Applying Behavioral Psychology To Inbound Marketing

Behavioral Psychology helps explain why we behave the way we do. But can it be used to inform Inbound Marketing decisions? Learn how marketers are using these principles to drive traffic & conversions.

Behavioral Psychology & Inbound Marketing - iAcquire

One area which has been of interest to me as of late is the field of study known as behavioral psychology. We as human beings often behave in seemingly irrational ways, even though we’d like to think we behave rationally.

Naturally, working in marketing has lead me to become intrigued by the factors that motivate people to take desired actions. For the purpose of this post I’d like to explore a few of the ways behavioral psychology principles come into play within Inbound Marketing. My hope is that we can bring this field of study to the forefront of the Inbound Marketing community and share ideas for its application.

Inbound Marketing As A Practice

Hubspot defines Inbound Marketing as “…the process of using content, social media, search engine optimization, email, lead nurturing and marketing automation to attract and retain customers.”


Image courtesy of Hubspot: http://www.hubspot.com/products/inbound-marketing/

Old time SEOs may dislike the term, others may distrust it. Still it is a term many have begun to accept, is gaining in popularity and covers a broad spectrum of the disciplines many of engage in to drive earned (read ‘unpaid’) traffic.

Just like in other forms of advertising/marketing, we can use principles of behavioral psychology to inform our strategy across all stages of the inbound marketing methodology.

So What Causes Behavior Change?

To be clear, behavioral economics and psychology is a massive field and in no way will this post be a definitive guide. For starters, take a look at this list of Cognitive Biases. It’s massive.

A specific school of thought I’ve found useful in helping to ease into the concepts of behavioral psychology is the Behavioral Change Model put forth by Dr. BJ Fogg, founder of the Persuasion Lab at Stanford University.

Dr. Fogg’s Behavioral Change Model posits that in order for behavior to change, three things must be in place: motivation, ability, and triggers.


Image courtesy of: http://www.behaviormodel.org/

What makes Fogg’s Business Model (FBM) interesting is that both motivation and ability can be traded off to an extent. Hypothetically, an ecommerce store that sells an in-demand product that is scarce in supply could still have a difficult to navigate checkout process and make sales.

As far as content goes, consider these two blog posts and try to decide what motivations the potential reader has before clicking through, and what the ability is to comprehend and act upon the information found within:

It’s Not Co-Citation.. but it’s still awesome! (Or what’s really going on in the SERPs?)

11 valuable Google Analytics advanced segments

Both have more or less numbers of shares, and I would suggest have vastly different levels of ability to act upon. The same might be said of the motivation to click one vs. the other.

Embracing Simplicity in Design

The FBM, however, is a bit more in-depth in explaining what causes a behavior to occur. Specifically, each of the three elements of the model are broken down further.

Ability is explained as a series of simplicity factors, each of which help define how simple a task is. According to Dr. Fogg, the 6 simplicity factors are:

  • Time

  • Money

  • Physical Effort

  • Brain Cycles

  • Social Deviance

  • Non-Routine


I’m unable to embed the video at the moment, but click through to it and watch it in its entirety especially the final part where he explains the difference between True Simplicity and Perceived Simplicity. Tremendous implications exist for the way we as marketers approach our target audience in affecting positive outcomes.

A great example of this in practice is the pricing experiment the Economist performed for their subscription packages. Dan Ariely explains this in Predictably Irrational, whereby the perceived value, (remember money is a simplicity factor) of the highest package decreased when expectations were reduced.

When customers were presented with all 3 options, they overwhelmingly picked the 3rd option, which had the greatest perceived value. When the middle option was removed, customers flocked to the cheaper of the two.

To see a list of similar pricing experiments check out this post from Conversion XL.

For more on the FBM check out Dr. Fogg’s tool to help you get started with identifying what measures to take to change a given behavior.

Machine Learning + Behavioral Psychology



Some of the more fascinating things we’re beginning to see is the continued development of tools that use machine learning algorithms to identify online shoppers’ motives and appropriately hit them with appropriate messaging.

Commerce Science for instance is an E-Commerce plugin that uses big data to analyze shopper motives and then match them with a carefully crafted experience. New visitors to your site could, for instance, be prompted with a welcome note as well as a call-to-action that incentivizes hitting the ‘Like’ button for a coupon on their first future purchase.

Another fascinating example of a tool that allows site owners to mash machine learning and behavioral economics is nanoRep, a customer service tool that learns the answers to common questions and in essence becomes a self-service customer support tool.

Both of these tools play on the motivators, but what about ability?

Warby Parker does a great job at hitting many of the simplicity factors that typically would inhibit an online purchase of glasses. Their Virtual Try-On technology gets a lot of mentions, but their free home try-on feature is equally simple and reduces the Physical Effort required to go to a glasses store.


As far as virtual try-ons go though, I think we’ll start to see more augmented reality tools for websites to use, similar in fashion to Warby Parker’s virtual try-on technology.

The key here is that these technologies reduce both Physical Effort & Brain Cycle, thereby making the process of online shopping closer to simplicity.


Image courtesy of http://fittingbox.com

Additional Reading

There is much to be gained from having a better understanding of behavior psychology. The key, however, is knowing what to do with it. As I said before, I think the Inbound Marketing community is well placed to speak to this area and continue sharing amongst ourselves ways to improve our efforts to attract and keep customers.

To learn more about this field, I’d recommend the following resources as a start. It’s where I’m beginning:





What examples of behavioral economics have you used, or seen out in the wild, as relates to internet marketing?

responses to “Applying Behavioral Psychology To Inbound Marketing”

  1. Grant Tilus says:

    Thanks for this Tom, I’ve always loved idea of understanding how the brain reacts to different marketing tactics.

  2. Nice post Tom! Thinking about the Economist example a bit made me wonder why when the third option was removed the choices changed so dramatically. I thought it was vey interesting that the perceived value disappeared when the middle option was removed. Without the close tie for comparison purposes, even offering two things for $125 didn’t sway people, and the price gap between the options appears to have been too large to have overcome. I always wonder how those types of price gaps effect people.

    Thanks again and look forward to reading more of what you come up with. I’ve had multiple MARKETING people ask me why I studied psychology and business together in college, so there’s clearly more need for this type of work :).

    • tharari says:

      Thanks for reading and the comment Todd. I agree, perceived value is very important in understanding behavior. Lots of ground to cover for sure, but I look forward to reading and learning and sharing as much as I can.

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  10. Spook SEO says:

    Its fascinating that someone had pay attention on human behavior as it is related to marketing and any other field. The idea is that we know how to apply appropriate tactics toward consumers and honestly i love psychology, its like anticipating how will people react and perceive situations which is applicable in marketing.