Guest post by Sam Bedall, Editorial Manager, at Cognition.
Learn how to develop a winning brand, design a high-converting website or cultivate a loyal fanbase by implementing these time-tested psychological principles in your next web build or digital marketing strategy.
Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, and despite our perceived external differences, our brains are remarkably similar.
This shared cognitive capacity has allowed us as a species to create timeless structures such as the pyramids or the Louvre, and more recently send the youngest and the oldest individuals to space at the same time, accompanied by a certain cowboy hat-wearing entrepreneur.
Our collective cognitive heritage is similar in other ways, too. Like our distant cousins the primates, we have an inborn sense of empathy and a shared aversion to loss. We process visuals 60,000 times faster than text and 90% of our buying decisions we make without even knowing why. In the event of something good happening we will almost certainly assign ourselves the credit, whereas if something bad occurs we will find something outside of ourselves to blame.
Neuroplasticity and our remarkable ability to learn things at an advanced age aside, at the basic level, our brains are a similar jumble of levers and chemicals that respond to certain stimuli in similar ways.
As marketers, we can learn and use these predictable responses to create more impactful messaging and more effective products. By knowing how the mind works, and how to use these psychological principles in a responsible way, we can empower our customers to make the best buying decisions and add the most value to their lives.
Using the three essential psychological laws below you can make any product or project more impactful, more pleasurable and more useful.
The Law of Simplicity
The celebrated American architect, systems theorist and futurist Buckminster Fuller was once quoted as saying “clarity is power.”
In the bestselling book Made to Stick, academics Chip and Dan Heath say that in order to win at whatever game we are playing “we must create ideas that are both simple and profound.”
The law of simplicity is incontrovertible. Whether we are creating a new tagline or designing a new website, in order to cut through the noise our creations must have singular focus and purpose. Like the electronic pulses that carry our voices on the telephone, an indecisive marketing choice is perceived as an incoherent offering when it reaches the end consumer. Lack of clarity has consequences all the way down.
Our strong affinity for the simple and clear is explained by the psychological concept of ‘cognitive load’, which relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. Since working memory only has limited capacity, we should avoid things that directly overload and overwhelm it, like dual messages or busy web pages.
When designing your next website or marketing campaign, use Chekov’s gun to see if you have obeyed the law of simplicity. Chekhov's gun is a dramatic principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed. Do not make ‘false promises’ in your marketing or design by introducing an element that will never be seen again. If, for example, a certain word or image is present, make sure it has a purpose. Your customers won’t know it consciously, but they will find this neat efficiency extremely pleasing and reassuring.
The Law of Social Proof
What do Justin Bieber, Tik Tok and Pokemon Go all have in common?
No, it’s not how annoying they are. It’s that they have all reached critical mass in their respective markets.
The concept of critical mass first originated in physics. It refers to the volume of a nuclear product required to sustain a chain reaction in a nuclear explosion.
In marketing, however, it means gaining enough users or ‘fans’ that you will ensure a chain reaction of sales, downloads, or attention.
The marketing version of critical mass is very closely linked to the psychological principle of social proof, where people copy the actions of others in an attempt to undertake behaviour in a given situation.
The term was coined in the 1984 book Influence, in which psychologist and author Robert Cialdini defined social proof as: “The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more the idea will be correct.”
Many people like Bieber because other people do. Many people like football because other people do. We are social animals and we want to fit in. We use the affirmations and interests of others to influence our own because we are short on time, we can’t analyse everything and, well, our brains are quite lazy.
In much the same way, our online behaviours and buying habits are almost always influenced by social proof. Amazon understands this when they make it easy for us to read the reviews of others who have bought a certain product (they also recommend sellers acquire a ‘critical mass’ of at least 25 reviews for a listing before they start scaling advertising).
Whatever you are selling or marketing, the more you can demonstrate social proof and market validation, the more effective your messaging is going to be in the long run. In your next web build, product launch or marketing campaign, therefore, make it a priority to get as many reviews, testimonials and case studies as you can, and then take a leaf out of Amazon’s book and make sure your customers will see them where they will have the most impact on the buying decision.
The Law of Story
Our brains are hardwired to learn from stories. It is confidently speculated by anthropologists that the first of what we would call ‘stories’ today would have been nothing more than tribal gossip thousands of years ago; about where there was food, where there were predators, about what leaves and flowers the cave women liked etc.
Our love and need for stories (or flowers) has not dimmed, as seen by the colossal success of Marvel and Disney, and our obsessive enthusiasm for the people who play characters in those movies. Brands use – or at least should use stories – in much the same way; to activate emotions, communicate values and build self-sustaining communities that will be both helpful and profitable.
Donald Miller, author of Building a Story Brand, recommends that marketers change their perception so that customers are no longer seen as anonymous but as the main characters of a story you (and your product or service) are about to help them embark on. He says:
“Every human being wakes up each morning and sees the world through the lens of a protagonist. The world revolves around us, regardless of how altruistic, generous, and selfless a person we may be.”
Television producer John Yorke and author of Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, says that stories are “at some level a journey into the woods to find the missing part of us, to retrieve it and make ourselves whole. It is as simple - and complex - as that.”
As marketers, it is our duty to explore this psychological law of narrative and ensure our products and services support our customers in creating a transformational story of their own. Can you help your customers – even in a small way – say they lived “happily ever after?”
Discovering how your brand fits into the ongoing story of your customer, and then communicating that via your promotional materials, website, social media channels and apps, is perhaps your most difficult – and potentially most rewarding – challenge yet. A story that resonates with your audience is the difference between a famous brand and the rest of the pack, and fulfils the psychological need of every person to feel that their life is an unbroken series of purposeful events leading to a satisfying climax.
To Understand Marketing, You Must Understand the Human Brain
From the outside looking in, digital marketing can sometimes appear haphazard and its success the result of luck rather than skill. For those who understand the human brain, and how psychology powers behaviour however, there is an ironclad method behind the perceived madness.