Frustrating, isn’t it?
You can do everything right and still end up without any readers or customers.
Even with great content and a great product, there’s one other thing you need to consider:
People aren’t always logical.
It seems simple:
Good content + targeted audience = raving fans and growing business
That would be true for robots, but not people.
Because people have cognitive biases, which is essentially a fancy term for reasons that lead to irrational decisions.
These biases can prevent readers from reading content, sharing it, signing up for email lists, or even buying products.
The good news is that the most important biases are very reliable. They affect a large portion of the population (even you and me).
Once you learn about them, you’ll start recognizing when your decisions are swayed by things other than facts.
Download this cheat sheet of 6 psychological principles that influence reader loyalty.
You can then incorporate them into how you design your business, and you’ll grow much faster.
In this post, I’ll tell you in detail about six cognitive biases that you can leverage in your business to get more readers, subscribers, and customers.
1. Look like an angel with the halo effect
Rich people are smarter than the average person, right?
Maybe a tiny bit, but no, they really aren’t.
And yet most people, when asked that question, will tell you that rich people are smarter than the average person.
But studies have shown that intelligence has no correlation with success or wealth.
This is a bias that almost everyone develops naturally, and it’s called the “halo effect”:
The halo effect states that our opinions on any one trait of a person or brand naturally extend to their other traits (even non-related ones).
In simpler terms, this means that if someone is particularly good looking, you’re likely to assume that they are intelligent, caring, and successful and that they possess other positive traits.
On the other hand, if you see someone who is ugly, you’re likely to assume that they are dumb, rude, and unsuccessful.
The halo effect has been studied in great depth.
In one study, subjects judged 27 different personality traits, such as kindness, trustworthiness, etc., of people in pictures.
Then, they were asked to estimate how successful these people were, including how happy they were and what quality of job they had.
Guess what happened? The subjects way overestimated the success and happiness of the attractive people.
In another study, subjects evaluated essays after having seen the photo of each supposed author.
The attractive authors had an average rating of 6.7, while the unattractive authors received an average of 5.9. This was on the same essay.
On another essay, the attractive authors scored 5.2, while the unattractive authors scored 2.7.
Pretty people get the benefit of the doubt.
How you can use the halo effect to grow your business: The biggest takeaway from the halo effect is that you need to highlight your best features and hide any undesirable features.
And when I say “your features,” I’m talking about your brand.
That may or may not include you as a person. When it comes to Quick Sprout, my name is a big part of my brand. It’s why I include the professionally taken picture in the sidebar. I may not be a model, but I’m not completely ugly (right? ).
Your first step is to make a list of your brand’s best features. Not just the good ones—the best ones.
It could be many things:
your looks (if you’re tied to your brand)
accomplishments (relevant to your niche is best, but even irrelevant are okay)
something about your product (a great rating or large customer base)
spectacular content (are you known for a specific tool or guide?)
Whatever it is, you want to highlight it throughout your website and even in your marketing efforts elsewhere.
Examples of the halo effect in action: Let me show you a few real life examples of the halo effect used successfully.
The first example is about leveraging an impressive accomplishment.
Noah Kagan was the 30th employee at Facebook when Facebook was just 1 year old.
Currently, he writes at OkDork about a variety of entrepreneurial topics. He often mentions that he was the 30th employee at Facebook because he knows it’ll show him in a good light (even if he did get fired).
The default perception of anyone who reads about that is that this guy accomplished something great. He must be smart, successful and possess many other positive qualities (he actually is a really knowledgeable guy).
On top of mentioning it on his blog, he also mentions it in various presentations he gives and when being interviewed for other articles:
If you’ve done something that most of your readers will find impressive (which is why relevance might be important), mention it often.
After they read it, they’ll assume that you know what you’re talking about and will be more likely to become a subscriber.
Second is Danny Iny, who might be the best example of how to use the halo effect.
Danny owns Firepole Marketing and used the halo effect to grow his blog’s audience.
At first, he started targeting a very specific audience by writing about only one niche. After he cemented himself as an “expert” to his readers, he started writing about another related topic.
Because his readers already saw him as an expert in the area of marketing he wrote about initially, they automatically viewed him as an expert in the other topics he started to write about (social media, product creation, etc.).
This is a great strategy for anyone beginning with content marketing.
I did almost the same thing with Quick Sprout.
Early on, I mainly wrote about branding. You can still see those posts I wrote back in 2007.
Once I wrote several posts on branding, I started to branch out into other topics.
I continued to do that over time, and now I write about almost every marketing topic there is. But it all started with me being seen as an expert in that one niche.
Finally, how about a non-marketing example?
A great example of the halo effect is how Apple marketed the iPod.
About 10 years ago, Apple wasn’t the giant it is today (it was still pretty big but on a different scale altogether).
What it did have is a killer product in the iPod. Everyone loved it.
Apple leveraged this early success by putting nearly its entire marketing budget behind the iPod.
They took control of that niche in the tech industry.
From there, all the people that loved the iPod started giving other Apple products a chance. Since they made such a great MP3 player, they must make great computers, phones, tablets, etc.
And now, they could create almost any tech product and sell it as a leader from the start.
When you use the halo effect properly, you leverage your past successes to expand your business.
2. The IKEA effect
The IKEA effect states that all good things come from Sweden. Just kidding, of course.
What it really states is that people put a high value on pre-assembled products.
The reason that happens is because we like to create things—to be productive. There’s nothing that makes you feel more productive than building something that you can use.
It’s called the IKEA effect because most products sold by IKEA need some assembly.
Despite the name, this principle has been studied fairly extensively by some top psychologists.
There is one important caveat of the effect though:
A Harvard analysis led by Dan Ariely determined that the increased valuation of the product only occurred when the subject actually finished building the product.
This makes sense when you think about it. If you can’t figure out how to build something, you’ll be disappointed and frustrated.
But if you do end up building a decent product, you’ll feel pretty good about yourself and, as a result, will rate the product highly.
The study also pointed out another interesting aspect of the IKEA effect. Even people who don’t like the do it yourself (DIY) projects still overvalued their creations. That shows that it’s our innate desire to build things, which is why this principle applies to just about everyone.
How can you “IKEAize” your website?
If you sell physical products, it’s pretty simple to apply this principle. Start selling your products with just enough assembly work left to make someone feel that they’ve accomplished something.
It needs to take a bit of time and effort, or it won’t feel to your customer like they created anything.
But the IKEA effect can also be applied to digital products and content.
Let me walk you through four different options that you may be able to use.
Option #1 – Create worksheets as lead magnets (easy ones): People don’t want to build furniture from scratch—that’s hard.
But hammering in a few nails and attaching a few pieces? That’s doable in an hour or two for most people with a reasonable amount of effort.
One type of lead magnet that you should consider offering web site visitors is a worksheet that breaks down a somewhat difficult problem that they care about.
For example, if you write about online business, you could offer a worksheet that helps someone narrow down their niche.
Or if you write about habit formation, you could offer a worksheet that walks readers through a goal-setting process.
The key is that it has to be relatively easy.
People expect to spend a few hours putting together furniture, but they only expect to spend 10-15 minutes on most lead magnets.
Break it down into simple pieces, and make sure it looks nice so that your reader actually feels like they created something of value. (Of course, they did create something of value, but they will feel that it is even more valuable because they did it).
Here’s an example of a worksheet that is, coincidentally, about generating lead magnet ideas:
It’s only two pages long and creates a good looking plan that a reader would be proud of.
Option #2 – Create tools that do most of the work for your readers: Some tasks can’t be broken down into a few questions because they are too complicated.
If you can take some of the work out of a process with a tool, the difficult process becomes more realistic for the average reader.
Say I’m writing about how to run a split test.
I could go into the equations behind basic statistics (variance, standard deviation, etc.); however, very few readers would be comfortable learning and applying that.
Instead, I would just recommend using a tool such as Is Valid.
Users just need to enter in their sample size and conversion rate of their control and test groups, and the tool creates a pretty report:
If I wanted to take the IKEA effect to the next level, I could have the readers download the results and paste them into a Google Docs worksheet, along with other information about their split test (e.g., hypothesis, traffic source, etc.).
Option #3 – Create courses where customers build things: Online courses are getting very popular now.
They are a great way to teach readers premium content while getting paid for it.
But besides helping you monetize your website, courses give you the opportunity to have your students build things.
One great example is edX, which offers post-secondary level courses from many top tier universities and colleges.
There are many great courses about computer science, mainly programming.
The courses have lectures, of course, but the assignments at the end of each section help the course-taker write an actual code to create something.
For example, here’s a basic hangman game that’s an early assignment in an introduction to computer science class:
For someone new to programming, that’s a huge accomplishment and a source of pride.
In a course format, you can break down the main parts of the functions behind the project so that it’s not intimidating. You can even supply some of the answers if the problems are particularly difficult.
And although programming is a perfect subject for this, you can have students create something in just about any course.
In a course on social media marketing, guide students to create a social media plan. In a course on nutrition, have them create a meal plan based on your lessons.
Option #4 – Get early signups to take action: Getting your readers and customers to place a high value on work you help them create is important for many reasons. One of the reasons is they will come back for more.
One of the biggest issues that app startups face is onboarding new customers (getting them used to the product and using it on a regular basis).
What many smart startups have begun doing is having new users immediately create something through a guided tutorial.
It could be as simple as creating a profile—although actually using the tool is even better.
Canva is a great tool for creating beautiful custom images.
When you sign up for it, you will be walked through the process of creating your first design as part of the onboarding process.
The key point is that the image looks great because the product itself is very good.
After a user understands the basic functions of the tool and has created something valuable to them, they are much more likely to come back and use the tool again.
3. People get overwhelmed easily
Rationally, the more choices you have as a consumer, the better off you are.
But, as you know, people do not always act rationally.
The third principle that we’re looking at is called the “paradox of choice.”
It’s a very simple principle, which shows that after a certain point, having more choices causes less action.
People become overwhelmed by the decision and are scared of making a mistake. It’s much easier to find the best option out of 3 than out of 10.
Many experiments have shown that conversion rate actually goes down when there are too many choices.
And “too many” can be as few as 3 or 4, depending on the context.
The paradox of choice could be affecting important metrics in your business in a few ways.
Example #1 – Too much in the sidebar: A classic mistake by website owners is to stuff as much information in the sidebar as possible in the attempts of improving their website page-views.
For example, look at this long list of categories in the sidebar of a food blog:
If I were looking for new recipes, I’d feel overwhelmed looking at this list. Picking from a list of 20+ options is difficult.
So, what’s the alternative?
The simple alternative is to reduce that list to 3-5 most popular categories.
That way, instead of trying to pick from similar things like “Italian,” “noodles,” and “pasta,” I could pick from things like “desserts,” “dips,” and “main courses.”
It would be a much easier decision.
Example #2 – What do you really want your reader to do? In an effort to grow their businesses as fast as possible, most website owners do the opposite.
They read that they should include social sharing buttons on every post as well as a ton of internal links.
They’re not necessarily wrong, but they go about it the wrong way.
Take a look at the following mess that immediately followed a blog post:
When a reader finishes reading a post, they have a lot of different options to pick from:
should I share the post?
if so, on which social network?
do any of these other posts look interesting?
should I just go to the next/previous posts?
should I comment (that’s below)
You need to decide what your primary goals are for each piece of content you create.
Want the reader to keep reading on your site? Include lots of internal links in the content and 2-4 links after the post to popular posts.
Want the reader to share your content? Include 2-4 share buttons before and after the content (or floating buttons in the sidebar).
Want email subscribers? Have an opt-in form at the bottom of the post (and nothing more).
Less is more.
Example #3 – Even when buyers know what they want, they still don’t act: When you have qualified leads, you need to be even more aware of how this paradox may influence their decisions.
Whether you’re trying to get visitors to sign up for something or buy something, don’t give them too many choices.
For example, Unbounce found that when they changed the number of upcoming demo sessions visitors could sign up for from 4 to 3, conversion went up by 16.93%.
Your simple action plan for cutting down reader choices: Whenever you’re trying to get a visitor to do something, think about it from their perspective.
If the decision seems like it might be difficult and cause some anxiety, make it easier by removing choices.
The most common places of overcrowding on websites (and their blogs) are:
right after a post
social sharing buttons
You’ll notice that I only have two social sharing buttons on my posts now. I used to have many more, and then I switched to three. Currently, I’m testing the two-button setup.
How do you know how many choices you should offer?
Simple: test it. You should always test any changes you make to see if they significantly affect the metrics you’re worried about.
4. Your reader is always right, even when they’re wrong
You’ve heard that the customer is always right.
Along the same lines, your reader is always right, or at least they think they are always right because of confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias explains that people are likely to look for information that goes along with their beliefs and opinions.
If I were a huge supporter of reusable grocery bags, for example, I would tend to spot any headlines about reusable grocery bags.
When I came across an article that supported my viewpoint that bags are good, I’d think to myself that it’s a well-written article and that I’m right (of course!).
Here’s where things get interesting:
If I came across an article that showed that reusable bags are actually bad, I would dismiss, or at least pay much less attention to it than I would to that other article. Why? Because it presents information that goes against my opinion.
In fact, instead of changing their beliefs when they come across a good argument against their beliefs, most people will actually feel stronger in their original viewpoint.
This is the reason why you can’t win an argument sometimes, even when the correct (logical) answer is so clear to you.
Despite all the evidence you might be able to provide, most people will refuse to be wrong and will double down on their positions.
There are two main ways in which confirmation bias can affect your marketing.
Key Point #1 – Form your message around your readers: Imagine if tomorrow I published a post saying “content marketing and SEO are stupid.”
This is obviously against my opinion, but more importantly, it’s against the viewpoint that you and all the other Quick Sprout readers hold.
Similarly, you have to think about opinions your readers hold.
For example, readers of a recipe blog might be against animal cruelty. If the blogger made a post encouraging hunting for meat, it would probably go against what most readers believed.
Due to confirmation bias, we discount sources that have information we don’t agree with. Therefore, those readers will quickly decide that the blog isn’t very good and will not return.
Key Point #2 – Focus on attracting the right readers: When you’re starting out, much of your time is spent finding your target audience and then attracting them.
This includes strategies like guest-posting and being active in forums.
This is where it’s really important to know your audience.
For example, the inbound.org community are huge supporters of inbound marketing to grow a business.
Say I created a product for online business owners.
If I wanted to attract them to my site, should I write and submit a post about using paid advertising to grow a business on inbound.org?
No, I shouldn’t. Instead, I should write a post that revolves around an aspect of inbound marketing.
Secondly, consider how you should approach your guest-posting.
Let’s say you own a site about gardening.
So, you seek out blogs talking about related topics like home renovating, growing your own food, and so on. The idea is to funnel the readers from those sites to your own.
One place your target audience might hang out at are vegan recipe blogs.
Pop quiz: what kind of topics should you avoid in this situation? If you guessed posts about animal products, you’re right.
Instead, appeal to what the audience believes in the most. In this case, try to tie-in gardening to vegan eating (e.g., “X Vegan Superfoods You Can Grow at Home”).
5. Get your readers to jump on a bandwagon for you
Ever heard of a bandwagon sports fan?
They never follow a particular team very closely, but when the team starts winning or has the chance of winning a big tournament, all of a sudden they become the team’s biggest fans.
The reason for this is that people like to simplify their decisions by trusting the crowd. It’s called the “bandwagon effect.”
At first, it makes sense. If a ton of people think something is good, it probably is.
But what ends up happening in many cases is that the first group of people decides whether a product is good or not, and the rest just follow that decision.
So, just because 100,000 people bought a product doesn’t mean it’s great.
You can take advantage of the bandwagon effect in four easy ways.
Way #1 – Highlight the size of your readership: If you want to convince people that your content is popular, show that you have a lot of traffic or subscribers.
For example, Content Marketing Institute has a massive email list of over 140,000 people.
Instead of offering a free bonus or highlighting a benefit of joining the list, they simply focus on highlighting the size of their list:
If 140,000 people subscribed to the blog, it must be good, right?
Way #2 – Encourage comments: You may look at my posts, see hundreds of comments, and wonder how I get so many.
The truth is the hardest ones to get are the first few dozen.
Once people see those, they are more eager to contribute their opinions as well.
First, reach out to your close contacts and ask them to comment on new posts.
Then, you will need to get your readers to start using promotional strategies. If you have those initial 5-10 comments and also encourage new comments, you’d be surprised to see how quickly people will jump on the bandwagon.
Way #3 – Get early help on social media: On any social media or aggregator site (like inbound.org or Reddit), your content is essentially voted on by the community.
It is first exposed to a small group of followers.
If they like it, it will get shown to more.
If a post gets a lot of shares or votes right away, that signals to future voters that the post is good. The new voters are much more likely to rate it positively or share it.
When you share a new post on any type of social media site, coordinate with at least five people to make sure they vote for it or share it as soon as possible.
Get the wagon going so that future voters can jump on it.
Way #4 – Focus on reviews: If you sell a product on any major e-commerce site, you need good reviews.
Reviews are one of the biggest factors that determine if a browser buys or not.
A great example of this is the Kindle marketplace.
All new books start out with zero reviews. Most authors offer their books free in order to get as many people to read them as possible.
On top of that, they encourage their close friends to leave the first few reviews.
Even just a few 5-star reviews can start the bandwagon effect.
If people read glowing reviews, they are much more likely to buy the book, which can lead to more reviews.
This is the epitome of “fake it until you make it.”
6. Take away the risk, and readers will do anything for you
The final bias is called the Peltzman effect, otherwise known as risk compensation.
If someone is driving without a seatbelt and you tell them to put it on, how will that change their driving?
It turns out that most people will start driving faster and more dangerously.
The Peltzman effect basically states that the safer someone feels, the more likely they will take risks that they ordinarily wouldn’t.
Private testing showed that using certain automobile safety devices could reduce accidents by a large percentage. However, this study showed that when these devices were used, drivers drove more recklessly, and accident occurrence didn’t change at all.
When it comes to your online business, that means one thing:
If you’re asking a subscriber or customer to do something they might see as risky, make it as safe as possible to improve conversion rates.
Here are a few specific tactics you can use:
Tactic #1 – Guarantee success: When facing a major purchase, customers want to know that if the product doesn’t live up to their expectations, they can get their money back.
As long as you actually have a good product, you don’t need to worry about giving many refunds.
One of the best guarantees I’ve seen was offered by Danny Iny in his now defunct course, the Audience Business Masterclass.
He stated that if you don’t make at least $3,000 per month using his system after a year, he’d refund the cost of the course and pay you an additional $1,000.
All of a sudden, buying the course seems a lot less risky.
Tactic #2 – Flaunt your early wins to get better outreach results: Most outreach campaigns consist of sending cold emails—trying to connect with people you don’t know.
The biggest challenge is to not come off as a typical salesperson, regardless of what you’re looking for.
To improve your reply rate, you can drop a few recognizable names to give your message credibility.
Let’s say you’re creating an expert roundup.
You reach out to your first few experts, and a couple agree to participate.
Instead of sending your original template, you can now mention that you already have a few experts willing to contribute.
Once you’ve added your social proof, you’ve helped your potential contributors feel less like they might be risking wasting their time replying to you and ending up in a low quality roundup roundup. Now, they feel safer and more willing to participate.
The way people think isn’t always logical, which is why psychology is one of the most important things a marketer can study.
Understanding how your target audience thinks will affect your marketing strategy and tactics.
The six psychological principles I’ve shown you in this post are some of the most important concepts you will learn.
Take the time to understand them, and think about how they apply to your business.
If you’re having trouble connecting the principles to your business, leave a comment below with more details and your specific problems.