The Advanced Guide to Emotional Persuasion

You like to think that you’re a completely rational person making completely rational decisions, right? It’s nice to think that you haven’t made any major life decisions based on how you were feeling. Well, you have. Many times.
Consider the irrational power of “free”. In an experiment, people would rather accept a free $10 Amazon gift card than buy a $20 gift card for $7. Also, when Amazon (French) removed their (negligible) shipping fee of $0.20, sales dramatically increased.

Is it rational to accept $10 for free instead of $13 for free? No. Is it rational to let a $0.20 shipping fee deter you from buying online? No.

Even the most analytical thinkers are predictably irrational; the really smart ones acknowledge and address their irrationalities. ~Dan Ariely

So, what does that mean for marketers, and how can you use emotions to persuade visitors into converting faster and more frequently?

Why (and How) Emotional Persuasion Works
If you’re doing conversion optimization, you should already be familiar with Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion. But how can emotion play a part in persuasion?

Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, conducted a famous study that demonstrates the impact emotions have on decision-making. He studied people with brain damage that prevented them from feeling emotions.

They all behaved in a normal way, except for one thing: they were unable to make decisions. The subjects could describe what they should be doing, logically speaking. Yet they all found it difficult to make even the simplest decisions (e.g. what to eat, what to wear).

There’s also a psychological theory called dual processing. Essentially, the theory states that within your brain are two systems: system one and system two. System one is automatic, unconscious, low effort and fast. System two is controlled, conscious, high effort and slow.

System one is our emotional processor while system two is our rational, logical processor.

Since system one is always on, you are more likely to instinctively make an emotional decision and rationalize it later. In the words of Bart Schutz, “Our brain is not rational, our brain is rationalizing.” [Tweet It!]

When you make a decision based on emotion with system one, system two will kick in and rationalize that decision.

Let’s take some famous brand rivalries for example…

  • Coke or Pepsi?
  • Playstation or Xbox?
  • Apple or PC?
  • iPhone or Android?
  • Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks?
  • McDonalds or Burger King?
  • Walmart or Target?

For each of the pairs, you likely had an instinctive preference. That preference isn’t rational, it’s emotional.

System one decides to like Playstation and system two rationalizes the decision (e.g. Playstation has better games, you can play online for free). So, while you think you’ve rationally decided that Playstation is better, you haven’t. You’ve emotionally decided that Playstation is better.

Even seemingly rational decisions are influenced by emotion. As a result, you simply aren’t as in control of our emotions and decisions as you think you are. None of us are!

So, it’s the marketers leveraging emotion who are getting ahead and boosting conversions, not the marketers who are making the best logical argument.

The 4 Pillars of Emotional Persuasion
You will feel a wide variety of emotions in your lifetime. All of them, to some degree, will influence your decision making.

Fortunately, there are a few core emotions that each have a big impact. They’re emotions that system one is quite familiar with: sadness, anxiety / fear, awe, and anger. If you’re able to appeal to these four emotions, you will be able to persuade visitors and influence their decisions.

1. Sadness
Sadness is emotional pain associated with, or characterized by feelings of disadvantage, loss, despair, helplessness, disappointment and sorrow.

How sadness impacts decision-making:

  • You’ll make decisions more slowly. According to a recent study, sadness fogs your brain and makes even the most routine decisions more difficult.
  • You’ll make decisions based on short-term gains. Another study found that when you’re sad, you’ll seek happiness as quickly as possible, regardless of the long-term implications.
  • You’ll undervalue yourself and your possessions. Study participants were induced to feel sad and then asked to price an item for sale. They were likely to set a lower sale price than their neutral peers.

2. Anxiety
Anxiety is an emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of inner turmoil, often accompanied by nervous behavior, such as pacing back and forth. It is the subjectively unpleasant feelings of dread over anticipated events, such as the feeling of imminent death.

How anxiety impacts decision-making:

  • You’ll be unable to accurately interpret environmental cues and context. A recent study found that when you’re anxious, you have trouble understanding whether you’re in a stable or changing situation, resulting in bad decision-making.
  • You’ll be less confident in your decision. In 2013, Francesca Gino found that 90% of people feeling anxious opted to seek advice (only 72% of those in a neutral state did the same).
  • You’ll be more selfish and less ethical. According to the University of Minnesota, when you’re afraid, you adopt a survivalist mindset. You take less time to reflect on the consequences of your actions.

3. Awe
Awe is an emotion comparable to wonder but less joyous. In general, awe is directed at objects considered to be more powerful than the subject, such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Grand Canyon, or the vastness of the cosmos.

How awe impacts decision-making:

  • You’ll feel more satisfied. According to a Stanford University study, you feel more satisfied with your achievements and status in life. In fact, you feel more accomplished and fulfilled.
  • You’ll be present. The same study found that when you feel a sense of awe, you are brought to the present. Your sense of time fades and you are more focused than usual on what’s happening right now, in that exact moment.
  • You’ll be more giving. The study also found that people who experienced awe were more giving of their time and more willing to help others.

4. Anger
Anger or wrath is an intense emotional response. It is a normal emotion that involves a strong uncomfortable and emotional response to a perceived provocation. Often it indicates when one’s basic boundaries are violated.

How anger impacts decision-making:

  • You will be able to identify a better argument. Despite out-dated claims that anger will make you less analytical, two professors recently found that angry subjects were able to better distinguish between weak and strong arguments in essays.
  • You will feel more in control and positive. Dr. Jennifer Lerner of Carnegie-Mellon University found that a reasonable amount of anger and stress gives you the feeling of control and a boost of optimism.
  • You will feel empowered. Dr. Carol Tavris, a psychologist and one of the leading anger researchers, draws a parallel between major societal movements (e.g. the women’s suffrage) and anger.

Who’s Using Emotion to Convert You?
Appealing to emotion creates a connection with each visitor, which makes them more open to your calls to action. Creating that connection helps them:

  • Understand your perspective.
  • Accept your perspective.
  • Perform the action you suggestion.

Thousands of sites are using your emotions to convince you to perform the action they suggest, whether you realize it or not.

In order to apply this psychology yourself, you must first understand how it’s being used on you. Charities, causes, and nonprofits are, perhaps, the best and most common example.

For example, when I say Sarah McLachlan, you think…? Most likely, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Take a look at this ad and consider the emotions that you’re feeling…

That’s a combination of sadness, anxiety and anger. Of course, cruelty and suffering tend to evoke sadness. Also, since this type of animal cruelty likely isn’t something you’ve intently considered before, you should feel a bit of instability (your perception of your environment has changed quickly). Finally, you should feel angry that this type of behavior exists.

You’ve just made a connection with the ASPCA.

You understand why they’re passionate about protecting animals.
You accept that animals need to be protected.
You’ll be more willing to take the next step to help protect them.
What about these ads? What do they make you feel?

Let’s break it down…

Anxiety: You’re afraid that this type of cruelty is happening around you without your knowledge, disrupting your sense of stability. As a result, you’re more likely to look to others (i.e. a call to action) to help you choose the next step.
Sadness: $0.60 per day seems negligible, but it’ll add up to $219 in the long-term. However, you’re thinking short-term to relieve the sadness.
Anger: Anger is empowering. You can help change the world simply by donating less than a dollar a day? You’re likely to have the motivation to act.
Of course, the ASPCA is just one of many examples. It’s not just charities using emotions to convert you.

How to Increase Conversions Using Emotional Persuasion
There are always two different factors at work: existing emotions and manufactured emotions.

Existing emotions were there before the visitor arrived on your site (e.g. Adam is sad because he got a poor employee review). Manufactured emotions were created for the visitor when he arrived on your site (e.g. Adam is sad because of animal cruelty).

Creating vs. Exploiting Emotions
Emotional persuasion starts, as do most things, with understanding your audience. Conducting qualitative research will help you understand the emotional state of your visitors when they arrive on your site.

When someone visits your site, there are three questions you should consider:

  • What is their state of mind?
  • Where are their emotions being directed?
  • Why are they feeling those emotions?

Once you get a feel for how the average person feels when they arrive on your site (i.e. account for people who are just having an exceptionally good / bad day), you can decide whether you can exploit existing emotions or have to create new emotions.

Emotional Design
There are three main factors that go into emotional design: font style, color, and images. These factors can either reinforce existing emotions or work to change those emotions.

Font Style

Think of fonts as the online version of body language. Now consider that 55% of emotional communication occurs through body language.

Clear, readable font is considered more trustworthy and more often interpreted as fact. Different font styles can also subconsciously create different emotions…

Even online, it’s as much about how you say something as it is about what you’re saying. While you might not be intentionally evoking emotion through your font choice, you are. You might as well make the choice more informed and deliberate.

Color Psychology

Color psychology is very well-covered. In 2013, Gregory Ciotti, who does marketing at Help Scout, wrote The Psychology of Color in Marketing and Branding. It’s the most comprehensive guide to color psychology that I’ve read so far.

Color is powerful. Research has revealed that people make a decision about a product or service within 90 seconds. Over 62% of that assessment is based on color alone. However, color is not a magic bullet. Using yellow as your primary color will not automatically make visitors happier.

Color, like font, must be combined with all of the other elements to create a cohesive emotional story.

Image Psychology

On the ConversionXL site, where is your attention directed?

If you’re like most people, Peep’s arm will direct your attention to the headline. Now consider the look on his face: concern, passion, assertiveness. In the few milliseconds before your focus shifts to the headline, you’re already primed to feel a slight sense of anxiety.

What do you mean my website is leaking money?

Note the use of color to direct your attention to the word “money”. Not only is red a “stop” color, but it’s also contrasting.

Consider how Nike uses awe in their images…

There’s also a psychological theory called emotional contagion. When a personal connection is established, you start to see emotional synchrony. So, hanging out with people who are regularly sad or quick to anger will influence your sadness and anger levels. Images can be used to make that connection and create synchrony.

Next steps for you:

  • Become more aware of your font choices. Select a font that helps encourage the emotion you’re looking to create or maintain. Search through a font library to find the one that’s right for your audience. Revisit the three qualitative research questions above to see how your font change subtly influenced emotion.
  • Choose the two or three colors that will create or maintain your emotion of choice. Remember that color alone cannot create an emotion; it must be supported by other factors. Use them consistently in your branding. It’s important that these colors become closely associated with your brand.
  • Evaluate your current images. What emotions are they evoking? The answer is never “none”. If they’re not creating or maintaining the correct emotion, change them. Be aware of facial expressions, size, color, body language, etc. All of these factors impact the emotion in your images.

Emotional Copywriting
There are two main factors that go into emotional copywriting: triggers words and storytelling.

Trigger Words

Trigger words are commonly associated with specific emotions. When read, they subconsciously trigger those emotions. This works in a way that’s similar to someone with PTSD recalling an emotionally traumatic event because of an environmental trigger.

For most people, they will trigger anger and sadness, respectively.

Brian Clark, founder of Copyblogger, wrote: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is determined by the level of emotional identification that word prompts. In other words, the right emotional trigger words take the same basic message to all new heights.”

Repeatedly using words that typically trigger a certain emotion will, inevitably, trigger that emotion for your visitors.

First, ensure you understand the words your audience is familiar with. Yes, most people associate arrogant, greed, cruelty, hate and bitter with “angry”. And yes, most people associate despair, unfortunate, sorry, agony and helpless with “sadness”.

However, there might be certain words that trigger those emotions specifically for your audience (e.g. “malpractice” for doctors).

Some cultures don’t have a word for “worry” while others have 15 words for “fear”. Thus, trigger words are not universal and the best way to discover them is to:

1. Perform qualitative research to find your audience’s trigger words.
What words are your happiest customers using? Your most frustrated customers? What words are being used to convey emotion on the sites they frequent?

2. Be deliberate about your selection.
Choose each word with purpose, especially in headlines and calls to action. Examine each word and consider how it makes you feel. Is there a more emotional word you could use? Every word should tell a cohesive emotional story. Ask a colleague to repeat the process. If you can, ask a customer to repeat the process.

Jennifer Aaker, a marketing professor at Stanford, asked each of her students to give a 1 minute pitch. One in ten students used a story in their pitch. When asked to recall the pitches later, only 5% of students could cite a statistic and 63% could remember the story (in detail).

Our brains respond well to stories. Consider how many bad movies or books you’ve finished simply because you started them. We’re hardwired to finish stories; we’re already invested and need to know how it ends. In addition, it’s much easier to make an emotional connection to a protagonist than to a company (e.g. Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk).

It’s difficult to convince visitors to feel sadness, anxiety, awe or anger because of a brand. Well, perhaps not anger. (Hey, Air Canada and Comcast.) Evoking those emotions through storytelling, on the other hand, is quite easy. (Hey, Disney.)

While stats and facts can be valuable, emotions are more persuasive in our irrational minds. Once you make someone feel something through trigger words or storytelling, you can connect with them. Once you connect with someone, you can more easily persuade them to take the action you want them to.

Next steps for you:

  • When possible, make an emotional appeal and present an emotional benefit. “This is why you should feel this way about this issue. Now, take this action to feel another way.”
  • Repeat trigger words throughout your copy to inspire and maintain the emotion you’re looking to use. Tap into your audience’s existing vocabulary (through qualitative research) for the best results.
  • Craft a story with a protagonist and a beginning, a middle and an end. Facts and figures won’t evoke emotion, but a relatable story will. Your visitors will remember you better and be easier to persuade.

Conclusion
Functional MRI neuro-imagery has shown that, when evaluating brands, you primarily use emotions, not factual information. Studies have also shown that positive emotions toward a brand have greater influence on loyalty than trust, which is based on actual historical data.

You’re an emotional creature with a habit of rationalizing, not a rational creature.

It’s important to accept it and become more aware of how your emotions are impacting your decision-making. In doing so, you can truly understand how to use emotions to persuade visitors and increase your conversions.

While we focused on four pillars (sadness, anxiety, awe and anger), there are dozens of emotions on the spectrum. As with all elements of CRO, you’ll have to test to see which emotions drive your audience.