The Psychology Behind Great Content

28 Feb 2023


When you think of psychology, content marketing probably does not immediately come to mind.

Believe it or not, though, content marketers have a great understanding of the mind and how to influence it. They do this by ethically applying complex psychological principles into actionable steps that result in great user experiences and well-informed decisions.

Psychology as a scientific discipline emerged in 1879 with the founding of Wundt’s laboratory in Leipzig, Germany. Wundt’s experimental and introspective work focused on the study of adult minds and behavior.

Today, the field of psychology has developed into about 15 major branches, including clinical, industrial, experimental, and cognitive psychology, to name a few.

The application of psychological principles in content marketing strategies dates back as far as 1896 when experimental psychologists started looking at the mental processes involved in advertising.

Without going into overwhelming scientific detail, this article will first explore some of the most influential contemporary psychological theories pertaining to content marketing.

Lastly, we will explore the psychology behind disclosing pricing information on websites and using headings, powerful openings, design elements, white space, and persuasive calls to action.

Psychological Theories That Supercharge Content

Marketing is the heartbeat of any business, but it is becoming ever more challenging to get the right message to the right person with the plethora of content published online daily.

One of the best ways to overcome this problem is to speak directly to the minds of your target audience. The following psychological theories do just that.

1.  Social Proof

Social proof theory maintains that people sometimes imitate other individuals’ behavior in situations where they are unsure of the correct social protocols.

The imitators assume that the individuals whose behavior they adopt or copy have more information about the situation than they do, and therefore they follow the lead instead of analyzing the situation to make their own informed decisions.

Social proof theory is particularly interesting in relation to buying decisions. Let’s use the example of a restaurant or coffee shop with a long queue going out the door. People walking by the establishment almost always assume that whatever is being sold must be great to attract such a crowd.

The same principles can be applied strategically to a content marketing campaign. For instance, many content marketers will display the number of shares or likes a blog post has gotten. Readers are far more likely to share or comment when they see others adopting the behavior first.

2.  Frequency Illusion

Also known as the Baader–Meinhof phenomenon, frequency illusion refers to a type of cognitive bias where an error in thinking occurs while processing and interpreting information.

This relates specifically to situations where something we have recently noticed for the first time seems to keep reappearing everywhere.

Content marketers apply frequency illusion principles to grow brand awareness by using reinforcing, multi-platform content marketing campaigns.

An example would be if a potential customer sees your brand on social media for the first time, and then on TV soon after for the second time. Through this multi-platform campaign, you have created a reinforcing “frequency Illusion” effect, which, in essence, reinforces your brand.

3.  Reciprocity

Reciprocity theory in social psychology suggests that we give back what we receive from others in social situations. In other words, if we meet someone new who is friendly and welcoming towards us, in most cases, we reciprocate with the same behaviors towards them.

The same is true if we are met with unfriendly or aggressive behavior, where our responses may be even more extreme.

This has profound implications for any content marketing strategy. First, you never want to come across as anything other than accommodating, friendly, and welcoming toward any existing or potential customers in your content marketing campaigns because you will only be met with reciprocal hostility.

Second, the saying “samples equal sales” is rooted in reciprocity theory, which is why so many businesses embrace the practice of giving away free gifts or samples in their marketing campaigns.

Finally, reciprocity theory is what underpins a blog, which is, in essence, free, insightful, high-quality information we provide to our audiences. A blog should not serve as a sales pitch, but rather as an information tool that answers questions or solves problems. The better you apply reciprocity theory to your blog content, the more trust and authority you build with your audience.

4.  Scarcity

Scarcity theory suggests that we highly value something we consider to be rare, like gold for instance, over something that is more abundant, like iron or silica. In economics, this concept is referred to as supply and demand.

Some businesses, unfortunately, use scarcity theory unethically to drive sales by saying something like “only one left in stock” when they actually have no shortage.

Scarcity theory can and should be used in a nonexploitative way, such as running a limited-time offer on one of your products or services. Information can also be scarce, so publishing a unique white paper or case study can boost your content marketing strategy.

When asked if the fear of missing out sometimes drives him to impulse buying, The Writers For Hire copywriter Steve Epperson said:

Yes, it’s the same as FOMO trading in the stock market (FOMO is “fear of missing out”). When you see a once-in-a-lifetime bargain, you feel compelled to go for it. The same thing happens to consumers. If you can convince them that this great offer is going to end soon, they will buy for fear that they will miss out later. The trick is to not overuse the old, tired techniques of the past, including timers, special offers, and the excessive use of takeaway marketing. Consumers in 2023 already know these techniques well, so it may be time to move on, or at least not overdo it.”

5.  Paradox of Choice

Offering a wide range of choices in your product or service is great, but research suggests that there is actually a point of saturation.

This is called the paradox of choice.

The paradox of choice suggests that a limited range of choices reduces shopper anxiety.

When you design your content marketing campaign, be sure not to overwhelm your customer with too many choices and information at once. Consider concentrating on a maximum of three choices and calls to action. 

6.  The Decoy Effect

The decoy effect is a pricing and product comparison strategy. When we are faced with two product choices, a third, less attractive choice (the decoy) is introduced to alter our perceptions of the more expensive first two choices.

Imagine you have a choice between a small- and a large-sized soda at the cinema. The small is priced at $5.00 and the large at $6.00. Then, you are offered another option: a medium size priced at $5.50, and you see that there is only a $0.50 difference between the medium and the large, so you opt for the large. That is how the decoy effect works. It is used all the time to get buyers to spend more money.

7.  The Endowment Effect

The endowment effect, also referred to as the “ownership effect,” suggests that people value items they personally own much more than they would if the item did not belong to them.

This psychological effect has significant implications for content marketing. If you already have a large customer base that owns your products, your content should reinforce that sense of ownership to encourage any upgrades or new purchases.

Content that focuses on attracting new customers should include testimonies and reviews of happy customers who own your products.

8.  Loss Aversion

Loss aversion suggests that the emotional trauma of losing something is twice as powerful as the sense of pleasure we get from gaining something. We are hardwired to avoid loss, whether that be your phone, your wallet, or even someone close to you.

Loss aversion is applied in marketing by providing something for free and then taking it away, such as a premium streaming subscription, for instance. If we had that unlimited streaming service for 30 days and then lost it, loss aversion could kick in and motivate us to sign up for a paid subscription.

9.  Information-Gap Theory

Developed by George Loewenstein, information-gap theory is essentially human curiosity that is triggered when there is a gap between what people know and what they want to know.

This is a powerful tool used in content marketing: creating content gaps with enticing bits of information before revealing substantial information to encourage further reading. In other words, you need to create a sense of curiosity in your audience and then satisfy that curiosity with valuable information.

10. Mere Exposure Effect

The mere exposure effect suggests that we respond more positively to any stimuli we are familiar with. In lay terms, when you go to an event where you only know a couple of people, you are more likely to walk over and talk to them, rather than introduce yourself and strike up conversations with complete strangers.

In marketing, mere exposure principles are used to cultivate positive feelings and associations with a brand by launching large-scale saturation content marketing campaigns. The more familiar someone is with your brand, the more they trust it.

11. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is when people look for any information that supports an idea or a theory they have about something, and completely ignore the facts or information that disproves their theory. In other words, we sometimes believe something to be true because we want it to be true.

Let’s say you want to buy a new smartphone but the price is slightly above your budget. You may start finding all sorts of reasons why you need that specific phone, rationalizing spending the extra money.

In marketing, a play on confirmation bias can be very effective. Let’s say your mind was about 80% made up to buy the new phone, and then you see the five-star reviews left by over 2,000 customers or a banner ad that says, “over 5,000 happy phone users to date.” Seeing these statistics may just be the final motivator for you to get out your credit card and punch in those digits.


Things to Consider When Designing Your Website

As you can see, psychology plays a huge role in the decisions we make every day. To get the most out of your website, there are six major elements you should keep in mind.

1. Disclosed Pricing

There are many debates about disclosing the prices for your products or services on your website. Depending on the nature of your products or services, it may not always be possible, particularly if your products or services are customized for each client.

But imagine walking into a department store that has no prices on any of its merchandise. Would anyone just pick up an item and pay whatever the cashier asks them to pay?

The overarching consensus is that you could actually lose clients without at least an indication of what your products or services cost, even if they are only estimates.

Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of disclosing your prices on your website:


  • Builds trust. Many people simply refuse to do business with companies that are not forthcoming with their pricing structures. People also find it a nuisance to have to inquire about the price and then have an awkward conversation about the price being too high or too low.
  • Avoids perceptions of deceit. Many people believe that if you have reason to hide your prices, you have reason to hide something else.
  • Provides clarity on affordability. Undisclosed prices may cultivate beliefs that your customers can’t afford your products.
  • Saves time and resources. Disclosed prices ensure that you only get inquiries from serious customers who feel that your prices are in line with their budgets. Otherwise, you may end up having to employ people to deal with unviable inquiries all day.
  • Starts the business relationship on the same page. When a customer inquires with “We just had a look at your prices,” the conversation from there is much easier because they are on the same page as you regarding your prices.
  • Attracts the customers you want. By displaying your prices, you make it clear what demographic you are targeting.
  • Is good for SEO. People search for the costs of things more often than you think and cost-related keywords are very valuable.


  • Perception of zero flexibility. Having fixed prices on your website can create the perception that you are not open to negotiating your prices.
  • Competitors. Most companies use the excuse that they don’t want their competitors to know what they charge because they may undercut their prices. The truth is that your competitors most likely already know what you charge.
  • Lost opportunities. Disclosed prices will inevitably lead to some customers not inquiring because your prices may not be right for them, but you would still lose that customer even if they inquired without the price. If your prices are market-related and you offer good value for money, your online prices will generate a good business stream.

2. Use of Headings

When it comes to headline psychology, there are several great approaches to catching your reader’s attention:

  1. The power of surprise. Using a heading that surprises people activates the pleasure centers in their brains and makes for a much more stimulating read.
  2. Questions. Using questions in your headings instead of statements triggers curiosity.
  3. Negatives. Most articles use positive superlatives such as “the greatest” or “biggest” very effectively. Although caution is advised here, using a negative superlative such as “worst” can be even more effective in your headings.
  4. “How To.” People are by nature curious creatures and are always looking to learn something new.
  5. Numbers. Numbers help by providing clarity and breaking the article down into more easily digestible steps.
  6. Personal references. Using “You” in a heading makes the content personal and relatable.
  7. Statistical facts. A heading that reads “25 000 likes in the first minute” immediately grabs your attention.

When asked what types of headings are effective at grabbing a reader’s attention, Epperson says:

I know that conventional copywriting tells us to use strong adjectives and superlative statements. Unfortunately, that does not work well in B2B markets. For example, if your target audience is a top-level executive at Nike©, you would not lead with “Best System Ever for Lead Generation.” Instead, your headline should be something like “10 New Lead Generators For Today’s Retailer.” For B2C audiences, you can get away with a strong, specific headline, but keep in mind that you run the risk of not being able to follow through on the headline’s claim (i.e., the Pepsi/Harrier jet commercial).

3. Powerful Opening Lines

The key behind any great opening line is its ability to capture the interest and attention of the reader. The following is a great guide to follow:

  • Put your readers in the story.
  • Pose a question or two.
  • Present an interesting fact or figure.
  • Use a powerful quote.
  • Offer an anecdote.
  • Establish a commonality with your readers, like a problem everyone has faced at one point.

Epperson says:

It is imperative for the opening line to grab the reader’s attention. Using statistics in an opening line is very effective.”

4. Great Designs and Visual Assets

There are many reasons content marketing campaigns rely heavily on a combination of both written content and visual assets.

Humans love color. It’s as simple as that. But the concept of color is one of the strangest and most complex phenomena known to man. Color is in fact nothing more than an illusion that exists in our minds. The objects we see in our daily lives in fact have no color; we give them color through a complex neurological process called color constancy. provides further insights:

“When a person views an opaque colored object, it is only the light reflected from the object that can activate the visual process in the eye and brain. Because different illuminants have different spectral energy distributions, a given object in these illuminations will reflect different energy distributions.”

One of the main reasons visual aids are so effective in content marketing is that they allow us to process information much faster.

Color also has a unique way of instantly influencing our emotions, and it can encourage us to read text.

To illustrate just how important color is to us, let’s use the example of farm-raised salmon. While wild salmon get their reddish-orange color from underwater plants and algae, a pigment called astaxanthin is added to farmed salmon feed to imitate the natural color of wild salmon; otherwise, no one would buy and eat farmed salmon.

Using visual assets in your content marketing campaigns drives engagements and it allows your audience to remember you and your brand.

5. White Space, Lists, and Bold Text

White space is simply the blank areas between other elements on your web pages. If used correctly, it can significantly improve the quality and user experience of your site by:

  • Improving readability
  • Creating balance
  • Highlighting what is important
  • Making the site more aesthetically pleasing
  • Encouraging interactions
  • Improving focus

Using lists and bold text in content marketing is not a new practice but is very effective. Lists and bold text help us to group and organize information in a structured way that is easier to consume. They also have many other benefits     :

  • Lists are scannable, which makes for a quick read.
  • Lists look neat.
  • People like linking to lists.
  • Lists are more persuasive.
  • Lists attract return visitors.
  • Lists encourage more engagement.
  • Lists help organize content hierarchically.

When you discover a fantastic article, you naturally want to share it with all your friends. However, by posting a long-form editorial on a heavy subject, you are not likely to get many interactions. Many people simply don’t have the time to read something so in-depth.

If you were to post a listicle on the same subject, your chances to get some comments and shares increase substantially. Your friends on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social networks can immediately get a good idea of how long the article is from the numbers listed, which in most cases leads them to read the entire listicle.

Let’s use the example of two recipes, one listing all the ingredients throughout a lengthy 2,000-word article, and one listing all the ingredients and methods at the top or bottom of the article. When you are cooking, you need the information quickly, meaning you are more likely to opt for the second recipe. The ease of the list in the second recipe also means you will likely return to that recipe when you want to cook that dish again.

Similar to lists, bold text stands out and tells the reader what is important on the page, greatly improving the reading experience for someone who wants the key information quickly.

6. CTA Principles

Any great content marketing campaign will employ enticing calls to action (CTAs) that convert visitors into leads. Calls to action tell site visitors what they need to do if they want to engage. The more persuasive your CTAs, the higher your conversion rates:

  1. Make your CTAs attention-grabbing. A poor CTA won’t get noticed; be creative.
  2. Place CTAs logically in your content. Use CTAs at the end of your content, or anywhere that makes logical sense.
  3. Use action verbs. Find the most compelling keywords to use in your CTAs such as “Discover,” “Compare Prices,” or “Apply Today.”
  4. Include a picture if possible. We love visual aids and including these in your CTAs can be very effective.
  5. Split test. A split test allows marketers to compare the efficacy and performance of two different web pages. By using the split test, you can use two different CTAs with your audience to see which performs better.

A Final Word

Psychological principles play a huge role in shaping how we, as humans, make decisions about the things we purchase and services we use.

Having even just a broad understanding of the mechanisms that drive human engagement with content can help you develop effective collateral with a much higher return on investment.

Chris DeLange 

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