Marketing psychology tactics make your messaging more effective, improve campaigns, and increase conversions.

Here, you’ll find:

  • How psychology plays into marketing
  • The line between marketing psychology tactics and manipulation
  • How ethical marketing psychology can yield higher quality leads
  • How to improve your brand trust through marketing psychology

Flash sales. An influencer’s sponsored post. Subscription tiers.

What do all these things have in common? They’re all examples of marketing psychology principles in action. 

Now, we know marketing is the art and science of connecting a brand with its target audience. To do this, marketers put a lot of effort into understanding consumer behavior and what motivates people to take action (i.e. make a purchase). 

Marketing psychology, however, takes this practice one step further — and can lead to more qualified leads and increased conversions

Here’s a sneak peek of the top 5 marketing psychology principles that can take your marketing strategy the next level:

Top 5 marketing psychology principles

1. Loss aversion and exclusivity

2. Social proof

3. The decoy effect

4. Reciprocity

5. Color psychology

What is marketing psychology?

Marketing psychology is the study of how our thoughts, emotions, and human behaviors are influenced by marketing techniques. 

As marketers, we can use marketing psychology methodologies (also called “neuromarketing”) to build super effective strategies that guide the right prospects along the customer journey toward a purchase. 

Here, you’ll gain an understanding of the science behind consumer decisions, so you can use them in your marketing strategy

Boost your marketing efforts with these 5 psychology principles

These marketing psychology principles can make your messaging more effective, improve your marketing campaigns, bring in new customers, and yield higher conversion rates. 

1. Loss aversion and exclusivity

Loss aversion is the human tendency to feel the pain of loss more strongly than the pleasure of gain (even if the outcome is the same). 

In other words, we would rather avoid losing $100 than be given $100.  

This can be seen in marketing tactics that create a sense of urgency in order to avoid loss (think flash sales, coupons, and limited inventory).

Similarly, exclusivity is all about making a product or service seem more desirable and hard to come by through limited access. These two marketing tactics overlap because of the customer’s fear of missing out — i.e. FOMO

How to use loss aversion and exclusivity in your marketing strategy

When it comes to loss aversion and exclusivity, it pays to tread lightly. While implementing these strategies, remember to keep your copy honest and refrain from overusing tactics that could desensitize your audience from the excitement of a good sale.

Plan and promote limited-time offers and sales

madewell sale landing page

Madewell offers 15% off (for a limited time) using a special code. (Image:

Capitalize on loss aversion with special pricing and limited-time offers on your website every once in a while. This is particularly useful for ecommerce businesses, although service-based businesses can certainly benefit as well. 

Promote these sales through your other marketing channels, like email marketing, paid social, and paid search to create a buzz around your limited offer. But keep in mind that some demographics and target audiences might find too many markdowns off-putting and minimize that critical sense of urgency

So consider your audience before maxing out discounts and (over) hyping your offers.    

Share scarcity alerts and countdowns

JCPenney sale landing page


It’s safe to say JCPenney’s target audience looks a little different from Madewell’s.

Not only does this “doorbuster” sale promotion take over their homepage, they also include a countdown to emphasize that sense of urgency

While countdowns and scarcity alerts may not work for every sale or every brand, they can be a super effective sales strategy to get customers to convert faster. 

Highlight inventory availability

For Love & Lemons screengrab

This is a good example of highlighting inventory availability. (Image:

Imagine: You walk into a clothing store and see a t-shirt on display that you love. After combing through the rack, you can only find one in your size. It’s your lucky day. Now you not only love that shirt, but you probably feel like there’s no time to waste and take that bad boy to the check out. 

Inventory availability alerts on your website act the same way — and can be the extra push customers need to make a purchase. 

Consider “invite only” and “early access” offers

liquid iv early access


What’s more exclusive than invite-only or early access offers? Give your customers the chance to beat the crowds (and get the best sale price) with these exclusive marketing techniques — like this email offer from Liquid I.V.

Leverage qualifications and waiting lists

google results screengrab


Is it a Jedi mind trick? Or just good ol’ marketing psychology? When your audience has to work a little harder to even consider a conversion, it makes them more likely to make a purchase in the end. By requiring qualifications or signing up for a waitlist, your audience will feel a small sense of accomplishment just by “getting in.” 

Carvana screengrab


What’s more? Waiting lists and pre-qualifications allow you to collect email addresses, which can be used for retargeting those qualified leads later on.

2. Social proof

Social pressure lives on throughout our lives, from childhood to adulthood. As a psychological phenomenon, social proof is when people use the actions of others to inform and validate their decisions. (Check out this article on social proof for a wild example involving the rise of the shopping cart — no, really.)

In other words, we’re more likely to behave a certain way if others are behaving the same way.

This of course reaches into the world of online shopping. 

How to use social proof in your marketing strategy:

Be honest: When’s the last time you made a purchase without reading the reviews first? And who under the age of 50 hasn’t been even a little swayed by an influencer’s product endorsement? 

Social proof is one of the most commonly used psychology tactics in digital marketing — and for good reason. Here’s how to use it in your marketing strategy:

Ask for (and incentivize) reviews from customers

lulus screengrab


When it’s time to hire a plumber, how do you filter through the top results? Are you more likely to purchase a product with three reviews or 3,000?

Reviews are mega valuable to your audience because they help people do their due diligence before converting. And reviews are mega valuable to your business because they help you build trust. 

But how do you get more reviews?

  1. Provide a stellar experience. Not only should your product or service be excellent, but so should your customer service — starting from your first impression. That means your website is easy to navigate and understand, you always answer your phone and email, and any concerns are quickly remedied.  
  2. Ask! (And incentivize.) After a customer makes a purchase, send a follow-up email to check in. How do they like the product so far? Is there anything that could be better? If so, do your best to make any issues right. Then, a few weeks later, send another email asking for a review. Don’t be afraid to incentivize reviews: Offer a chance to win credit for another purchase or a free gift. 
  3. Use the right verbiage. Before asking for a review, think about providing some guidance. What kind of answers do you want? Formulate some specific questions around that. 
  4. Make ‘em accessible. From your website to your social channels to your email blasts, make it easy for customers to leave a review with the click of a (prominently-placed) button.
  5. Communicate with bad and good reviewers. When a customer leaves a review, reply. If it’s a good review, take the time to sincerely thank them. If it’s a negative review, it’s still a positive opportunity. Reply back acknowledging their disappointment and offer a tangible solution. Everyone makes mistakes, and potential customers will be relieved to learn you’re a trustworthy brand. 

Create and share case studies

hawksem screengrab


Case studies take reviews to the next level. For service-based businesses, case studies allow your prospects to learn how you solve real problems.

With real client names, problems, solutions, and specific numbers included, case studies are often the last piece of information people need before reaching out for a consultation

Add badges for achievements to your site

hootsuite screengrab


In addition to reviews, adding badges to your website (especially landing pages) proves your validity and authority in the space. Don’t hold back! It’s okay to brag.

Share user generated content

Aerie instagram post


User generated content is a win-win because it’s free content marketing. But more importantly, it gives your brand an instant boost of credibility. This is especially true for ecommerce businesses — just check out Aerie’s Instagram account

Consider influencer marketing

TikTok screengrab

(Image: TikTok)

Reaching out to influential profiles on social media to promote your brand is an excellent way to get more traffic, earn trust, and increase conversions

The numbers don’t lie: Half of millennials trust product recommendations when they come from influencers. One third of Gen Zers have purchased a product based on an influencer’s recommendations. 

And no, it doesn’t have to be from a big celebrity name to work. 

In fact, influencer marketing can actually be more effective (and affordable) when brands partner with “micro influencers” who have a slightly smaller following. First, find influencers who have relevant interests and audiences to your brand. Then reach out and offer a free sample of your product or service in exchange for promotion on their page. 

You can set the expectations and guidelines.

Add testimonials to your website and marketing channels testimonials screengrab


Once your reviews start rolling in, add them to your website and landing pages.

When you can, attach a name, face, and job industry or title to each testimonial on your site. This provides context that helps the reader trust what’s said. Videos showing how your service has made a difference to customers can also win you loyalty and encourage people to explore your company further.

Highlight customers who use your brand

hubspot screengrab


You don’t need a full-blown review from every customer. Just sharing the names and logos of customers who use your product or service can be credibility enough for prospects to trust you. 

…and use numbers

How many customers have you served? Years in business? How much ad spend have you managed? Share specific numbers to prove you’re the real deal.

3. The decoy effect

The decoy effect is a psychological strategy where brands present their consumers with different purchase options, including a “decoy” option that is intentionally designed to make a more expensive option look like a better deal — which impacts the customer’s purchase decision.

How many times have you purchased that extra-large popcorn because it was basically the same price as the medium? Or how about when we buy two products instead of one because the second purchase was at a reduced rate?

The decoy effect can provide validation for a choice and help customers feel accomplished because they saved money (hello again, loss aversion!).

How to use the decoy effect in your marketing strategy:

Offer three membership or subscription options

zoom screengrab


Does your business offer subscription options or membership tiers? Consider offering three different levels that make the pricing seem more evenly spaced.

Let’s take the Zoom example above. 

If the options for a membership were only Pro ($149) and Business Plus ($250), chances are we’d all go for the cheaper option. But with that third Business option ($199), suddenly Business Plus doesn’t seem like that much more of a reach. 

Ecommerce: spread out your pricing options

apple screengrab


Here, Apple uses an expensive higher-level storage option to make the middle choice seem more desirable (this is also called the Goldilocks effect).

In this scenario, each iPhone storage option doubles from 128G, to 256GB, then to 512GB. 

And while the cost from 128GB to 256GB is an extra $100, the cost between 256GB to 512GB jumps by $200. This makes the middle choice seem like the most economical option — or as Goldilocks would say, just right.

4. Reciprocity 

Reciprocity is the idea that when someone does something for you, you’re likely to return the favor. In marketing, we see this with lead magnets such as downloadable checklists or free samples in exchange for an email address. 

First introduced in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini, reciprocity is a great way to connect with your target audience for the first time

How to use reciprocity in your marketing strategy:

Create free guides and tutorials

hubspot screengrab


Hubspot is a supreme leader in offering free, valuable materials (in exchange for your email address). From free trend reports to checklists to templates and guides, Hubspot really knows how to lean into the power of reciprocity

Offering value to your audience can come in many forms — like Warby Parker’s at-home try-on option and their quiz to find the right frames:

warby parker site screengrab


Or a free webinar, like this one:

hawksem webinar screengrab


Offer a free sample with purchase

sephora example


Another way to offer value at a low cost for you? Free samples for loyal customers. For example, Sephora offers two free samples for every order from customers who signed up to be “Beauty Insiders.” 

Promote a free trial

paramount plus screengrab


Give prospects a taste of what you have to offer with a free limited trial. This helps you really narrow in on high quality leads who will become loyal customers — and filter out flaky folks who wouldn’t stick around anyway.

5. Color psychology

There’s a reason why a certain popular fast-food chain uses a lot of red in their restaurant interior and packaging design. The same goes for why hospital rooms are often painted calm, soothing colors like light blue. 

Research shows that colors can influence how marketing messages are interpreted. This is especially true when it comes to persuasion and your brand’s impression. In fact, they can even trigger specific feelings, particularly when purchase intent is high. 

You can use the principles of color psychology to:

  • Run better-informed A/B tests
  • Create recallable and impactful brand logos and website design
  • Create captivating and recognizable content

Marketing psychology vs. cognitive bias: an ethical dilemma? 

Here’s where things get complicated.

Consumer psychology is deeply intertwined with cognitive bias. Discussed most famously in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, cognitive bias is the psychological theory that our brains mostly use shortcuts when processing information. These shortcuts are influenced by emotions, social pressure, memory recall, and selective attention and deeply impact our decision-making

This is a survival tactic. If we took our sweet time agonizing over every decision in our day-to-day lives, our energy expenditure would be through the roof.

So, cognitive bias allows us to make lower risk decisions more quickly. But it also makes us   bad at decision making

Marketing psychology leans on cognitive bias, which frankly feels like taking advantage of our poor decision-making abilities (see: manipulation). And it can. 

But the beauty of marketing psychology is that, when executed ethically, it actually helps you connect with the right audience faster, without pulling in unqualified leads in the process. 

How we use marketing psychology at HawkSEM

It can get pretty nerdy around here. Not only do we stay sharp on our digital marketing techniques — we also rope in our marketing psychology know-how on the daily.

Our SEM manager, Chloe Derse, explains that one theory she employs often is reactance theory. 

“This basically suggests that people resist being told what to do, as they perceive it as threatening their freedom,” she says. In other words? Messaging matters. And it’s wildly important “to put yourself in the shoes of someone receiving a message.” 

“In our jobs, this translates to writing effective ad copy and landing pages,” she continues. “Being too forceful or pushy in any messaging may end up pushing potential customers away.” 

The takeaway

These psychological theories not only improve your marketing strategy, but also your customer experience.

And while marketing psychology tactics have been used for coercion, those unethical efforts will ultimately fail.

Consumers are smart, after all. They know how to do their research and aren’t afraid to abandon an untrustworthy brand. 

Marketing psychology works when you believe in your product or service and its ability to improve the lives of a subgroup of folks. If your messaging comes from a sincere place, using marketing psychology will only make your outreach more effective. 

And if you want a little help along the way? Well, we’ve got you covered.

This article has been updated and was originally published in January 2020.

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