Psychology in marketing: It’s time to get emotional

Chris Lee
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o succeed at marketing you need to understand people. And to understand people, you need to know what makes them tick. In an age when ad blocking is on the rise and trust at a premium, understanding psychology has never been more important in marketing.

Whenever I talk about the art of persuasion in marketing, I remember a tweet from marketer @AndyVale in 2015:

“What do we want? CLICKBAIT. When do we want it? The answer will shock you.”

Vale’s tweet was retweeted by more than 6,000 people and liked more than 7,000 times. The reason? It hit a nerve.

I’m sure a great many of those reacting to his tweet were marketers themselves, but Vale’s satire hit on the first challenge of marketing: Grabbing people’s attention. That's part of the thinking behind why I chose a cat image to head this article.

Grabbing our attention is what online headline writers have to try really hard to do more than ever now in a time-poor, distraction-rich media world. Added to that a culture of ad blocking has the advertising industry worried.

Creating a clear signal is increasingly difficult. This is where marketers need to go beyond purely data and focus on psychology. It’s time to get emotional.

Understanding where your audience is, with whom they follow and interact with online, and what they’re talking about is the easy part. That’s the data. The intelligence comes when brands use the same language and aim to reflect the audience they are trying to appeal to.

American university professor and psychologist Robert Plutchik considered there to be eight core human emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust and joy.

If marketers can trigger one or more of these emotions in their audience then they will respond. The one thing you don’t want audiences to feel is ambivalence. Ambivalence is the enemy of marketing.

For example, an NGO looking to raise awareness of deforestation may aim to inspire feelings of anger and disgust in their target audiences before offering a call-to-action.

Of course, many marketers have used the psychological tactics of scarcity, social proofing and exclusivity in their outreach for decades, but we’re seeing smarter tactics emerge, such as the rise of psychometrics.

While pollsters may have struggled to accurately predict people’s political motivations, the things people like on Facebook offer an altogether different world of insights.

I worked on a psychometric marketing campaign myself for Hilton Worldwide. Partnering with the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge, Hilton’s digital agency Grayling – whom I worked for – designed and built a Facebook app based on the “Big Five Personality Traits”.

With their permission, the app scanned people’s Facebook likes and told them what kind of traveller they were and provided hints on destinations that would suit them best. 60,000 people took the test.

Victor Benady, Global Creative Director at Grayling, initiated the Hilton Matchmaker programme. Benady explains: “We were able to demonstrate exponential increases in engagement by tailoring copy and images to an individual user’s psychometric profile, using the University of Cambridge’s prediction engine – proving beyond doubt that you are what you like.”

No one size fits all in marketing. We need to understand our audiences and as best we can tailor content and messaging that grabs their attention, and persuades them to take an action.

Data can only get us so far; it’s only by understanding the emotions of our audiences that marketers can become truly persuasive.

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