Psychology in Text: Evidence-Based Copywriting.
Robert Cialdini certainly deserves a spot in our fictional modern marketing Hall of Fame. As one of the most influential psychologists today, his records show more than 250 conducted studies and feature bestselling books such as Pre-suasion (1) or The Small Big (2). If you haven´t heard of him yet, drop everything and go watch a finely animated video. You will be updated with the key results of the almost 40 year-long search for answers in decision-making and agreement.
So why did you decide to stop and buy your morning cappuccino today? What made you stop and choose this particular coffee place? Maybe it is the closest one on your way to work. Or maybe they have a brilliant ad campaign running, like Starbucks. We could put together many factors that each play a significant role in your decision-making process. Be that as it may, it is still possible to identify some opportunities for local baristas to send a powerful message to their coffee-driven clients and make them stop for their freshly grind ristretto. How? In this article, you will learn to apply psychological research to your writing. You don´t have to earn your living as a copywriter. Blog articles, posts on social media, brochures or website presentations, all can be significantly enhanced with the six basic principles of Cialdini´s findings.
So.. how can you incorporate behavioural science in your text? #behaviouraldesign
I will help you explore the six principles that are widely used in behavioural design. Do you want to make to most out of it? Grab a pen and paper, and try to come up with specific ideas how you can use each insight in your situation. I am sure you´ll find at least four examples for each principle. Jot it down. Use it.
Where will it get you? To clients who read your text and react:
We try to pay back gifts and favours. There are two factors that amplify the effect: feeling of exclusivity and personalisation of the gift.
How to use it in text: Don´t be the first one to make a profit out of the interaction with your client. Strange, isn´t it? First, try to give them meaningful content that they can use without much delay. Teach them something new. Go the extra mile. Always ask what your clients gain even when they don´t pay you anything with money (yet). High-quality text can offer an added value to your client: the first gift.
What to consider: e-book to download, valuable newsletter, blog, merchandise, free trials, welcome package, selected book chapters, samples.
Triggered reaction: They care about what they do. They care about me. I should value their work, recommend their products, support them online. I will certainly contact them when I need their products.
Who relies on reciprocity: This is Service Design Doing offers free chapters of their bestselling book. A Czech yoga studio Yoga Paulus introduced free online sessions in times of covid lockdown. Their fan base nearly trippled over the spring.
This can be tricky: We might perceive free items as less valuable, we don´t appreciate them as much and we tend to use them less than the purchased items (3). We appreciate value - but how do we express it without a price tag? We have to nudge our clients to see the value of free items. Show them that free does not mean worthless. There are many option to choose from, state the value in terms of:
time spent in preparation
expected profit increase (you can use other metric)
years of experience
open disclaimer about the quality or uniqueness
comparison of what they would have to pay for otherwise
stating your motivation
highlighted benevolence and selflessness
This also can be tricky: Make sure your client sees the value of your gift even in cases youimmediately ask something back (like an e-mail address). Some clients might leave with a feeling that it was them who did you a favour.
Connect the dots: Those who have read Adam Grant´s books (4,5) will surely remember that rational givers rule the world. This is what we are trying to do here. Haven´t met Adam yet? Watch his TED Talk. When he shows a graph, look for the rational givers at the top of the third bar to the right.
Anthropological perspective: The reciprocity principle seems to be consistent across cultures. Great news, isn´t it? Anthropologist often talk about gift-giving, where gift denominates various goods as well as payment, in our society monetary transaction. Keep in mind that you can never repay the first gift, regardless of the objective value of both gifts. The first gift inherently encompasses a voluntary intent that no reciprocal gift can ever gain (6,7).
We tend to comply with requests from people we know and adore. People like other people who are similar to them . The main factors include atractivity, humanity, common goals, and sincere compliments.
How to use it in text: Write the text as if you were one of your clients. Speak their language, use their arguments, make references to their immediate reality. Place emphasis on your common goals or vision. Do not hide behind the corporate name, address their needs as a person who can bring a human tone into the text. Make it relatable. Not only words, but also visual attractivity and user friendliness play a significant role. We want to please the eye as well as the brain.
What to consider: tonality and choice of arguments, aestethics, common goals, compliments to your readers, focus on what is appreciated about your product.
Triggered reaction: We are alike, this service is for me. I find them pleasant so they also must be very nice. We share common goals, they will help me.
Who relies on liking: Dove with their ad narrative Real Beauty tries to fit it with their clients´reality. Google update their logo on a regular basis just to keep it modern and visually attractive. Czech Generali branch shows their human approach in their new TV commercials One of Us.
Be careful: Application of this principle tends to be very intuitive and it is prone to turning into display of shallow compliments. Be smart about this one.
What else: You don´t have to go out of your way to be like your clients. One of the alternative strategies is to build your brand as a reference group for your clients - to show them the ideal state that they will try to achieve. Take a look at the cosmetic brands: whereas Dove relies on similarity in the Real Beauty campaign, other brands (Dior) present perfection that is impossible to reach but still desirable enough to at least try.
It is the crowd who sets rules. Friends show us what is good and right. There is no way many people can be wrong. We tend to copy others undertaking similar behaviour.
How to use it in text: Mention how many clients love your product, how many of them are using it right now, how many of your target group is looking at this product at the same time. You can also try a qualitative method and publish recommendations or testimonials. Show how your product changes lives. Add case studies. Was your product featured in local newspapers? Add a link. Show that your product is popular.
What to consider: 30 other customers are looking at this product. Tested by hundreds of happy customers. Google uses our product (Google Partners label). Read our recent interview for Business Insider.
Triggered reaction: So many people trust them, they can´t be all wrong! Their work is just consistently flawless.
Be careful: Showing numbers? Mind the form: whole numbers may be viewed as inaccurate.
Also be careful with this: Avoid showing numbers of people who don´t do what you want them to do. Even if there is a few of them. Negative statements trying to show disrespectful behaviour in forests led to an increase in undesirable pollution (8). Always target the desirable behaviour.
Extra tip: Do not forget to add profile pictures to testimonials. CXL Institute used eye tracking to explore attention and memory in these situations. Testimonials with profile pictures of the author were easier to remember than testimonials with logos or signatures. It is easier to recall faces than numbers.
We act upon what authorities and experts tell us.
How to use it in text: Mention prestigious organizations that sound familiar to your clients. Show your educations, your resumé, and the results of your work. Do you cooperate with stellar companies? Show it. Write an expert blog. Or a book. Join academic discussions with your knowledgable inputs. Support your results with numbers, research or links. Show what you do. Educate your clients. Make some else introduce you to new clients (9). Professional writing is the text equivalent or a uniform of lab coat, just make sure your text does not loose intelligibility. Presents your product in mass media and online.
What to consider: I have helped over 20 companies on their way to success. Our trainers are visiting lectures at Harvard. We have been nominated for the Red Dot Award. I contribute to Forbes Finance with my articles on investment. Our team counts over 200 trainings. ISO-certified.
Triggered reaction: They know their stuff. They have knowledge and experience. They are successful. A famous company endorsed their acitivities. I can trust them.
Commitment and Consistency
We tend to choose previously chosen options. We like to keep our promises.
How to use commitment in text:The sooner your clients openly endorse your brand the better. But public commitment is not all about social media. You can collect public support efficiently with newsletter subscribers or with this clever button "I´m in!" In the latter case, the clients don´t show their support to their friends, but to themselves. They form an internal commitment. Click and commit, this step is equally important.
How to use consistency in text: Even reading your text is a huge commitment itself. Everything longer than four lines is an incredible obstacle to your selective readers. Especially online. It is our job to make texts so natural and modest that the readers do not notice the increase in their commitment: they start reading the headline and two minutes later they dig into the detailed product descriptions. Lower the initial barrier and gradually increase the readers´commitment. Divide long paragraphs into digestible segments. Bring structure into what you write about. Add rhetorical question and engage with the reader. Don´t let their attention wander away.
What to consider: Social media following, buttons, rhetorical questions, structure, free trials.
Triggered reaction: - (clients are busy reading)
Who relies on consistency and commitment: Alternativa středočeské D3, one of the Czech NGOs, asked me to redesign their leaflets. They found out that very few people read them, the text is not very pleasing to the eye and they just wanted to declutter the communication. So we decided to lower the initial barrier for their readers. The new structure enabled non-threatening entry commitment (reading smaller chunks of text). You don´t have to understand Czech to see the difference:
Take Spotify for example: they also see value in gradual increase in commitment. What they do is to offer free trial in which you prepare your account for a regular subscription. When it finally arrives to the point your free trial ends, you can prolong the Premium account just with one click.
Connect the dots: A heavy smoker (let´s call him Ken) knows his habit frequently leads to lung cancer. Ken finds out that almost 90% of the cases can be tracked back to smoking cigarettes. So it is evident that smoking is harmful to his health - but he smokes every day! And there he is, with his strong conviction confronting his actual behaviour. This state is called cognitive dissonance (10). It is this uneasy feeling that he wants to get rid of as fast as he can: either by adapting his behaviour, or by dismissing the information about lung cancer cases. Human mind tries to avoid cognitive dissonance, and this is also why this principle has such a powerful effect. We would break the continuity of our actions if we dropped our prior commitment, leaving our minds in a very unpleasant state.
Connect the dots: Trying a new service/product/software? You can frequently spot this principle in practice. You fill in your payment details right at the beginning before the free trial. This lowers the entry barrier and leaves more chance you will purchase the licence at the end of the trial. Then it is as easy as press a single button as confirmation of your pending order.
We value limited goods. We suppose that favourite items are not accessible at all times. We connect scarcity with quality
How to use it in text: Create a sense of scarcity. You can limit the amount of an item, time, discounts or bonuses.
What to consider: Another buyer is interested in buying this house. Another 11 customers are lookingat this item. Only 3 pcs left. Fully booked until next May. Get your premium account with Haloween discount.
Triggered reaction: Scarce products are valuable. I better hurry up, I don´t want to miss it. I have to act fast.
Be careful: You don´t want to sound desperate. Keep your promises and be consistent with the scarce numbers you show your clients.
Connect the dots: Heard of FOMO (fear of missing out)? Look at this principle from a slightly different perspective.
Want this in your text as well?
I base my design, texts, and strategies on recent findings about human perception and behaviour. My skills are at your service!
Let´s join our forces and create something audacious together. I will take care of the graphics, text, strategies; you just sit back, relax, and enjoy the result. How does that sound? Check out my portfolio and let me know what our next big project will be:
Just looking for inspiration?
In that case I am happy to point you to additional resources:
Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R., & Martin, S.: The Small Big (2014)
Cialdini, R.: Pre-suasion (2016)
Grant, A.: Give and Take (2013)
Mauss, M: The Gift (1925)
One last thing: be careful when you combine the principles. In April 2020, Konstantin Roethke (11) and his research team designed a piece of research that shows support for what our psychological community has long assumed. It is crucial to achieve the right combination of principles. Although reciprocity is usually enhanced by using social proof, these are some cases in which it can backfire. Combine the principles wisely and do so with consideration. Don´t try to use them all if it doesn´t make sense in the bigger picture.
(1) Cialdini, R., (2016). Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade.
(2) Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R., & Martin, S. (2014). The small big.
(3) Cohen, J., Dupas, P., (2010) Free Distribution or Cost-Sharing? Evidence from a Randomized Malaria Prevention Experiment, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 125, 1, Pages 1–45, https://doi.org/10.1162/qjec.2010.125.1.1
(4) Grant, A. (2016). Originals: How non-conformists move the world.
(5) Grant, A. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success.
(6) Mauss, M. (1924). Essai sur la don, forme archaique de l'échange. Année sociologique, 1: 130-186.
(7) Schwarz, B. (1967). The social psychology of the gift. American Journal of Sociology, 73: 1-11. (8) Winter, P., Cialdini, R., Bator, R., Rhoads, K. & Sagarin, B. (1998). An analysis of normative messages in signs at recreation settings. Journal of Interpretation Research, 3, 39-47. https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/46295
(9) Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R., & Martin, S. (2014). The small big.
(10) Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance.
(11) Roethke, K., Klumpe, J. Martin, A., & Benlian, A. (2020). Social influence tactics in e-commerce onboarding: The role of social proof and reciprocity in affecting user registrations. Decision Support Systems, 101, 113268. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dss.2020.113268