy to see why pictures aren’t high on our priority lists.

Why Website Design Matters

But even without a dozen unique images, we can still make an impact with our overall website design.

For example, if the majority of your brand’s colors fall into the “cool” color category, use warmer colors for the calls to action to make them stand out:


You also want to limit a visitor’s ability to jump off your site into the enticing abyss that is social media. Of course, as we saw during our earlier discussion of social proof, it’s important to display your popularity on social media in general.

But what you want to avoid is providing links out into the land of cat videos, with which few of us can hope to compete.

The Power of Faces and Fonts

Finally, always consider that the human brain is hardwired to gravitate toward other human faces.

You can use this to your advantage by making the eyes in a photograph look where you want your audience to look. Check out the difference in eye tracking when the baby is looking at you rather than at the text:

And never forget that even if you get all these other things right, you can destroy all your hard work with the wrong font.

There are credible fonts, and there are fonts that make us question the validity of anything we read. Make sure you choose one from the former category, like Baskerville, rather than the latter, like Comic Sans.

Neuromarketing: Not Just for Psychologists

While all of these concepts are rooted in psychology and the very complicated workings of the human brain, they’re not rocket science.

Those of us marketers who aren’t even really sure about the difference between being left and right-brained can still make use of these concepts in our content and beyond.