5 Psychological Hacks to Improve Your Content Marketing Strategy

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It’s no secret that incorporating the principles of psychology into sales pitches and direct marketing pieces is one of the smartest and most effective way to improve business results.  Knowing what makes a would-be buyer tick is always going to give you the ammunition needed to present a more compelling and persuasive case for your product or service.

But where most people go wrong is in limiting the application of these principles to direct sales alone.  In fact, applying them to your content marketing strategy can provide powerful results as well.  Here are five specific hacks you can quickly and easily apply to your content campaigns:

Hack #1 – Create reciprocity with free content

According to the principle of reciprocity, we feel compelled to offer something in return or take some action when we perceive others as having given to us.  You’ve probably encountered this principle in action if a friend has ever done you a favor – like helping you move or treating you to dinner – without asking for anything in return.  Even if you know the favor was freely given, you probably still experience the nagging desire to pay your friend back in some way.

As you’ve probably already guessed, you can harness this sensation in your content marketing pieces – just like True & Co (an online lingerie retailer) does with its popular “Fit Quiz:”

true and co

The Fit Quiz walks participants through a series of 16 questions designed to help identify the visitor’s bra fit problems and offer customized recommendations based on its proposed solutions.  The quiz itself is well-designed and comprehensive.  And because it’s obvious that the company has put a significant amount of time and energy into producing the quiz, the desire to reciprocate the company’s effort is created… until the last screen of the quiz prompts visitors to enter their email addresses to receive their results.

The discomfort of being “in debt” to the company is eased, True & Co captures the contact information needed to fill out its marketing lists and visitors get the recommendations they need for more comfortable lingerie.  It’s a neatly-designed system where everybody wins!

Now, applying this principle to your content marketing strategy might seem easy, but there are two important caveats to keep in mind:

  • You have to give away content that people actually want.  If you’re giving away content simply for the sake of doing so, there’s a good chance that your offering won’t be strong enough to inspire feelings of reciprocity.  Instead, plan your giveaway content around your audience’s pain points, and give them just enough that they’ll feel compelled to take whatever action you want when you place the opportunity in front of them.
  • The value of the content you offer has to be proportionate to the size of the action you want people to take.  If all you’re asking people to do is give up their email addresses, you don’t need to offer much in the way of free content in order to create the strength of reciprocity needed to bring about this action.  But if you’re asking website visitors to complete full lead gen forms made of 5+ questions?  You’d better be sure the content you offer is perceived as being worth this exchange; otherwise, you risk leaving a bad taste in your prospective customers’ mouths.

Carefully weigh the type and value of the content you give away for free against the desired action you want visitors to take.  If you give away too little, you won’t achieve your conversion goals.  But giving away too much can be just as bad.  Not only is this a wasteful practice that gives up content you could have used elsewhere to better effect, there’s some evidence that suggests people undervalue free content (thinking that, if it’s free, it’s probably not worth that much in the first place).

Hack #2 – Encourage dopamine release by producing content in multiple formats

There’s a reason that companies like Apple roll out new products every few months – even if the differences between their various editions hardly justify the fanfare of a new release.  When they do so, they stand to make huge amounts of money by triggering an area of the brain that responds to novel new stimuli with the release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers).

According to Dr. Emrah Duzel and other researchers at the University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience:

“It is a well-known fact amongst scientists that the midbrain region regulates our levels of motivation and our ability to predict rewards by releasing dopamine in the frontal and temporal regions of the brain. We have now shown that novelty activates this brain area. We believe that experiencing novelty might, in itself, have an impact on our dopamine levels.”

Basically, when you show people something new, their brains anticipate the potential for reward with a rush of the feel-good hormone dopamine, explaining why Apple fans are happy to set aside their perfectly-good devices for the potential pleasure of owning the company’s latest release.

Taking advantage of this psychological principle in a sales setting is easy – just throw together a new release, slap a scarcity trigger on it and you’ll have committed customers falling all over themselves to be a part of something new.  But you can also apply this hack to your content marketing strategy – and save yourself a huge amount of time – by releasing content pieces in a number of different formats.  Here’s how it works…

Start by releasing a high quality blog post on a subject that speaks to one of your audience’s pain points.  Promote the hell out of the post for about a month, and then wait another month before releasing the same content in a new format – say, by converting your blog post into a video.  Go to town promoting this “new” release.  Even audience members who read your original blog post will find themselves triggered by the novelty of the new format, leading to repeat website visitors and greater affinity with your brand.

Hack #3 – Feature credentialed professionals to boost perceived authority

If you’ve ever found yourself feeling weak at the knees in the presence of a police officer, judge or other authority figure, there’s a good reason.  Our obedience to these leaders has been well-established since the Milgram experiment carried out by social psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1963.

In the experiment, volunteers were prompted by a study coordinator to deliver increasingly painful electric shocks to an unseen subject, who they believed was giving wrong answers to a series of questions.  At the end of the study, roughly 65% of participants gave subjects the maximum 450-volt shock as many as three times in a row – despite being informed that the subject had a heart condition and despite hearing the subject’s (faked) screams intensify with every incorrect answer.

It’s a brutal experiment to imagine, but it does make one thing crystal clear – we appear to be psychologically predisposed to following the word of perceived authority figures, no matter what the cost.  The challenge for business owners and salespeople, then, becomes determining what it will take to be seen as this type of persuasive leader by their target customers.

Writing in-depth blog posts, whitepapers and other content pieces is all well and good in terms of establishing perceived authority, but it’s a lot of work!  Instead, hack the process by simply posting content created in collaboration with already-credentialed professionals.  From the point of view of your readers, the professional’s authority rubs off on you by proxy – after all, if the professional didn’t endorse your business or the content of your website, he or she wouldn’t have contributed in the first place!

As an example, take a look at the following page from the Herbalife website.  Instead of using content to establish authority in the first place, this Q&A with Dr. Ignarro – a Nobel Laureate in Medicine – increases the credence readers give to the brand and its website content without requiring tons of extra effort:


Your business might not be able to get a Nobel Laureate to contribute content to your website, but given what we know about the way people respond to authority figures, work from any credentialed professional will have an impact.  Ask around to see if any professionals in your field would be open to doing an interview for publication on your company’s website.  Both parties stand to benefit, as you’ll get free content that boosts your business’s perceived authority and the professional will receive extra publicity and press mentions that can be added to his or her portfolio.

Hack #4 – Use controversy to spread content virally

If you’ve ever spent more than a minute reading the comments on Youtube videos, you already know that rage and anger are alive and well on the internet.  But did you know that these emotions are also the most likely to cause a piece of content to go viral?

To reach this conclusion, Beihang University researchers took a look at 70 million “tweets” on the Chinese social network Weibo, categorizing them into the emotional categories of anger, joy, sadness and disgust.  Of these categories, it was angry messages that were most likely to spread across the site, causing a ripple effect that provoked a response as many as three degrees of separation from the original post.

It’s not exactly a secret that creating controversy is a great content marketing strategy, but it’s nice to see data backing up the anecdotal experience of many online marketers.  Of course, if you want to add yourself to these ranks, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind when creating controversial content pieces:

  • Steer clear of politics, race and religion.  The point of controversial content is to polarize readers according to their individual beliefs, thus inciting them to action.  Working with these three sensitive subjects, on the other hand, is more likely to result in readers who shut down and dismiss a brand entirely.
  • Don’t be too extreme.  On a related note, going too far with your controversial opinion effectively halts conversation and minimizes the likelihood of future action.  Readers won’t try to reason extreme stances, creating the opposite effect from what you want to achieve.
  • Threaten the “3 Bs.”  Marketer Tim Ferriss is credited with defining the “3 Bs” as behavior, belief or belongings.  Choose one and create an article that polarizes people along these lines, as in the case of an article like “Why Successful People are Douchebags.”

And, of course, keep in mind that for controversial posts to be effective, they should be used sparingly.  If all you do is take extreme stances, readers will quickly begin to discount your opinions.  At most, post a good controversial article (that is, one that makes a well-supported argument instead of being controversial for the sake of controversy) once every month or two.  Releasing these powerful posts in a limited way when you’re sure they’re well-written will prevent readers from losing interest.

Hack #5 – Create mystery to capture attention

When it comes to leveraging psychology to improve your content marketing strategy, the lure of a good mystery can’t be beat.  Humans have an innate drive to figure things out, which makes teasing them with a juicy secret an easy way to capture attention.

Blogger Derek Halpern explains this phenomenon succinctly when discussing the past success of his website, Social Triggers:

“Back when I launched Social Triggers in 2011, Social Triggers grew from a brand-new website to one of the top marketing blogs… practically overnight.  At the time, I never told anyone how I did it… on purpose.  And what happened?  People started to write blog posts speculating about my growth. They’d try to reverse engineer how I did what I did because they wanted to know the answer.  This, in turn, sent more traffic and readers my way, helping me grow faster than ever before.”

The sense of mystery that Halpern created actually fueled his business’s growth – a pretty powerful lesson that young companies will want to take to heart.

Now, if you’re an established business or run a website with an existing audience, you might not be able to pull off a Social Triggers-level mystery.  But you can incorporate this same psychological principle into your content marketing strategy with any of the following hacks:

  • Use blog post series to keep readers on the hook.  Instead of publishing single, one-off blog posts, create series of posts and use the end of each post to hint at the valuable content that will be coming in the next edition.  The mystery of the lessons that will be found in the next installment will keep readers coming back for more.
  • Build content around upcoming releases.  If you’re planning a major product launch, release content pieces on a related subject that hint at its release.  As an example, say you run an online video creation tool and plan to release a new update that will allow users to preview their clips without rendering – saving them time on their projects.  Before you’ve even said a word about the forthcoming update, release blog posts with titles like, “7 Ways to Save Time on Video Creation” or “How to Create Videos Faster than Ever.”  End your posts with teasers like, “If you liked these tips, stay tuned.  I’ve got a big announcement coming soon that will help you save even more time on video creation.”  The mystery this creates will get your users excited about your upcoming product launch before you say anything at all!
  • “I can’t say anything yet…”  No matter how you decide to incorporate mystery into your content marketing efforts, keep these magic words in mind.  When used sparingly, they can be incredibly powerful, as they create a sense of camaraderie with your followers – a sense that, if you could share your exciting news with anybody, it’d be with them.  Drop this phrase into the ends of the kinds of blog posts and content pieces described above for better results than generic expressions like, “Stay tuned for a big announcement!” or “Big news coming soon!”

At the end of the day, what you have to remember is that the goal of content marketing is to build a relationship with followers on the hopes that these connections will eventually lead to sales.  Knowing how people work from a psychological perspective only enhances your ability to do this.  So give these hacks a try or experiment with other techniques you come across.  The better versed you are in human psychology; the better able you’ll be to influence people and drive substantial business growth.

Can you think of any other psychological principles you’ve taken advantage of as part of your content marketing strategy?  Share your findings in the comments section below!


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