Behavioral Science: The Magic That Turns Prospects Into Customers

November 26, 2019

By Greg Zakowicz(opens in new tab), commerce marketing analyst
 7-minute read

In short:

  • The study of human behavior can boost sales and customer loyalty when marketers apply it to their campaigns.

  • A behavioral science marketer -- yep, that’s a real job! -- explains 10 practical ways to work her field’s findings into your landing pages, emails, etc.

  • Some of the most fascinating tips involve using specific words in headlines and certain font sizes in price listings.



If you ask a hundred people what makes a good article headline or email subject line, you may get a hundred different answers. After all, it’s subjective, isn’t it? 

Not entirely, as many marketers know. There’s a science behind what makes a consumer open an email, click on a call to action (CTA) and make a purchase. Whether it’s writing an attention-grabbing headline or getting someone to “click and convert,” understanding that people rely on certain decision-making defaults helps marketers nudge them to take a desired action. 

Nancy Harhut is a behavioral science marketer who has worked with companies including AT&T, Sheraton and American Express on using behavioral science to improve marketing campaigns. She recently joined me on “The Commerce Marketer Podcast,”(opens in new tab) where she outlined ways any business can begin using behavioral science to improve marketing:


1. Write effective headlines and subject lines.

  • Use “eye magnet” words. 

Words like “new,” “now,” “introducing,” “finally” and “announcing” attract the human eye, almost like magnets, and using words like these in your headlines can draw readers’ attention.

Let’s take the word “new,” for example. The brain is hardwired to crave novelty, and our brains release dopamine when they think they’ve found it. If you have something new to offer, such as products, trends or styles, let people know.

  • Be on alert. 

“Alert” is another one of those magnetic words, but this one stands out because humans are wired to always be on the lookout for danger. 

This likely explains why, back in 2013, Adestra found(opens in new tab) that using this word increased email open rates. After all, what appeals to that human tendency more than an “alert”? (OK, maybe “danger.” Hey, go ahead and try that one too.)

  • Take advantage of the Von Restorff effect.

The Von Restorff effect(opens in new tab) says that humans are programmed to remember things that are different and stand out. When it comes to headlines and subject lines, you can stand out by using symbols like emoji, ellipses, brackets and text capitalization. While some marketers use these, they aren’t used frequently — you’ve got an opportunity to use them to stand out. 

Here are a couple of subject lines that stood out to me last holiday season, thanks to the Von Restorff effect: 

Some of my favorite subject lines from last holiday season

2. Use social proof to influence future customers.

When people are unsure of which action to take, they often look to others and follow their lead (following a herd) as a decision-making default. This is why social proof can be so effective.

Ways to use social proof to increase sales(opens in new tab) include spotlighting customer product reviews, user-generated content, employee picks or a Q&A section on product pages. Others include:

  • Tap into the herd. 

When it comes to product suggestions, think about the herd mentality. Your e-commerce site, for example, might showcase the volume of its recent sales and the number of customers it has served. It might also highlight popular products, fastest-growing categories, most-visited categories and back-in-stock items.

  • Use testimonials.

Testimonials work as a motivator because while some consumers doubt what marketers say, they’re much more comfortable believing what someone “like them” says. To turn a good testimonial into a great one:

Make sure the testimonial giver is as similar to the receiver as possible. For instance, if you are marketing to a pregnant woman or new mother, asking a twentysomething male to tell your story likely won’t fetch the results you desire. Choose someone who fits the demographic of the intended receiver. 

Start where your prospect is. Very often, that’s from a place of skepticism. Your prospect may be wondering to themselves, “Why should I buy this?” or “Is this really as good as they say it is?” By recognizing where they are in their thought process, you know where to start their messaging journey.

For example, instead of using a testimonial that says “XYZ company is great,” you can use one that resonates with the emotions of the consumer. This testimonial could say, “I used to think all companies were the same, but XYZ has really stood out from the rest.” The latter messaging appeals because it relates to exactly what the prospect is thinking.

Customer testimonials tap into humans' desire to "follow the herd."



3. Focus on the customer’s perspective in content and on landing pages.

Too often marketers are focused on the we — what do we as a company want to say? If you spend too much time saying what we want and not enough time saying what they want to hear, you’ll lose the customer.

Again, think of the testimonial example from above. While it may sound like a great idea to tell prospects about all of the bells and whistles of your product, saying how it can help them might be a better path to take.


4. Choose images wisely.

  • Follow the eye.

Human beings are hardwired to pay attention to human faces, particularly their eyes. If you use a face in your creative, make the image work for you. Have subjects in your pictures making eye contact with the customer. Alternately, since we are also trained to follow eye gaze, have them look to the place you want your readers’ eyes to look.

  • Be better than stock.

Stock images are common in marketing, both in B2B and B2C. The overuse of stock images makes them more resemble wallpaper than a marketing asset, and consumers will often gloss right over them. To be effective, you’ll want to use unique or more authentic images(opens in new tab) in your marketing.

For example, Harhut recalled that when looking through travel websites for trips to Niagara Falls, one website featured a picture of children having their faces painted. This was the only site she could remember having a more personal feel to it, and it stood out to her (just like the Von Restorff effect says). The single use of an authentic, non stock image could have a significant impact on sales. 

5. Use charts and graphs.

They provide more than visual punctuation – they provide credibility. A 2015 study(opens in new tab) from Cornell University found the presence of a chart in a persuasive article did not necessarily make things easier to understand, but it provided a sense of scientific veracity. The mere fact that there was a chart or graph suggested to the reader that the content was true. (Of course, we recommend the use of accurate and truthful graphs.) 

Research into human preferences suggests using charts in your online articles lends credibility.



6. Leverage the principle of authority.

As kids, we’re taught to respect authority. If an authority tells us something, we tend to believe it. Thus, use authoritative signals such as any certification badges your company holds, membership association icons, quotes from experts — hey, even images of medical staff in lab coats if your business has them! — to support your content. Landing pages are a great place to implement this principle.


7. Make sure the price is right.

How and where companies display prices can make a big difference — especially on landing pages. Popular marketers’ theory holds that prices located in the upper corner of a landing page may appear to consumers to be a higher price than the same price sitting in the lower corner. After all, it’s literally higher. 

Harhut cited studies that suggest reducing the font size(opens in new tab) of the dollar sign in a price can make the price more attractive to consumers, as the perceived value appears greater. The goal when displaying prices in your marketing content is to reduce the perceived pain of paying, to encourage purchases.

To make prices seem less daunting, consider putting them in the lower corner of the screen and in smaller font.


8. Choose the right button color.

Those in marketing circles have heard this for years: Changing the color of the CTA button can make a significant difference in click rates.

So, is it true? Yes and no. It is not one color that is necessarily better than another; it’s how you use them. 

When choosing a color, select one that contrasts with everything else in your creative so it stands out and is easy to find. Using ghost buttons, or buttons that are the same color as their background and have only a lined border, can make it harder for consumers to find your CTA and take action. 

A good rule of thumb is to remember that you are in the business of making sales, not art.



9. Use ownership to reduce product returns.

Returns are costly, and retailers usually don’t like them. Behavioral science can help reduce returns: Position returning as the consumer “giving up” or “losing” a possession. 

When we need to part with something we already own, we react differently. This is known as the endowment effect. The longer we own something, the less likely we are to return it, because we tend to place greater value on items the longer we’ve owned them. 

Extending return policies can play into this effect, as it allows the customer to keep the product longer, theoretically making it harder for them to part with it. (This is just one of several(opens in new tab) tactics retailers can use to minimize returns, by the way.) 


10. Get tactile in your physical marketing.

Online behavioral marketing tactics are similar to best practices in the physical world. Offline, we still rely on the same decision-making defaults and are wired the same way. However, in the physical world, it’s all about the science of touch, or haptics. 

Take direct mail(opens in new tab), for instance. Whether it’s smooth, rough or textured, the way a piece of mail feels can matter. Remember the Von Restorff effect? With mail, this can extend beyond the feel of the paper to how the mail must be opened. Does it come in an ordinary envelope, or is there a zip strip that a prospect needs to engage and pull?  

The way a product feels may affect how prospects feel about your brand. If a product feels soft, it can make the consumer think your brand is warm and comforting. If a product is rugged and rough, it can make the brand appear sturdy and represent quality.

In stores, allowing shoppers to to touch your product brings into play the endowment effect, likely making it harder for them to put the item back and walk away.

Alert! A new approach to marketing

Using behavioral science in your marketing can provide incremental lifts in sales and loyalty that ultimately pay off big-time. For more tips, listen to my interview with Harhut on episode 60 of “The Commerce Marketer Podcast.”(opens in new tab)

NetSuite has packaged the experience gained from tens of thousands of worldwide deployments over two decades into a set of leading practices that pave a clear path to success and are proven to deliver rapid business value. With NetSuite, you go live in a predictable timeframe — smart, stepped implementations begin with sales and span the entire customer lifecycle, so there's continuity from sales to services to support.