The Infusion of Psychology and Digital Marketing

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How does psychology relate to digital marketing? And how can digital marketers tap into theories of psychology to positively impact consumer behaviour? Our Senior Digital Paid Media Specialist, Sarah Clarke, talks us through her thoughts on the infusion of psychology and digital marketing.


The Infusion of Psychology and Digital Marketing

How does psychology relate to digital marketing? This is a question we’ve been deliberating here at ClickThrough Marketing.

In the 1920s, an American psychologist, Dr John B. Watson, conducted several experiments involving classically conditioning responses in human behaviour. Having carried out this psychological research, he began to consider how his learnings could be applied to advertising. And as there was more money to be made in the marketing industry, he quickly made the jump.


Psychology and Consumer Behaviour

Since the 1920s, Watson’s research has heavily informed digital marketing – particularly in the area of consumer behaviour. Digital marketing is about looking at trends to see what is happening, but as digital marketers, it’s important for us to dig a little deeper to find out why those things are happening. In doing so, we can take advantage of the types of human behaviour that cause us to react in certain ways when shopping and browsing online. To help us market more effectively, there are several psychological studies we can look to.


Goldstein, Cialdini and Griskevicius (2008)

In their 2008 study, ‘A Room with a Viewpoint’, Noah Goldstein, Robert Cialdini and Vladas Griskevicius used social norms to motivate environmental behaviour in hotels. Next to hotel room towels, they showed the following three messages:

  • ‘Help save the environment’
  • ‘75% of hotel guests in this hotel reuse their towels’
  • ‘75% of hotel guests in this room reuse their towels’

As a result, there was a 15% increase in guests reusing their towels. If we relate this to marketing, we can conclude that it’s always important for our messaging to be as personal to our customer’s as possible. If you can frame your message in a way that directly relates to their situation, you’ll be encouraging them to act.


Freedman and Fraser (1966)

In their 1966 experiment, ‘Compliance Without Pressure’, Freedman and Fraser knocked on the doors of residents of a neighbourhood in Palo Alto. They claimed to be from a non-profit organisation, and asked homeowners to display an intrusive billboard in their garden advising passers-by to drive safely. Only 17% of homeowners agreed.

They then repeated their experiment – but this time the requests were different. They asked homeowners to:

  • Sign a petition
  • Display a 3 inch sticker displaying the same message

Almost all of the homeowners agreed to these far less intrusive requests. A few weeks later, they returned to the households who had displayed the sticker, this time asking them about the giant billboards. 76% of them agreed to the billboard this time around.

If we relate this to marketing, many businesses are focused on their ultimate goal or conversion. However, if you ask your customers to do something smaller, like signing up for a newsletter, the likelihood of them coming back and completing a bigger conversion is much higher.


Skinner (1948)

In his world-renowned study of operant conditioning, B. F. Skinner placed a hungry rat inside what he dubbed the “Skinner box”. Inside the box, the rat eventually discovered a lever, realising that pressing the lever would result in food being released. When the rat became hungry again, it pressed the lever for a second time, followed by a third, fourth and fifth. Skinner also rewarded the rat with food randomly, using variable reinforcement to see what would happen as a result of no fixed pattern.

Skinner found that rewarding the rat randomly had a longer-lasting effect in terms of encouraging the required behaviour. If we relate this to marketing, we can use the example of loyalty free rewards that many coffee shops use. If you buy a certain number of drinks, you get one free. However, random rewards have been shown to be more effective, so randomly providing someone with a free drink (rather than using a fixed reward system) is better for encouraging the consumer to do what you want them to do – in this case, buy more coffees!


Kahneman and Tversky (1984)

If you were presented with these two options, which would you choose?

  • £113.50 for the outdoor jacket, £23 for the tripod
  • £125 for the outdoor jacket, 50% off the tripod at £11.50

As part of this study, 68% of respondents said they were willing to buy the tripod, whereas only 29% were willing to buy the jacket – even though it’s the same deal either way. If we relate this to marketing, framing becomes crucial. In this example, the offer you are providing is the exactly the same regardless of which option you choose, but consumers are likelier to go for option two. It’s important to not only test this through A/B testing, but to also focus on the percentage discounts as opposed to money off.


Pavlov (1897)

Classical conditioning was first studied in detail by Ivan Pavlov, who conducted experiments that measured the salivation rates of dogs. He found that dogs would produce saliva when they heard or smelt food, in anticipation of feeding. Of course, this is a normal reflex response that we would expect to happen – however, the dogs also began to salivate when events occurred which would otherwise be unrelated to feeding. By playing sounds to the dogs prior to feeding them (for example, ringing a bell), Pavlov showed they could be conditioned to unconsciously associate neutral, unrelated events with being fed.

Interestingly, humans can be classically conditioned, too. Jingles and catchy slogans can result in a desired outcome, which is why it’s important for brands to be clear on the music, logo or colour palette they want to be associated with. For example, the combination of blue and yellow is something people often associate with Ikea.

Other examples include:

  • The psychology of colour (green is go and red is stop/danger)
  • Reciprocity (you do something nice, in return, they feel obligated to return the favour)
  • Scarcity/FOMO (triggering the fear of missing out if they don’t act right away)
  • Implicit egotism (matching language and tone)
  • Sense of belonging (in keeping with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and people naturally wanting to belong to groups)
  • Persuasion architecture (using arrows or text to direct order and flow)
  • Anchoring (comparing the product they are looking at to a more expensive version)
  • Paradox of choice (giving them options to assess, but not too many to be overwhelmed)
  • Loss aversion theory (people want to avoid losses, as opposed to acquiring gains)


Concluding Thoughts

When it comes to the relationship between psychology and digital marketing, it’s important for us to consider how our advertising tactics will generate a certain consumer behaviour – whether that’s filling in a form or purchasing an item. The more we can do to learn and understand the fundamental ways that humans behave, the more we can make smarter marketing decisions to achieve the desired outcome.


Wondering how you can tap into the psychology of consumer behaviour to generate conversions? Get in touch with our experts today.

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