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How To Use Behavioral Science In Digital Marketing

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Whitney Blankenship

Content Marketing Manager

Reading Time: 7 minutes

As a marketer, it’s easy to feel like your tactics are a shot in the dark. One email might generate an incredible open rate, and the next might fall flat for what seems like no clear reason.

While both print and digital marketing involve as much art as science, behavioral science is a critical tool for understanding how consumers react to various strategies. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most actionable marketing insights that come to us through behavioral science.

The Top Performing Words in Email Subject Lines

When you’re crafting effective email subject lines, you only have a few words to work with before you start to lose the reader’s attention. With that in mind, the specific words you choose will have a dramatic impact on the performance of each new email.

Decades of behavioral research have pointed marketers toward a small set of words that can generate big results. Nancy Harhut identified some of these “eye magnet” words in a recent Facebook video for the Content Marketing Institute. These are just a few of the top words to integrate into your upcoming subject lines:

  • New
  • Free
  • Introducing
  • Announcing
  • Finally
  • Soon

Harhut also points out that we reliably respond to the concepts of ​​urgency and exclusivity. People are far more likely to be interested in something if they feel like others don’t have access to it, or if they are motivated by a limited-time offer.

A2. Urgency + Exclusivity are both halves of the Scarcity Principle: “Limited times/quantities” and “available to some but not all” are very motivating. #ContentChat

— Nancy Harhut (@nharhut) March 15, 2021

She points to words and phrases like “deadline,” “today,” “now,” “time’s running out,” and “last chance” as powerful ways to create a sense of urgency. Of course, this strategy will backfire if you can’t back up that sense of urgency with a compelling offer.

A2a. Deadlines, “today”, “now,” “time’s running out” and “last chance” all create urgency. #ContentChat

— Nancy Harhut (@nharhut) March 15, 2021

The von Restorff Effect: Picking the Odd One Out

The von Restorff effect refers to the human tendency to remember distinctive pieces of information. For example, if we’re presented with a string of characters like EZQL4PMBI, we’re much more likely to remember the 4 than any of the surrounding letters. Our brains are trained to pick out the outlier among the group.

That principle is just as important in digital marketing. When you send out promotional emails, you’re competing for attention with the rest of the messages in each subscriber’s inbox. It’s up to you to capture the interest of the recipient with both a distinctive subject line and an email containing unique content—something unexpected, personal, and compelling that appears out of place among the usual commercial fluff.

This is where some businesses choose to focus on their story. Stories are deeply rooted in our psychology and can switch on the areas of our brains that give us sensory experiences. We’re naturally attracted to the recognizable patterns within narrative structures and tend to create personal attachments to them, making good storytelling a powerful marketing tool for brands looking to stand out from the crowd.

Of course, your ability to tell a captivating brand story is limited only by your own history and creativity. If you don’t have a unique story to tell (and that’s just fine), the von Restorff effect applies to visual design too. Consumers often respond to emojis, capital letters, and other unusual characters, with these elements immediately grabbing the reader’s attention by breaking up the monotony of a typical text-heavy inbox.

Graphs and Charts: Adding Credibility & Information

Reading about data in plain text can be surprisingly confusing, even when the underlying information is relatively simple. On the other hand, the same data will become far more digestible when it’s presented in the form of a chart or graph.

In fact, research published in the Harvard Business Review found measurably better responses when participants were shown a simple graph—even when the graph didn’t contain any new or exciting information. The researchers hypothesized that participants “associate [graphs] with science and objectivity.”

Charts and graphs give the body of your email significantly more credibility while requiring very little effort. Consumers are also drawn to visual elements, so don’t hesitate to make an interesting chart or graph the central point of your campaign.

A great way to include a chart or graph in your email is through a loyalty system. Include the points-earned graph if your customers have earned points over a certain time frame.

Try to integrate these kinds of informative and colorful visuals into your email content whenever you have the opportunity, especially when displaying a lot of information at once.

Imagery: Playing to Our Visual Needs

Images are a vital element of any promotional email. When used correctly, imagery can break up the monotony of text while communicating valuable information and getting readers more interested in your content.

Unfortunately, far too many digital marketers continue to rely on generic stock photos in their marketing emails. Instead of adding to the message’s body, stock images tend to simply fill space.

Custom images are almost always better than stock images. This is another good example of the von Restorff effect—readers are more likely to form a mental connection with your brand if you include unique visual content in each new email.

Abandoned cart message Omnisend

Images in emails can be especially powerful in cart abandonment messages. A customer has fallen in love with a product enough to add it to their cart—show them why they fell in love in the first place. The more they see the product, the more likely they are to feel they can’t live without it.

Emojis, used sparingly, can help define your content and brand personality and make your subject line and email stand out in crowded inboxes. The easy and attractive visual recognition of emojis helps our customers to process information quicker while naturally drawing the eye to your message. Don’t overdo it though, too many emojis can appear spammy and unprofessional, risking you a trip to the dreaded junk folder.

Landing Pages: Streamlining Focus

Landing pages are the perfect opportunity to keep users engaged when they visit your site. Just like with email subject lines, first impressions are critical to the success (or failure) of a landing page.

When it comes to landing pages, your first priority should be creating segmented landing pages for various types of leads. Users who click through to your site from a product promotion, for example, will be interested in different content compared to users who click through from a welcome email.

The source of a given lead should also play into the specific content of the corresponding landing page. Your goal is to answer any questions they might have about your product or service while providing just enough information to keep them interested in learning more.

The most common mistake in ecommerce landing pages is spending too much time on a product’s bells and whistles rather than speaking to concerns and pain points. Consumers may be interested in features and specifications, but they’re primarily interested in learning how your product will make their life easier.

Product Returns: Turning the Negative to Positive

Retention Marketing Automated Order

Product returns are a nuanced aspect of both in-person and online sales.

Modern consumers expect brands to offer simple, free returns, but this policy can add substantial costs to any retail business.

It’s always good to minimize returns, but making it more difficult to return products will turn buyers away and have a negative effect on customer satisfaction. Return policies are a complicated balancing act, and it may take some time to find the sweet spot for your unique audience.

Making your return policy more lenient can actually reduce the percentage of customers who send products back. Somewhat counterintuitively, giving your customers more time to return their orders may help you avoid returns. This is largely due to the endowment effect, which predicts that people are more hesitant to lose something that they already own.

Think about it like this: the longer you own a product, the harder it will be to give it up. If you only have a few days to return something after a purchase, you won’t have time to form a connection.

If you have a month, on the other hand, you’re more likely to grow accustomed to having the product in your life. Of course, there’s also a chance that you’ll simply forget to make the return.

Extending the return period also comes with other important benefits. Consumers are more likely to trust a brand that offers a generous return policy since this indicates that they’re willing to stand by their products.

Whatever your return policy is, make sure to display it throughout your website. Visitors shouldn’t have to spend time browsing through your site just to learn how to return your products.

The Limits of Behavioral Science in Marketing

Behavioral science is a critical tool for marketers who want to understand what their leads will respond to and how they can leverage those cognitive biases for more successful campaigns. With that being said, it’s important to understand the limitations of behavioral science in digital marketing—as it has been proven once and for all that humans are not rational creatures, and we systematically make choices that defy clear logic.

With this in mind, it’s clear that behavioral science can only give us general insights into the motivations involved in the human decision-making process, it can’t predict exactly how someone will respond in a given situation. The way a subscriber reacts to a given message depends on a wide range of factors, including what time they see it, what they’re doing, and what mood they happen to be in at that time.

Given the limited application of behavioral science to the field of digital marketing, we recommend approaching these ideas as guiding principles rather than as hard and fast rules. Your strategies should always be sensitive to the specific characteristics and tendencies of your unique audience.


Like any other form of analysis, behavioral science is a powerful tool that can help keep your content ahead of the competition. With these tips in mind, you’ll be able to generate a higher open rate than ever before—moving leads through the customer journey while keeping them actively engaged with your brand.

Special thanks to our friends at Omnisend for their insights on this topic.
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