The Marketing Psychology Playbook

The Best Strategies Marketers Miss and Misuse

By Becky Davis

Table of Contents


The marketing world has gone mad for psychology. Why? Because it allows us to test, document, formulate, and replicate proven strategies. Gone are the “Mad Men” days of advertising that relied on an innate ability to know what would charm and fascinate the consumer. Which is great, because most of us aren’t wired that way. We aren’t great at metaphorically putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Research shows that, when we try to take another person’s perspective, our ability to understand them actually gets worse.1

There’s a big gap between the research and the application, though. Too often we, as marketers, learn best practices from popularized “rules” that become vogue then get translated into dozens or hundreds of articles jockeying for the #1 spot on Google. In the process, the theory behind it gets lost.

“Put a question in the headline” is easier to remember and do than the Zeigarnik Effect (see my section on the lost art of effectively using questions in marketing copy). So we get flooded with headlines that contain questions that don’t actually perform well. Then that “best practice” falls out of vogue, and we move on to some new rule such as “write emotional headlines” without ever really learning and deepening our understanding. The cycle continues.

This book is a collection of some of my favorite techniques, told in a way that helps you understand why the technique is effective and how to apply it correctly. I’m not going to tell you to “do this magic thing to make a great headline” because that leads to stagnant thinking. Instead, I want you to understand what’s happening inside the minds of your target audience so that you have an arsenal of tools to pull from to craft compelling messages.

Maybe your next headline will have a question, but maybe you’ll use mirroring to create a curiosity gap with that question. You’ll know why that question works and how your audience will react. Plus, you’ll have the confidence to explain why it works, rather than just saying “I read that headlines with questions get more clicks.”

Some of what I will cover are well-known marketing techniques that have been lost to short and simple “rules.” Those I’ll revisit to explain what made them effective in the first place so that you can recapture the strategy and use it to improve your marketing.

Other techniques I will cover are pulled from places like therapist training which I then applied to marketing. These are techniques I haven’t heard many other marketers talking about, so I’ll show you how they are effectively used and where the technique originates from.


Mirroring is a powerful psychological technique when done correctly. It’s used to effect behavior change in therapy patients by establishing trust, a deeper understanding, and commitment to change.

Here’s how it works: the patient tells the therapist something then the therapist repeats back to the patient what they’ve just said, either paraphrased or word for word. Sounds simple, right? Can that really work? Well, yes and no.

Done poorly, mirroring comes across as artificial and backfires. Done correctly, mirroring makes the target feel validated and trusting. The good news is that effective mirroring in digital marketing is much easier to do than during a sales call or therapy session.

First, you need to find where your audience is talking. Your reviews, competitor reviews, forums, Reddit, Facebook groups…people post pretty much every thought they have somewhere on the web. All you need to do is find it and mirror it back to them. Read what people say positive about your product and include that in your copy. Read the negatives they list about your competitors and use that to highlight your differentiators. “Steep learning curve” in a competitor’s review signals that you should use “no learning curve” in your own copy. Or, better yet, include a testimonial that talks about how easy to use your product is.

When you read through forums or groups that aren’t product-specific, pay attention to how people talk about their problems. Then mirror it back in your copy. “Doing X takes forever” becomes “Do X in five minutes” or “automate X.”

Mirroring is also effective in images. Pictures of your product (or, God forbid, barely relevant stock images) are not as effective as pictures of people achieving their goals using your product. For example, hikers climbing a steep mountain with your protein bar in their bag is going to be far more effective than a close up of your protein bar. People need to picture achieving their goals when they see your brand.

Think about laundry detergent. Which is going to be more effective:

  • A picture of the detergent
  • Someone doing laundry
  • A before and after photo of a dirty shirt coming out clean

Clearly the goal of doing laundry is to get a dirty shirt clean. Showing a consumer that they can achieve this with your product is the most effective image to associate with your product.

An example from my marketing: Since I consult to increase digital engagement and conversion, the hero section of my website features a woman using a phone with like, heart, and smiley icons floating up from the phone. This is clearly the end result and more meaningful than a piece of marketing collateral or a before and after shot of a product. My target audience can more easily visualize increased engagement with their product or service after working with me because it is displayed in that video.

The most common obstacle to effective imagery for a website or promotion is cost. Or at least perception of cost. Stock photography of people smiling is cheap and easy, so marketers shy away from doing anything else. I’ve worked with companies who invested millions in advertising but wouldn’t invest in custom photography.

It’s not as expensive as you might think. Get a few volunteers and find a local photographer. Upwork, local colleges, and Craigslist make it easy. When I was in college, I asked one of the newspaper editors who did their photography. I got his contact information, scheduled a shoot, and paid the photographer $200 for a half day shoot plus editing. Photography can be expensive, but if you’re willing to get creative, you can make it work within your budget.

Good photographs are worth it. Pictures are so much more impactful than words that psychology has a name for it – “picture superiority effect.” The effect happens because we process and remember pictures much more effectively than words. That’s why when websites test real imagery against stock photography, they see significant lifts in conversion. Marketing Experiments ran a test between their top performing stock photo and a real customer. The real customer produced a 35% lift in conversion.2

Perceiving the difference between real and stock photography may not be conscious for all consumers, but they can tell the difference and it influences their perception. Our subconscious is able to identify and pick out patterns–like seeing the same person in different ads or the subtle signs of stock images–much faster than our conscious minds. People may not know why your site feels inauthentic, but they will act on that feeling.3

Maybe you are one of the exceptions. You’re on too tight of a timeline or custom photography just won’t work for your business. In that case, hire a graphic designer to customize stock photos. They can add your protein bar to a picture of hikers, for example, or place your product or service in a contextual photo.

Be cautious with overly generic photos. At all costs, avoid the generic photo of someone fake smiling and posing. They do trigger feelings of inauthenticity. People may not recall seeing that photo or that model somewhere else, but their subconscious will. Check out the story of Everywhere Girl. Aspiring actress, Jen Kind, was paid $3,000 to pose for school-related stock photos. Her photos were used everywhere: Dell, Gateway, Red Robin, textbooks, books, billboards, even puzzles.

This happens more than you’d think. I see the same senior women with short, tightly curled grey hair in ads, articles, and websites for everything from Medicare to glasses. Stock sites may boast hundreds of thousands of photos, but they are organized by relevance and popularity. And there are a lot of really irrelevant, really terrible stock photos out there. I’ve seen a pregnant woman skiing in a bikini and an entire series of a well-built Santa at the dentist’s office. Do your marketing a favor and avoid generic imagery.

Appealing to Identity

Understanding how people perceive themselves gives us leverage to influence future behavior. For example, Lacasse (2016) and Van der Werff et al. (2014) reminded people of past environmentally sustainable behaviors and labeled them “environmentalists.” Afterwards, those people then had a higher likelihood of making environmentally-friendly choices compared to people who were not reminded or labeled.

In this vein, I recently ran a test with a client on cold email copy. The audience was made up of government employees who considered themselves long-term career people, invested in service to the public. I had my prospecting person pull the number of years the prospect had worked at the company then wrote, “I bet you’ve invested a lot of time over the past {{number of years}} years improving things at {{city}}” before tying that work improving things to the service I wanted to talk to them about. That version received 7 times the amount of engagement that the email without that message received.

This tactic was so effective because I tied their identity–someone invested in improving their city–to the action I wanted them to take. I reminded them subtly that they are a certain type of person and then implied that that type of person would take the action.

This can be tricky to get right. People inexperienced in writing marketing copy often open with a poorly done appeal to identity and it backfires. “You’re busy” is a common, poorly done appeal to identity. It’s too obvious to make the reader feel like you “get” them. Everyone is busy.

When you write an identity statement, give it the ‘obviously’ test. If you were to talk to a person and actually say that to them, how likely are they to respond (even internally) with “yeah, obviously”?

“You’re busy.”
“Yeah, isn’t everyone?”

“You’ve invested a lot of time in improving Raleigh over the past 12 years.”
“Yeah, I have!”

This is a good test to give any piece of copy you’ve written. Read it out loud and make sure it’s something you would actually say. Remember, marketing is a conversation. I’ve seen copywriters open pieces with “Travel can be fun!” How often would you open a conversation with that line? What would the response be?

Effective marketing is not obvious. It feels personal and meaningful, like a conversation with someone who really understands you.

Affirmations and Identity

You can influence and leverage identity to motivate action even in the relatively small amount of time people spend looking at your marketing materials. Past actions and statements can influence identity perception and you’ve likely seen examples of this in marketing. Think of the calls to action that say something like “Yes, I want to 10x my business.” Clicking on this first person statement can influence future actions. Having someone commit by stating that they want something, believe in something, or will do something will result in a higher rate of compliance if, for example, the next step is to enter their email address. They just asserted that they are the type of person who is committed to 10x-ing their business. Now you are implying that the type of person who is committed to 10x-ing their business would enter their email address. After all, entering your email address is a small step for someone who is committed, right?

Examples of this are seen throughout the history of psychology. One of the earliest examples was the use of propaganda statements by the Chinese army to gain the confidence of and to influence American POWs during the Korean War.

POWs were made to compose statements that were critical of their actions during the war, of democracy, and of the US (Mayer, “Why Did Many GI Captives Cave In? p.72, Kinkead, “In Every War But One” p.120). The captured soldiers did not believe in the statements that they made. The statements were often made in order to appease their captors and escape brutal punishments or to get their letters sent home. But the constant repetition, made by their own choice, eventually influenced more of the soldiers to comply with increasingly out-of-character requests from their captors. The strategy was very effective, combined with other tactics to sow distrust among the POWs and build trust for the Communist captors. For the first time in history, one out of three American POWs collaborated at least once with the enemy and twenty-one Americans refused to return home, deciding to remain with the enemy instead (Kinkead, “In Every War But One” pp. 16-17).

More recently, a number of studies, including one by Dan Ariely in his book “Predictably Irrational” have shown that having students sign an honor code decreases cheating on tests, even though signing the code is not optional (Yasmine L Konheim-Kalkstein, Mark A Stellmack & Margaret L Shilkey (2008)).

If writing and speaking propaganda you disagree with (though under extremely strenuous circumstances) or signing an honor code you barely read can influence your behavior, can ‘call to action’ copy influence compliance after clicking? Can the copy that a marketer uses increase the chances of the website visitor filling out a form on the next page?

Yes, as it turns out. CRO expert, Michael Aagaard, describes two tests he ran where changing the CTA (call to action) copy from ‘Your’ to ‘My’ (as in ‘Create Your Account’ vs ‘Create My Account’) increased conversion rate by almost 25% and click through rate by 90%.4
Affirmations as CTAs become a clue for our mind: past behavior to base future behavior on. If I’ve just clicked “Yes, I want to 10x my business,” then I’ve affirmed that this is important to me. If it’s important to me, then I’m more likely to take the next step I need in order to fulfill that goal.


In and of themselves, questions are not particularly effective. It’s how the question is used and how it primes the reader that generates a higher engagement rate. Unfortunately, the nuances got lost when question headlines were popularized. The idea started spreading that headlines with a question mark were more effective than statements and suddenly they were everywhere–way overused and poorly done. This often poorly used trend led to things like Betteridge’s law of headlines: any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no. If the readers reads your question headline and immediately thinks “no” or “who cares,” then the question is actually hurting your engagement rate.

Using a question for the sake of using a question is an ineffective strategy. Questions only become effective when you understand and use the strategies that made those original headlines stand out (before the gross oversimplification caught on).


Questions that evoke curiosity have a strong influence on our behavior. The reader ‘hears’ the question in their voice and feels the need for an answer in order to create closure. Think about it. It’s frustrating when you ask a question that doesn’t get answered. This is fueled by the Zeigarnik Effect, where unfinished stories or tasks claim more of our memory and attention than finished ones.

The question has to be interesting, though. If the answer is “I don’t care” or if the reader thinks he or she already knows the answer, then your question isn’t compelling. If the information seems important or interesting though, you’ve got them hooked. You’ve created a ‘Curiosity Gap,’ an internal awareness of missing information and a desire to resolve it. When we are curious about something, the information is often valued far above the normal value fueled by loss aversion or economic gain.

Think of how effective cliffhanger endings are. Suddenly the value of watching the next episode when it’s already past your bedtime skyrockets enough to outweigh the value of a good night’s sleep.

Or think of Pandora’s box. There’s a reason the myth about curiosity is one of the best known. We understand how powerful that force is.
Robert Cialdini uses a formula reliant on curiosity to grab and keep attention. First, he poses a question that seems counter-intuitive. In his example form his book “Pre-suasion,” he asks how tobacco companies drastically increased their sales after a three year slide by slashing their advertising budget by a third. It’s counter-intuitive that decreasing advertising would cause sales to increase, so the reader becomes curious and stays hooked to hear the entire story.

Curiosity does not require a question to provoke it. However, the effect of hearing your own ‘inner voice’ read the question can create a powerful drive to answer. It’s as if you asked the question yourself rather than being prompted. Remember how powerful reading statements and affirmations can be? The same applies to reading questions. Overall, questions can be a powerful tool for writing marketing copy. Just be sure to understand what your intention for the question is and check that it’s achieving that goal. Ask a colleague or friend to be brutally honest. Would they be interested to know the answer to your question?

Be careful with this technique, however. Nothing is more frustrating than reading through a page only to find that the question wasn’t really answered. That’s a formula for an immediate abandon that leaves a lingering negative impression on the reader. If your headline asks a question, make sure that the copy answers it.

Influencing Perception

Asked correctly, questions can be used to influence a person’s perception by triggering certain thoughts and memories. This is similar to the trick of telling someone, “Don’t think about a blue elephant.” They inevitably think of a blue elephant.

In Robert Cialdini’s “Pre-suasion,” he highlights how this is used to influence people in powerful ways. Cult recruiters ask target recruits, “Are you unhappy?” They do not use the positive “Are you happy?” or the neutral, “Are you happy or unhappy?” This is because “Are you unhappy?” primes the target to focus on things that are making them unhappy. They ask themselves “Am I unhappy?” and reasons to be unhappy spring to mind much more readily than reasons to be happy.

Research supports this. Cialdini cites a Canadian survey in which people who were asked if they were unhappy were 5 times more likely to report being unhappy versus people asked if they were happy. Marketers can use this. Instead of asking “Are you satisfied with your current solution?” asking “Could your current solution be doing more?” invites the reader to consider all the things their current solution doesn’t do (that yours presumably does). The most effective questions subtly trigger a thought that the reader likely had in the past and then brings it to the front of the person’s mind. The subtlety lets the reader come to the thought through their own volition, so it doesn’t feel contrived or manipulative. Then, because the question relates to them and reflects their past and current thoughts, the reader feels like the person or company asking the question really ‘gets’ how they feel and where they are coming from.

Removing the Perception of Bias

When your audience sees your marketing, their default state is skepticism. There are a number of ways to persuade them and shift them away from that skepticism. For marketers invested in the long game, building trust and authority through content is a commonly used tactic. They give high-quality, high-value content for free (or for the ‘price’ of an email address). But what about shorter-term tactics?
Testimonials, free trials, money-back guarantees…these are all commonly used tactics that you’ve undoubtedly heard of and like used yourself. But have you tried admitting your product or service has weaknesses?

Hear me out. I know this tactic sounds a little like handling dynamite, but it can be very effective. It’s based on the Pratfall Effect: admitting to a mistake, misstep, or weakness makes competent people seem more approachable, more relatable, and more human. I’ll illustrate how this works with an example piece I frequently use: product comparison articles.

When potential customers are in the final stages of purchase decision making, they are often actively comparing products or services. They are visiting review sites to see how your offer stacks up against your competitors. They want information on which solution is best for them.

You can offer that information. But anyone reading your article is going to assume that you are biased in favor of your own product or service. Companies that handle this well remove the bias by admitting to weaknesses and steering certain people towards other solutions. They do this in a very smart way. They define who their ideal customer is and then describe their solution in a way that would appeal to their ideal customer. They define what customers they do not want and then describe why they are not a good solution for that person while their competitor is. This approach comes across as balanced and fair while steering the ideal customer towards the company’s solution and the undesirable customer to their competitor. Just make sure everything you write actually is true and fair so this doesn’t backfire.

For example, say you’ve designed a SaaS solution primarily for commercial HVAC contractors while your competitor has a solution that can support commercial HVAC contractors but it’s primarily for residential HVAC contractors. That’s a perfect difference to highlight in a comparison article. Talk about how you don’t support residential HVAC contractors. Highlight how you are focused on commercial. That’s a big consideration for your ideal client and very valuable information.

I created a comparison article for a small company that was going up against a massive Fortune 500 company that had just moved into their space. The small company was skeptical of saying anything nice about their competitor. They wanted to hammer on the fact that their competitor’s solution was harder to use and not as flexible. I included that information in the article but I recommended the competitor’s solution to one, specific type of person: a company already invested in the competitor’s other products who valued getting up and running immediately over flexibility, ease of use, and ease of adoption. The 5-star testimonial for the competitor that I included in the article even mentioned ease of use as a con.

When done subtly, this technique can remove the sense of bias from your marketing copy. If you’re writing a landing page, you can include who your product or service is best for in a way that excludes undesirable customers. The emphasis here is on subtle. Peep Laja shared some feedback he received when he tested landing page copy for his CXL Institute that intended to do something similar. He wanted to use the “hostile brand” tactic in which you intentionally turn some people off in order to attract others even more. His copy stated that the course was too hard for most people, serious discipline was required. It took someone who was playing the long game, no quick hacks were provided.

I’ve listened to some of his course content and this is accurate. There’s a ton of video material that is intended to get the student up to speed and ready to start practicing Conversion Rate Optimization, a place that took me years of self-directed learning and the right opportunities to reach. The biggest lesson set in there is 80 hours of video and there are tons of lesson sets.

But people reading his home page copy thought it was arrogant, pretentious, and snobby–all things he hadn’t intended. If you don’t know Peep, he’s one of the most well-known names in CRO. So if Peep can have this tactic produce less-than-desirable results, the rest of us should take note, be careful with it, and be sure to test.

Concrete Language

The marketing world is filled with vague, abstract business jargon that is meaningless to the consumer. ‘Innovative,’ ‘flexible,’ ‘fast,’ ‘optimized,’ ‘efficient’…and so on. None of those words make an impression on the reader because they aren’t easy to picture. Which is more interesting:

  1. Level up your career fast.
  2. Master your career-changing skill in 90 days.

The second is more interesting and more memorable. Yet businesses choose the first headline over and over. Why? I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a few factors at play.

Stop writing in marketing jargon

First, so much marketing looks like this that even persuasive speakers go into “marketer mode” when they sit down to write a marketing piece. They’ve been conditioned that “that’s what marketing should sound like.” No! Don’t do that! One of my favorite tactics is to read marketing copy out loud (including emphasizing the inevitable ‘!’) or to have a text-to-speech program read it to me. If it feels or sounds awkward and unnatural to you then it’s going to be just as awkward to the person reading it. Re-write it like you were writing to an actual person. Some copywriters even create short pieces in a texting app. Typing in a texting app uses contextual cues to help break the habit of writing in “marketese.” Since it feels like you’re texting, you’re more likely to just write like a normal person having a normal conversation. 

This is also where personas come in handy. But you have to use personas correctly.

Personas are not demographics. Personas are characters in the story of your brand. When was the last time you read a story about a girl, pre-teen to teen, with above average intelligence? No! You read about Hermione Granger, muggle-born, age 11 with a goal of saving the wizarding world and getting perfect test scores. Your persona should be interesting. Someone you want to know. Someone you can write to.

Make an Effort

The second reason businesses end up with vague uninteresting language is because concrete language is scary to use or harder to come by. For example, maybe someone in legal doesn’t want you to say the product cuts processing time in half. What if someone only cuts processing time by 40%?

Or the data takes more of an effort to get. The business isn’t sure how many people they’ve helped. Or it’s hard to calculate how much time/money people will save. So they switch to less interesting copy.

Geico didn’t do that. Geico came out with “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance.” What if it takes 16 minutes? Why 15%? They overcame those steps in order to create one of the most memorable marketing messages of my generation.

Yes, it can be challenging. Keep pushing, keep negotiating, keep proposing new ideas or asking for alternatives. I’ve worked with and in some of the most highly regulated industries and was still able to include concrete language and examples.

If all else fails, you can still give a concrete benefit and clearly articulate what your company provides. Which of these is more interesting:

  1. Smarter trials begin and end with us.
  2. Higher retention in your clinical trials with patient travel management.

The first isn’t clear. What is a smarter trial? What does the company actually do? The second gives concrete ideas that are easier to understand and retain. Higher retention. Patient travel. Those are very clear (if you’re in the pharmaceutical trials industry).

When in doubt, refer back to my strategy of reading it out loud. Would you ever casually use the phrase “smarter trials begin and end with me” in a conversation about what you do? I hope not, you’d get blank looks. Would you say: I help trials retain patients through travel management? Very likely. The people you’re talking to can ask, “Is drop out a problem?”, “What parts of travel do you manage?” “Are there special needs for patient travel?”, etc. If your headline can’t spark a conversation, then it’s not doing its job. Afterall, marketing is just a conversation that’s being held over digital platforms.

Statistics and Stories

The research community is still debating whether statistics or stories are more effective for persuasion (Baesler & Burgoon, 1994). Well constructed copy uses both in a way that plays to each tactic’s strength.

Stories are memorable and persuade action. For example, Dan Ariely performed an experiment generating donations to fight hunger in Malawi. An emotional story about one girl facing starvation elicited the most donations. Including a statistic that 3 million other children in Malawi are facing hunger at the end of the story actually decreased the number of donations. Why? Because statistics like this are used to convince and add credibility, not to prep for action. The ‘3 million’ statistic is very useful for convincing you that child hunger is a big problem in Malawi. But it doesn’t prompt action because it makes the problem feel too big for us to make an impact on. It also engages our rational mind, while donating to help a starving young girl is an emotional decision.

Contrast Ariely’s example to the example Baesler and Burgoon used: Which is more convincing evidence that Americans will not be able to maintain their current standard of living in retirement?

First, “J. B.,” a 65-year-old retiree, has gone from an income of more than $50,000 a year to just under $20,000 in pension and social security. Whereas he used to dine out frequently and enjoy playing golf, he is now buying microwavable turkey dinners and watching golf tournaments on television.

Or, second, more than 75% of all retirees this year found that their annual incomes dropped dramatically at retirement.
Clearly, in this case, the statistic is more persuasive. That held true in Baesler and Burgoon’s experiment. But this is not a rule. Statistics can also be used to persuade action when applied correctly. For example, let’s say 60% of Americans will leave their families in financial distress when they die, including people with life insurance because 70% of us are underinsured. On reading these stats, you’ll start to question if your family would be secure and if you have adequate insurance. (These aren’t real stats, by the way, they are made up for this example.)

However, there is an implied story within the stats: that your family could suffer after your death. Unlike Dan Ariely’s example, statistics make this story more convincing. If the majority of people leave their family in financial distress, it’s likely that you would, too. Effective marketing copy tells the individual story and then backs it up with statistics. If Ariely had included a statistic about how likely the Malawi girl was to die without your help, would the story have been more compelling? I think it’s likely.

Effective Marketing Statistics

There are some general guidelines on what makes a statistic persuasive for action and what does not. First off, people are more likely to want to do what everyone else is doing or picture themselves in the majority. So, if I say, “Only 1 in 5 Americans buys life insurance,” even if I’m implying that that is a bad thing, it makes my message to buy life insurance less persuasive. I’m triggering reverse social proof. If 80% of people don’t think life insurance is worth buying, you are more likely to follow their lead and become skeptical of buying it, too. Or, if I had used the real statistic for life insurance in the last section–that 40% of Americans will leave their family in financial distress–then my message would have been less persuasive. It is easier for people to imagine themselves being in the majority (60% in financial distress) than the minority (40% in financial distress). It’s easier to read “40%” and think “Well, that doesn’t apply to me” than when reading “60%” or “70%.”

How can you apply this? Aren’t you stuck with the statistics that you have? You can’t do what I just did in my life insurance example and make them up. Here are a couple examples where I was able to work with the statistics I was given.
Early in my career, I ran a test along with the different statistics. I tested messaging that 1 in 3 eligible Americans had the product I was selling versus messaging that listed the total number of Americans who had that product (24 million). The “large number,” 24 million, beat the 1 in 3 statistic significantly.

More recently, I had a client who was using 2 stats. First, 9.3% of the population has diabetes and elevated blood sugar is the number three risk factor for death. Second, over 1 in 4 people have hypertension or elevated blood pressure and this is the number one risk factor for death.

That’s a lot packed into a quick stat and the more persuasive number is tucked at the end. It’s more persuasive to say that weight gain increases your risk of diabetes/elevated blood sugar and hypertension, the #1 and #3 risk factors for early death. The risk factors are the important statistic here and are more effective on their own. I recommended that they leave off the “9.3%” and the “1 in 4.”

Price Disclosure

Price disclosure is a tricky step in the sales process. It is often the highest point of friction and drop off. The friction is caused by the mental pain of paying. There are a few techniques to decrease the friction and pain prospects feel at this point.

The first and most effective is to make the visitor feel like they are getting way more value than they are paying for. People are “loss averse,” meaning they prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gain. To illustrate, that means people would feel much worse losing $100 than they would feel good gaining $100. For your marketing efforts, that means they can’t think that the product you are offering is worth the price you are asking. They have to feel that the product is worth significantly more than you are asking.

The landing page below is an excellent example. It is visually a mess. Almost every sentence has a different font size, there’s a rather abstract headline (I’m already the light of my dog’s world TYVM), exclamation points are everywhere, there’s an obviously false ‘discounted’ price, different buttons for different currency…I could go on. But…they are doing three core things right, and they completely nail those. 1. They have a video with the two super personable trainers. 2. They have tons of clearly real testimonials. 3. They have an absurdly good value.

#1 doesn’t even matter that much. They could have #2 and #3 only and this page would still be successful. They are offering to show you how to do $$$$ off-leash training at home for only $32 USD and there are tons of testimonials saying that the program really works. In person, this training is $1,000+ (my price anchor from friends who have done those in-person training sessions). Here they are asking under $40.

This is the key to selling effectively online. The benefit has to be perceived as having a value much higher than the cost.
There are a number of strategies to help with this:

  1. Feeling “cheap” versus the value they’re getting, as shown in the dog training example.
  2. Price anchoring at a higher price point using a competitor’s price, average industry price, the ‘value’ of what is included in your offer, general knowledge (like my knowing what dog training costs), etc.
  3. “But wait, there’s more!” Including add-ons can help make the prospect feel like they are getting added value for free.
  4. Highlighting money saved. This is one I use frequently when companies tell me their product saves people time. We put a dollar amount on the time and then illustrate the saving for a prospective customer.
  5. Highlighting pain removed, benefits realized. This is the most common but also the most difficult to do well. In the other tactics, value was directly tied to price. Here, value is more abstract. How much is something like “improved customer service” actually worth? In this case, I push marketers to make the benefits as concrete as possible. How many clients are retained by improved customer service, for example.

You can also reduce the friction by reducing the amount of pain felt when paying. This is something else the dog training example does well. Instead of saying “buy now,” they make the call to action “Join Us” while listing the price below. Avoid words like ‘buy,’ ‘pay,’ ‘charge,’ ‘cost,’ etc. and use alternative (but still very clear and easy to understand!) calls to action like ‘add to bag,’ ‘reserve your spot’ and others that remind the prospective buyer what they are getting versus what they are losing (money).

Price Perception

How we display the price in relation to what is around it can have an effect on how the price is perceived. Research suggests that how large the number is can affect whether we think the amount is larger or smaller (Dehaene & Akhavein, 1995). This became popular after the publication of the Coulter & Coulter 2005 paper testing the perception of differences in pricing based on the size of the different prices. Reverse engineering some more popular consumer brands, we can see that it had enough of an effect to have a lasting influence on their designs. I chose to reverse engineer this because, despite what popular articles indicate, Coulter & Coulter 2005 does not show that relative font size influences perception of the price. Their experiments suggest that relative font size influences the perception of price difference between two different prices: regular and sale price or regular and competitor’s. I could not find any published research or experiments testing specifically the font size of the price versus something like a headline or body copy influencing perception.

We can see that brands with the resources to adequately test this, did adopt the practice, though. In 2014, J. Crew’s website shows price in a font equal to the body copy, as does Tiffany & Co.

Now, you might be thinking that Tiffany & Co. don’t need to make their jewelry feel cheap. They are a luxury brand. That’s true, but they need to do something just as key as J Crew: they need to make the price seem unimportant. Thus they have also chosen a small font.

However, these designs prove problematic in user testing, which is a key consideration in purchase decisions. Usability will almost always trump clever uses of cognitive biases. In this case, not being able to easily find the price proves more of an issue than making it standout using a large font size. In 2020, J Crew and Tiffany & Co. have solved this in different ways. J Crew took the standard way out, making the price bold and larger than the fonts around it.

Tiffany & Co. have done something different. They kept the font equal in weight to everything else around it. They also placed it on the “Add to Bag” button, a trend I’ve seen popping up on ecommerce apps like Instacart. This let’s them keep the font size small while still making the price easy to find. Since your eye is naturally drawn to the button, you see the price without having to search for it.

In Instacart’s cart, the checkout button and the suggested items dominate the design, drawing the user’s eye quickly down the page so they are less likely to review and possibly remove impulse adds. The cart total is displayed twice: once at the top and then again on the button so it can’t be missed, but there is not a lot of emphasis placed on it. This is going into UX design and information hierarchy. If you understand how to organize information to direct the user’s attention, then you can make sure that the information needed is easy to find but understated at the same time. Font size is not the only tool in a designer’s arsenal for directing attention.

Placing the cart total at the top can also trigger anchoring. Since the total has to be the largest number on the page, the user is guaranteed to see a smaller value for any item they stop to consider removing. In this case, placing the total at the top may help keep extra items in the cart; the extra item seems cheap in comparison to the total.


One of the concrete learnings from Coulter & Coulter (2005) was that placing different visual weight on a sale or comparison price changes the perceived difference between prices. If the regular price was $12 and the sale price was $10, then, when $10 was in a smaller font, the perceived difference was larger and demand increased. Conversely, when $10 was in a larger font, the perceived difference was smaller and demand decreased.

Biswas et al., (2013) found that the perceived difference in price could also be influenced by the order in which the regular and sale prices were displayed. The difference in price was seen as larger when the sale price was placed to the right. Why? Because it was easier for the person reading the prices to calculate the discount, enlarging the perceived difference. The researchers called this the subtraction principle.

Easy/larger perceived difference:
$10.95 – $9.95 = ?

Hard/smaller perceived difference:
$9.95 – $10.95 = ?

In the example from Instacart, they are following the first principle: the sale price is not larger than the regular price. They are not using the subtraction principle, though. The sale price is displayed above the regular price, which makes subtraction harder and decreases the perceived discount.


When it comes to directing a visitor’s attention, order isn’t everything. Then again, font size isn’t everything either. The fastest way to have a busy, confusing interface is to neglect to lay out a very clear hierarchy of information. To make reading a web page feel natural and to control how the message is received, you have to control the visitor’s attention.

Hierarchy happens whether you mean for it to or not. There is no way to put equal emphasis on two items. Even if font size is the same, the item on the top left will be given more attention than the item on the bottom left (for cultures with languages read left to right, top to bottom). Plan information hierarchy strategically and be aware of what visitors are looking at first, second, third, etc. Use it to guide them through your message and control their perception.

Color Cues

UX designers use color cues to direct attention and communicate usability information. Often they’ll pick a single color as the “action” color. Everything that is the action color can be clicked and interacted with, aiding usability. Your primary call to action is the purpose of the website, ad, or landing page, so pick a brand color with the most contrast against the page background and make that your action color. Don’t use the action color for anything that can’t be clicked (or tapped).

Here’s an example of a Shopify theme I designed to optimize for direct-to-consumer beverage sales. The primary actions are: ‘see details’ about the special offer, add a bottle to cart (+ button), or ‘checkout.’ Each of these use the burnt orange ‘action’ color. I do not use this color on anything that is not clickable. That way, users’ attention is pulled to the buttons and they are prepared to click those.

The secondary actions–those not key to purchasing–are white with grey icons. They are still clearly clickable, but they don’t grab attention. The tertiary actions are the suggested search terms (Cabernet, Pinot Grigio, Red, White). These are not the primary actions I want someone to take. They are just “nice to have,” so I don’t want them to compete with the other actions. If these keywords are displayed with buttons or tags, they capture too much attention. But, since I have only used burnt orange for items that can be interacted with, I can use the burnt orange font color to give users a clue that this text can be clicked on without cluttering the screen or taking too much attention.

Use color strategically. If you’re only thinking about what “looks good” then you are missing out on key strategies to make your site easier to use and more compelling to purchase from.


Movement is like the nuclear option for forcing hierarchy and directing user attention. Do not use it lightly. Used poorly, it’s extremely annoying. As I’m typing this in Google Docs the icon and text in the top left of my screen switches from “Saving…” to “Saved to Drive.” When I’m on my large monitor and it is out of my line of sight, it’s fine. But if I’m typing near the top of the page or on a smaller monitor, it is often distracting. I’ll break my train of thought and look up towards the top of the screen. Our peripheral was designed to detect movement and draw our attention to it. It is involuntary.

This functionality drives me nuts when I have a tab open that has Drift in it. The constant flashing with a message alert forces me to pay attention to it. If I have the tab open while I’m doing something else, I’ll usually give up on the site out of annoyance and close it: not what Drift had in mind.

Does the tactic work for Drift though? Presumably. Just because things are annoying doesn’t mean they don’t work. That’s why we have pop ups. If they didn’t work, people wouldn’t use them so consistently. Be cautious with movement, though. I’ve had people ask me to make a CTA shake periodically on article pages. Once is good. It lets the reader know the call to action is there. Periodic shaking is distracting and annoying. Don’t do anything that irritates your visitor and leaves them with a negative impression of your company.

I’ve used movement in the direct-to-consumer beverage ecommerce site I designed. In Figure 1, I have the progress bar fill as they fill their cart. When they add an item, the button opens into a cart preview (Figure 2). When they reach the free shipping threshold, the button turns the burnt orange action color, prompting them to checkout with free shipping (Figure 3).

(Figure 1)

(Figure 2)

(Figure 3)

The movement conveys useful information: it confirms that an item has been added to cart, it tells you how close you are to free shipping, and it tells you when you’ve unlocked free shipping. It is highlighting the action I ultimately want the user to take: checkout. But it is not purely self-serving and annoying like constantly shaking a call to action the visitor isn’t interested in.

As effective as movement is, though, we have been trained out of reacting to it in specific situations that you need to prepare for. This conditioning is part of “banner blindness.”

Banner Blindness: Old and New

With desktop or laptop computers, we naturally look to the top. Advertisers took advantage of this and placed banner ads there. After constantly seeing irrelevant information in that location, users’ brains began to filter out this unwanted distraction. Anything in that location that looked like a banner stopped getting user attention. In 2013, 86% of consumers experienced banner blindness. (The study says they “suffer” from banner blindness but, given how terrible most banner ads are, I’d go with “enjoy” banner blindness.)

So, since the ads were being ignored, the designers made them flash, shake, and pop: anything to catch consumers’ eyes. Consumers responded with more determined banner blindness. Any common ad placement, anything near an ad, or anything that looked like an ad was ignored.

What does this mean for marketers? Most often, site-specific offers like the free shipping threshold are placed in a colored bar at the top of a page – just like a banner. Do not assume that your site’s visitors see this banner. Mention your offer again elsewhere to make sure they see it.

Next, advertisers crowded to mobile. A common UX design pattern is to place key elements at the bottom of the screen, closest to your thumb. Gmail’s app has the “compose” button here (Figure 4). Their maps app has the drawer of common actions here (Figure 5).

(Figure 4)

(Figure 5)

Advertisers used this principle and, once again, placed ads in the key location for users’ attention on apps and websites that allowed it. Once again, consumers responded by developing banner blindness for these locations.

I remember clearly when I ran into this new form of banner blindness. I designed a website where I used this location for key functionality. At the end of a quiz, the shopper could see results and then choose to add their product recommendations to their cart or schedule time with a consultant. I placed a large button to schedule time in the key area at the bottom of the page. Consistently, testers didn’t see the button. I made the button pulse, incorporating the “nuclear option” of movement. They still didn’t see it.

I still use this key location at the bottom of the page but, to make sure I compensate for the new banner blindness, I’ll usually include duplicate functionality in my mobile designs. In the example below, I mention free shipping in the banner and in the large cart button at the bottom.

I also include a cart button in the traditional location–top right–and in the button at the bottom. Since the cart button is key functionality, this design makes sure that the user is able to access the cart in whichever way is most natural for them and my design is not tripped up by banner blindness.


There are long lists and a near-endless number of articles on best practices, tips, and “tricks” on how to apply psychology for marketing. I think we often get lost in these, looking for a quick fix to make our new product sell or our next article go viral. You’ll notice that very few (if any) of my strategies are quick “hacks” that are “guaranteed” to double your conversion rate. That’s because gimmicks like that are a moving target. Today it may be “flash” and “lightning” deals to trigger FOMO, but as those become more widely utilized, consumers will become desensitized to them and they’ll fade. The underlying principle won’t fade, though. People will always worry about missed opportunities. Having a better understanding of the principles behind why popular hacks work allows us to use them in better, less trendy ways that creates solid marketing that will remain effective.

Marketing is the art of digital conversation. Effective marketing understands how the consumer will benefit from the product or service and communicates that effectively to the person reading. After all, if you have a fantastic offer, who wouldn’t want to take advantage of it, right? My goal is to improve digital communication so that you, as a marketer, can talk to your audience more effectively about your product.


1 (Eyal, T., Steffel, M., & Epley, N. 2018) & (Vox Creative 2017 social experiment in decision making)

2 https://marketingexperiments.com/digital-advertising/stock-images-tested

3 See Malcolm Gladwell’s explanation of “Thin Slicing” in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

4 https://unbounce.com/a-b-testing/failed-ab-test-results/&sa=D&ust=1611937943231000&usg=AOvVaw2b6o8B_g2vrouBsiC7ySS2