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How Behavioral Psychology Can Improve Your Content Marketing Strategy

December 18, 2014

By Amber Kemmis

Behavioral psychology (a.k.a behaviorism) is the branch of psychology that emphasizes the importance of observable behavior rather than unobservable elements of the mind like thinking and feeling. Psychologists including famous behaviorists like Skinner, Watson and Pavlov examined human behavior using experimental and scientific methods to help them understand why people behave in certain ways.  More importantly, they used their findings to shape future behavior, specifically, problem behavior.
As an example of a behavioral psychology experiment, in one of Watson’s most famous studies known as Little Albert, Watson would ring a loud bell each time he presented a small child, Albert, with a rat. As a result of the pairing, Albert came to fear the rat. This study  demonstrates how psychologists like Watson used principles of behaviorism to shape the actions of others. Watson created a behavior, fear, in Albert to better understand how behaviors come to be (Today, a study like this is completely illegal). Now, what does this have to do with content marketing?

The Connection Between Content Marketing & Behavioral Psychology

Marketers use content marketing to attract website visitors, convert leads and ultimately close sales. Thus, the whole purpose of content marketing is to get prospects to take action, which is exactly the purpose of behavioral psychology. Although most behaviorists started out studying problem behavior like tantrums or nasty habits, the field has grown far beyond these problem behaviors to application in marketing. By understanding some of the important concepts in behavioral psychology, marketers are able to better utilize content marketing to get prospects to take action.

Content Marketing Strategy Should Be More Like a Behavioral Strategy

As mentioned in the introduction, behaviorists rely on scientific methods to better understand behavior. When they do this, they ensure that they follow the basics of a behavioral strategy, which help them to effectively change problem behaviors, by clearly defining the behavior, observing it, completing an experiment and then reporting on the results. Your content marketing strategy should also do the same by doing the following:

  • Define the goal of your content marketing strategy. What do you want your audience to do? What should your content help you accomplish?

  • Who is your audience? Knowing your audience or buyer persona will help you to create content you know will motivate.

  • As your content is out there growing your leads, make sure to observe performance.

  • Reporting on the results is important because it allows you to learn opportunities for the future. If one aspect of the campaign wasn’t particularly effective, you can change it up next time.

Reinforcement in Content Marketing

B.F. Skinner explained that any type of learned behavior occurs as a result of the antecedents to the behavior. His theory is known as operant conditioning. A central component of this theory is known as reinforcement, which increases the occurrence of the behavior. However, if reinforcement is absent, the behavior will become extinct.  For example, a dog will perform a trick each time he is asked because he knows he will be reinforced with a treat. One week the dog’s owner forgets to pick up treats at the grocery store and the dog no longer performs tricks.

Since reinforcement is an important part of any behavior from dog tricks to an online quest for new shoes, it should come as no surprise that it is also essential in content marketing.  Here are some ways that it is important to specific elements of content marketing:

  1. Content offers: Considering the offer itself is the reinforcement, you want to be sure it is really good. Not only that, it has to be relevant. I won’t do backflips for a dog treat like my pooch would. This is why it is critical to create content based on buyer personas.

  2. Conversion paths: In a recent post, I discussed the importance of reinforcement in landing pages and CTAs. You can read it here, but in short, your conversion path should seamlessly deliver the reward or reinforcement.

  3. Email marketing: Each email you send to your contacts can be thought of as an experimental trial.  If you send non-segmented, mass emails often (spam), there will be no reinforcement and extinction will occur (unsubscribes).  Every email you send should be delightful and reinforce the contact’s decision to prescribe in the first place. Here is a guide on how to improve email marketing automation.


Some behaviors require more time and work than others.  A dog won’t learn to do backflips the first time you show him a treat.  Instead, behaviors may have to be acquired over time and in multiple steps.  Behaviorists refer to this as shaping.  With shaping, behaviors are learned in successive approximations. Typically, these behaviors are more difficult.

Customer acquisition is a great example of a behavior that requires shaping, which is why marketers use content marketing in the first place.  Each time a contact engages with a brand’s content, they are, if done right, getting one step closer to becoming a customer.  Although content in social media or on your website is important to shaping a contact to be a customer, the most central component of this is lead nurturing.

To learn how to use lead nurturing effectively and, in essence, use shaping to turn contacts into customers, check out this blog.

In addition to the basic principles of behavioral psychology, there are many more theories that can be applied to content marketing. What are some of those you have used?

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Topics: Content Marketing, Inbound Marketing