When my cat won’t eat the food I’ve given her, I give her “different food,” aka I pick up the dish, transfer said food to a different dish, and set said different dish back down. She then proceeds to gobble up said [same] food.
There’s a name for that effect. And it’s one of nine psychological phenomenons that I’m going to share with you today, that you can use in your copywriting.
But before I do, I want to make one thing clear: I’m not in the business of tricking or coercing anyone into doing something they shouldn’t. That’s not effective copywriting.
That being said, I’m going to share with you how to write not deceiving copy, but copy that harmonizes with your readers’ brains to deliver more attractive, enjoyable, and effective content.
So without further ado, read on to learn:
Let’s do it.
Jump to an effect:
When I first read about this one, I assumed that “Pratfall” was a social psychologist. Turns out, it’s a word that means “a fall onto one’s own buttox.”
The Pratfall Effect (aka the Blemishing Effect) says that competent individuals become more appealing to others after they make a mistake.
Now this doesn’t mean that you need to go around making mistakes. Our definition says that this only happens when the mistake-maker is perceived as highly competent. So you generally don’t make mistakes, but when you do, it’s endearing.
This makes sense because we are attracted to what we can identify with/relate to, and we can all identify with mistakes. So, using this effect in your copywriting can humanize your business, make you an approachable expert, and build emotional connections with your audience.
1. Teach from your own mistakes
In his post on attribution modeling, top PPC expert Mark Irvine starts off with “A Personal Case Study of Attribution Modeling Failure.” Just when you thought you couldn’t like this guy any more than you already do… ya do.
You can also write a blog post around a list of mistakes you’ve made and what you learned from them. Not only are you increasing your interpersonal appeal, but you’re helping others to avoid those mistakes themselves. For example: I Spent $4M on Google Ads – Here Were My 5 Biggest Mistakes.
This headline falls under another copywriting tactic that we’ll get to later (and when we do you’ll see the irony).
2. Apologize when you’ve made one
Back in the day when I was a fledgling content marketer for a different company, one of my coworkers made a mistake that caused a mass email to address people by the wrong first name—disgruntling our subscribers.
She was mortified. Tears were shed. Faces were palmed. But to our delightful surprise, her apology email was met with a fan-mail-like wave of positive and supporting responses.
Now obviously, intentionally making mistakes and apologizing for them is NOT a marketing strategy. But should you have yourself such a pratfall, come forward about it in a personal way.
Here’s an email I once got from Hot Pod, where the writer Nick acknowledges that he “slipped up in the newsletter production this morning; that’s my bad.”
Remember my cat from the intro? Her finally eating the food didn’t have anything to do with the particular dish I switched to, but simply because it was a different dish from the original. In other words, it was the novelty of the dish that made the food more appealing.
The Novelty Effect refers to when there is an improvement or positive result to a change, due NOT to that specific change, but to the fact that there was any change at all. Once the novelty wears off, whatever improved will return back to its original performance.
Here’s how to use the Novelty Effect to your advantage and how to prevent it from messing with your A/B testing.
3. Refresh copy and creative regularly
Or maybe you take advantage of the Novelty Effect. If you find that changing a title or headline on a particular page on your site does seem to spike performance, find out when it wears off and get into the habit of changing it regularly. You could even rotate between three different versions of the same offer.
Same old offer + new copy = “new” offer
4. Change up your blog posts
It can get easy to fall into the trap of posting the same type of blog post over and over again. But this is an easy way to become wallpaper for your audience. So don’t just occasionally change it up to generate some engagement. Always be writing different types of posts so that your blog is a novelty in and of itself.
There are lots of different blog post types:
5. Be careful with A/B testing
A/B testing your landing page or ad copy is the best way to find out what works, but according to the Novelty Effect, that spike in clicks or conversions after changing your copy may not be due to the copy itself. It could just be that people got so used to (and bored with) seeing the original copy that the new copy catches their attention.
As Instapage suggests, if you’re doing any sort of split testing with your marketing copy, make sure to either give the experiment time for the novelty to wear off, OR run the test to a new audience or new visitors to your site. This way, you can ensure that it really was the copy that improved conversion—and that the improved conversion rate won’t drop off.
The Priming Effect comes in handy not for your call to action copy, but for the copy preceding it.
The Priming Effect says that what we do in a particular situation is influenced by what we saw or heard directly prior to that situation—EVEN if we didn’t consciously take note of those things AND without realizing we’re connecting the two together.
One type of priming is called the Florida Effect. In this 1996 social experiment, people who were unconsciously exposed to words associated with old age actually walked slower than those who were exposed to random words.
In other words, the words they were exposed to primed their behavior.
This means that the words and phrases you use in your copy are priming people left and right. Heck, you’re being primed right now (for what, I don’t know; I’m not doing it on purpose). So harness the power of psychology to influence your readers’ decisions.
6. Use emotional words before you get to the ask.
If you want people to feel and act confident in clicking that CTA button on your page, well then prime them with emotional words and phrases that cause them to feel that way.
If you want them to feel like an expert in their field who is worthy of your product, cater your copy to those emotions. Or maybe you want them to feel fearful of an outcome so as to seek safety with your service. Prime their behavior with emotional words—in fact, here are 273 emotional words and phrases you can choose from.
7. Tell readers what to expect in your intros
Another aspect of priming says that leading off with the purpose of a piece of content improves comprehension and recall of that content. So let’s take a look at this introductory paragraph to a recent blog post by the fabulous Susie Marino. The title of the post is “How to Improve Google Shopping ROAS with Priority Bidding.”
Instead of leading off with a brief explanation of what priority bidding is, she leads off with a clear picture of what readers can expect from the post as a whole—what value they will get out of it.
Based on the words encased in red, readers can quickly understand that she’s going to walk them through a somewhat complex strategy that will help them save on their ad spend. She’s got their attention and they want to read more.
The Focusing Effect tells us to be strategic in how we organize information.
The Focusing Effect says that people make decisions according to the most pronounced and distinct information available in their working memory—meaning they don’t factor in equally important information that is less prominent in their brains.
So we know about staying “top-of-mind.” This is why we run ads, publish articles, post on social media, and send emails. But “top-of-mind” doesn’t mean “pronounced and distinct.” And it’s not your business in general that you want top of mind here, but rather, information specific to the decision you want your readers to make.
9. Strategically place information before your CTA
So even though I know that GC provides eco-friendly products, this distinct fact in my head gives much more meaning to the plastic-free bottle they are offering. No persuasion tricks needed—just simple facts.
10. Make the core value proposition large and obvious
The Focusing Effect is also why you need a strong unique selling proposition—for your business overall but also mini-USPs for each of your offerings. The idea is to make the ultimate benefit as clear and obvious as possible to readers before reading anything else on your page. With this focal point, they’ll read everything else through the lens of that ultimate benefit.
So if I land on Digit’s website, I will now read everything through the lens of becoming less worried about my money—whether I mean to or not. This is what their app does, and I am oriented to that as soon as I arrive.
The BYAF Effect is less for sales copy but more for smaller asks you make.
The But You Are Free Effect (BYAF) says that telling people they don’t have to do something makes it more likely that they will.
As Jonathan Becher explains in his article, a study on over 22,000 subjects found that when people were asked to but also told they didn’t have to, they donated more money, more readily agreed to take a survey, and gave more money to someone asking for bus money home.
In other words…
This tactic isn’t the best for influencing the decision of whether to buy or not, but rather which one to buy. However, you can use it in the “to do or not to do” sense with smaller/non-monetary asks.
11. Use the phrase directly
Here are some examples, such as with asking for a review, suggesting a package or resource, or gaining and retaining email subscribers.
- We would love it if you left us a review, but you are of course free to pass as well!
- Our clients see the best success with this package, but you are free to decide.
- We think this resource would be a great fit but you are free to decide.
- We think you’ll love our newsletter, but you are free to just browse around our site.
- Are you sure you want to unsubscribe? We hate to see you go, but you are free to do whatever makes your inbox happy!
13. Try other ways of saying it.
And you don’t always have to use those exact words with this persuasion technique. Alternatives include:
There are sequences everywhere in copywriting, so think outside the box with this one.
Also called the Serial Position Effect, this is where people are most likely to remember the first and last items in a sequence.
12. Convey clear value in your introductions and conclusions
Write attention-grabbing introductions that convey what the reader will get out of the post; and conclude with a numbered or bulleted list recapping what you covered and reinforcing that ultimate benefit. This way, even if they don’t retain the details of the post, they will retain the association of your business with that ultimate benefit.
13. Bullet out features strategically
Make sure your most important items are the first and last in the list. This goes for product descriptions, listicles, feature/benefit lists, and more.
Make your two most important points the first and last items in your lists.
14. Write powerful email subject lines and closing statements
As Kaleigh Moore points out, this also means that the opening and closing lines of your emails are your two “most valuable pieces of real estate.”
So your copy should be easy to read for obvious reasons—no one likes unnecessary difficulty. But as it turns out, it also has a profound effect on our perception of truth.
The Cognitive Fluency Effect says that the easier it is to process a piece of information, the more we will perceive it as true and accurate. The idea here is that our brains don’t have time to pay special attention to something it has already encountered—but that also goes for things similar to what it has encountered.
This great UXmatters article on the topic describes a study where people who read a set of statements that were easy to read rated them as more truthful than people who read the same set of statements that were harder to read.
In short: Because familiarity is fluent for us, fluency feels familiar to us (even if it’s not).
I have three suggestions here.
15. Make it easy to read (be familiar, not fancy)
In my article on how to write copy that sells, I provide lots of tips on how to do this: remove adjectives, fancy words, non-words, and more. One of my examples was from Sleeknote.
While Sleeknote offers plenty of advanced features and benefits in the way of click-through rate, conversion rate optimization, campaigns, domains, custom CSS, and more—you don’t see any of that language here. You see simple, familiar terms that don’t make them look like they’re trying to impress you or convince you of anything. It inherently feels more trustworthy.
16. Write in conversational style
This one’s a no-brainer. Write your blog posts, emails, and other website copy as if you’re conversing with your audience—not giving a course lecture. Take this LOCALiQ blog post on How to Claim Your Business on Google, for example. The author, Mary Lister, is great at writing conversational copy. She writes:
“Most people tell you that Google My Business (GMB) is essential for local SEO, and they’re not wrong, but it’s also a big step to getting on the map, period. Even if you don’t have a brick-and-mortar location, verifying your business with Google will make you searchable — and findable — when you want to stand out from your competition.”
With the information so simply put (including the “This could be you!” caption on the diagram), it’s easier to understand and trust that it’s true. (Of course, make sure you’re explaining actually true facts here.)
Our brain says that conversational = familiar = true
What’s better than conversational copy? Conversational bucket brigades. Learn about this copywriting technique.
17. Be super blunt
You can also use cognitive fluency for your taglines.
There’s another aspect of cognitive fluency that I want to cover, where the difficulty of reading or absorbing the information is transferred onto the process it is describing.
So in other words, it’s not just about the exact words you use in your copy, but how that copy appears to the eye.
So in the example UXmatters gives, people were asked to choose between two phones. For one group, the information about the phones was presented in an easy-to-read font. For the other group, it was in a more difficult font.
For the difficult font group, 41% postponed their decision. For the easy font group, only 17% of postponed the decision.
Unsurprisingly, these tips have more of a design focus.
18. Present information clearly
The first is that the more difficult it is to obtain the information for a decision, the more difficult the decision will appear to be. This is why pricing pages and cognitive fluency have a bit of a turbulent relationship. It’s essential to make sure your pricing page copy is easy to understand and visually organized in a way that supports decision-making.
Check out this example by Semplice.
There’s more information on that page, of course. But this is the primary visual on the page, and its simplicity in both design and copy helps the reader get oriented and understand their options right away. Now, they don’t have to dig through the details to come up with a potential decision. They can have a decision in mind and then read on to gather more details.
19. Describe easy processes…easily
The other implication of the Cognitive Fluency Effect is that the more difficult it is to read instructions for a task, the more difficult we perceive the task to be. I’ve seen plenty of emails and websites where a business says “[Doing X] is easy!” and then plunges you into a sea of words. This is just one mild example:
A numbered list within a numbered list, followed by a bulleted list = not easy
If you want your readers to believe that it’s easy, you need to make your copy concise and easy to digest. You can always add more details in a subsequent section on the page, or link to a longer page. For example:
20. Use easy-to-read fonts
If you want to convey that a process is easy, you also must make sure the font you use is easy to process. Studies have proven that when people read a simple set of instructions for a particular process, the more difficult the font, the more time they estimate the task to take.
The more difficult the font, the more difficult the process your copy is describing is perceived to be.
Don’t worry, we’re not tricking our readers with this effect.
The Illusory Truth Effect says that the more often we are exposed to a message, the more important our brain perceives it to be, and the truer it becomes. In one study, survey participants were asked to rate a particular statement according to how trustworthy it was. Participants who had been exposed to that statement multiple times were more likely to rate it as true than those who had been exposed only once.
So basically, brainwashing. But like I said, that’s not what we’re doing with our copy here.
Your goal is not to convince your readers of an illusory truth. Use this effect to drive home important messages that support your product, service, or brand.
21. Use repetition
Take this example from ThoughtSpot. Whether you’re on their homepage, browsing Facebook, or scrolling through LinkedIn, you see the same thing repeated over and over: “Dashboards are dead.”
Of course, data dashboards are far from dead. And ThoughtSpot is not trying to trick you into believing otherwise. Rather, their product makes true the fact that there are better ways to report on your data these days. And with repetition throughout their assets, they are building this truth in your mind.
22. Be consistent
You also don’t have to repeat the same exact statement over and over. You can consistently convey the same message over and over using different words and phrases.
Let’s take a gander through ReferralCandy’s Twitter feed, Facebook page, blog posts, and homepage.
Remember this from earlier?
When I said “This headline falls under another copywriting tactic that we’ll get to later (and when we do you’ll see the irony).”
By saying “we’ll get to that later,” I created an open loop without even realizing it.
Which is why I then added the parenthetical after: “(and when you do you’ll see the irony).”
Which I then realized made it an even more compelling open loop.
Apparently I’m an open-loop machine.
The Zeigarnik Effect (Open-Loop Effect) says that our brains focus on and better remember incomplete tasks (open loops) more than it does complete tasks (closed loops). And this doesn’t just apply to actual physical tasks, but mental ones too. Like, finding out what happens at the end of [the latest show you’re binge-watching on Netflix].
The brain longs to close loops. This is why we get curious. Love stories. Click on clickbait.
So in copywriting, open loops are basically teasers, and there are lots of ways to insert them into your content. The idea is to provide just enough information to pique interest, but not enough to close the loop.
23. Use “one” in your titles
Of course, you’ll want the outcome to be compelling as well. So in this YouTube video title, we read “How we used this one simple strategy to generate 43,000 leads for our business in 10 months.”
And what’s great about this type of title is that you don’t have to focus on one thing in your video or blog post. For example, you can provide one mistake and then give X tips on how to avoid it.
24. Include your favorite
When you’re sharing a list of tips, strategies, examples, or mistakes, add your favorite one to the title. For example:
25. Take the “find out” approach
If you’re trying to get someone to sign up for a webinar or download an ebook, take the approach of “find out [why, how, when, etc.]”
In this example, you learn that by signing up for the webinar, you can close those open loops that your brain is now itching to close. You’ll find out why more than 20% of marketing emails reach the inbox. And why click-throughs only represent 1/4 of total responses. And how subscribers really feel about email relevance. Great work Validity.
26. Throw some loops into your blog post intros
So as I demonstrated in this post, you can throw in little open loops to keep readers engaged in the current piece of content. Use phrases like:
Or start off your blog post with a novel-style opener.
Use these tips and psychological effects to write copy that builds your brand, earns your readers’ trust, and makes for a positive experience overall. Let’s sum it all up:
Kristen is the Senior Managing Editor at WordStream, where she helps businesses to make sense of their online marketing and advertising. She specializes in SEO and copywriting and finds life to be exponentially more delightful on a bicycle.
See other posts by Kristen McCormick
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