What a Cognitive Bias Is, And How to Use It for Digital Marketing Mastery

As humans, we like to think of ourselves as objective, logical, and unbiased when it comes to our thinking and decision-making abilities.


As if nothing could cloud our thoughts or persuade us to think illogically.

But that’s not how things are.

In fact, at times, we’re quite irrational and heavily influenced by people as well as a host of other variables.

Many of our choices and actions are ultimately controlled by what’s known as cognitive biases.

What’s a cognitive bias?

Chegg Study nailed it pretty well with their definition:

“A cognitive bias is a mistake in reasoning, evaluating, remembering, or other cognitive process, often occurring as a result of holding onto one’s preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information.”

They also point out that “psychologists study cognitive biases as they relate to memory, reasoning and decision making.”

I also like Wikipedia’s statements that “individuals create their own ‘subjective social reality’ and that cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.”

In other words, a cognitive bias is our tendency to think in an irrational way.

The interesting thing is that it has nothing to do with intelligence. Even the most brilliant person in the world is susceptible to it.

It ultimately boils down to the way our brains are wired.

Understanding this concept can be quite beneficial from a marketing standpoint.

Here are some specific cognitive biases I have used in my marketing that can work for you too.

The bandwagon effect

Let’s start with one of the most basic cognitive biases: the bandwagon effect.

I am sure you’ve heard the term “jumping on the bandwagon” before.

When a large number of people give a collective thumbs up to a product/service, it validates it in the eyes of others.

After all, if everyone else agrees that it’s good, it must be good.

In turn, this makes us more likely to “jump on the bandwagon” and buy the product/service.

We may also be more inclined to be brand advocates and willingly promote it.

I often find myself being a little skeptical before making a purchase. But when I see positive confirmation from others, I’m much more likely to buy.

Using this type of cognitive bias for your benefit as a marketer is quite easy and can be done in several ways.

Here are some ideas:

The anchoring effect

This is a technique that countless companies use to make us feel we’re getting a good deal.

According to Harvard Law School, the anchoring effect “is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the ‘anchor’) when making decisions.”

Here’s how it works.

You present your prospects with an initial price on a product (the anchor).

Let’s say it’s $1,000.

Then, after discussing the features, benefits, etc., you state that the product actually costs only $250.

Presto! Instantly, your prospects feel that the product is a great value.

Had you started at $250, they’d probably feel only so-so about the product and may think that it’s expensive.

By setting an anchor, you help your prospects feel they’re getting a good deal.

Steve Jobs even used the anchoring effect to get people excited about the iPad.

Here’s a transcription of what he said during its release.

“What should we price it at?” asked Jobs.

“If you listen to the pundits, we’re going to price it at under $1000, which is code for $999.”

He put a giant “$999” up on the screen and left it there for ages before finally going on.

“I am thrilled to announce to you that the iPad pricing starts not at $999,” said Jobs, “but at just $499.” On-screen, the $999 price was crushed by a falling “$499.”

While $499 might have seemed steep initially, setting the anchor at $999 made it seem quite fair or even inexpensive.

You too can use the anchoring effect to your advantage and get a higher conversion rate by starting high with your pricing and then lowering it.

The halo effect

The halo effect happens when we look at one quality in a person in a positive light and extend that positive regard to the rest of their qualities.

For instance, if we think of a person as being trustworthy, we’re more likely to believe they’re also smart, responsible, ethical, and so on.

The halo effect originated in a paper written by psychologist Edward Thorndike back in 1920.

“In a study, he asked two commanding officers to evaluate their soldiers in terms of their physical qualities (like neatness, energy and physique) and their mental, emotional and social qualities (like intellect, leadership and responsibility).

Thorndike found that, if one of the soldier’s qualities was rated highly, the other qualities tended to be rated highly, and vice versa.”

It’s basically a “cognitive shortcut” that allows us to form judgments and connect the dots with greater ease in an extremely complicated world.

But how does the halo effect relate to marketing?

It’s simple. If you can impress your audience in one area and make them view you in a favorable light, they’re more likely to have an overall positive opinion of you.

ConversionXL points out some specific ways companies capitalize on the halo effect:

It’s because of this cognitive bias that it’s so insanely important to have a professional, aesthetically pleasing, and functional website.

Because a brand’s website is often the first thing visitors see, it can make or break you.

If it looks great, you’re likely to give the perception of quality and value.

Take Squarespace, for example. Their website looks great:

But if it looks terrible, like some late 1990s Angelfire monstrosity (sorry, Angelfire), it can immediately kill your credibility.

The belief bias

This term is defined as “the tendency to judge the strength of arguments based on the plausibility of their conclusion rather than how strongly they support that conclusion.”

There are two ways the belief bias can be applied to marketing.

One is when people become skeptical of your product/service because it sounds too good to be true.

Say your landing page makes such outlandish claims that prospects doubt their validity. Even if you provide proof in the form of facts, data, graphs, etc. to support your claims, your website visitors will still be less likely to buy from you.

But you can overcome this problem by ensuring your claims aren’t too far fetched. For example, a men’s cologne company wouldn’t want to make the claim that simply wearing the cologne will instantly make every man irresistible to women.

You can also use the belief bias to your advantage by showing potential customers how your product/service is going to help them rather than merely explaining why it’s good.

At the end of the day, each prospect is concerned with one important thing: how it will improve their life or solve their pain point.

Here’s a good example from the team collaboration tool Slack:

In the graph above, we can see just how much more productive Slack makes teams.

And in this graph (above), we can see that finding information with the tool is much easier for its users and that it has a positive impact on company culture.

Notice how these claims aren’t over the top or make the product seem too good to be true. They simply state some key benefits that users have experienced.

Keeping it ethical

Keep in mind that using a cognitive bias for marketing gain shouldn’t be done as a form of nefarious manipulation.

That’s obviously no way to run a business or build your brand.

Although you may get an initial sale, you’re unlikely to get repeat business, and it’s going to damage your brand reputation in the long run.

It’s also going to make it extremely difficult to establish a sustainable, long-term business.

You want to be ethical when using these techniques.

I recommend viewing cognitive biases simply as a means of connecting with your audience more quickly—as a way to gain their attention, move them through the sales funnel more efficiently, and increase your odds of converting them into customers.

I find it fascinating how psychology and marketing are becoming more and more intertwined.

It’s interesting to see how applying some basic psychological principles to a marketing campaign can make it more effective and deliver better results.

I have personally experimented with all of these cognitive biases in some form and can definitely vouch for their validity.

It’s simply a matter of understanding how the human mind works and hitting the right buttons from a psychological standpoint.

If you haven’t already done so, I suggest implementing at least a couple of these strategies into your marketing campaign and observing the results.

They are all proven ways to improve your conversion optimization, expedite brand growth, and boost profitability.

Can you think of any other types of cognitive biases that could be useful for marketing?

This content was originally published here.

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