A Gentle Nudge: Behavioural Economics in Copywriting

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You’re driving home from work on a rainy day. The roads are cluttered and wet, and you’re in that end-of-day mood. 


Someone undertakes you. You spot someone else swerving like a maniac. 


To top it all off, you get home to see someone has parked badly next to your house, forcing you to park further up the street. 


You think to yourself, “Bad drivers have taken over the roads!”. 


You know deep inside that you’re definitely a better driver than these schmucks. And if you ask other people, they’d think they’re better too.


But guess what? Statistically speaking, not everyone can be an above-average driver.


So what’s going on? 


You’re looking at a trick your mind plays on you called a ‘cognitive bias’. 


Simply put, it’s overconfidence. Most people will have a bias and would rank themselves as ‘above’ average’ on most things. 


And that’s just one example.


The mind, though fascinating and powerful, can also be fragile. Full of weaknesses, error and blindspots that distort our decision making. 


As copywriters, it’s key to be able to identify what these biases are, so we can give our target audience a gentle nudge in our direction. 


What is Behavioural Economics? 


You may have heard the term ‘Behavioural Economics’ bandied about in marketing seminars and TED Talks across the land. But what does it actually mean? 


Behavioural economics revolves around studying the moods, biases and mental illusions that inform our decision making. 


Traditionally, economists thought that people were rational decision-makers who would always aim to maximise personal gain and minimise loss in every decision they make. 


If you were to sit down and have a cuppa with classical economic theorists, they’d tell you that if people stopped using the gym, they would cancel their subscription. 


They’d also never spend more than they can afford and would opt for the highest pension deposit scheme available. 


Who does that? Not you. Not me, either.


By understanding why people make the decisions they do, you’ll be able to gently guide them towards the right decision.


Let’s take a look at the range of human cognitive biases that every copywriter should be aware of. 




We’ll keep to this trusty car driving example, shall we? 


You’re driving on a motorway. The radio is on and you’re happily listening to what Tina from Brentford thinks about fox-hunting whilst you cruise at 70 mph. 


You then turn off onto a country road and lower your speed to 30 mph. All of a sudden, it feels like you’re crawling, right? 


Now, consider the opposite. 


You’re driving through a school zone at pick-up time, and your speed is limited to 10 mph. You then turn onto the same 30 mph road. Your speed now doesn’t feel so slow. 


Of course, you’re travelling at the same speed in both instances, but your experiences of those speeds are completely different. 


And that’s because of the psychological bias known as ‘anchoring’. As a copywriter, it’s crucial to know what it is and how it’s used.


For example, Campbell’s soup put their soups on sale with one clever trick; they told customer’s there was a 12 can maximum per customer. 


By anchoring their customers at a higher amount, they were more likely to buy more. Campbell’s went from selling an average of 3.5 cans per customer to 7. 


The trick? They anchored the customers to a high number, which then influenced their final purchasing decision. 


When asked why they bought so many, customers might respond by saying “We needed to stock up”, but the real reason lies in the clever use of anchoring. 




Suppose you’ve had that dreaded phone call after a recent doctor’s check-up. You go into the office and the doctor says you’ll need an operation. 


The doctor says to you “Of 100 people who have this operation, on average, 10 will die”. That doesn’t sound so great, does it? 


However, if the doctor says to you “Of 100 people who have this operation, 90 survive.” All of a sudden, you feel slightly more confident. 


Of course, these two statements point to the same fact but phrased differently.


You can use this technique in copywriting too. When offering someone a choice, make sure that the statement is framed in such a way that draws their attention to the benefit of what you’re selling. 


Say you’re walking along a grocery store aisle. You see two spreadable jars of butter next door to one another. The first reads “Contains 10% fat.” The second reads “Is 90% fat-free.” 


Studies show that you are altogether more likely to pick the latter, even if the two statements are the same. 


Positive framing relies on focusing on the benefits of the product of your services. Words like ‘saving’, ‘improving’ and ‘benefitting’ can frame your proposition positively, and help you market the benefits of your product strategically.


Negative framing can also be helpful in copywriting. You’ll find out why in a sec.


Loss Aversion 


Classical economic theory supposes that people value losses and gains in exactly the same way. 


Yet recent research shows that losing things make people twice as miserable as gaining things makes them happy. 


Let’s take a look at the ‘Mug Experiment’. A group of 40 students were given either a mug or a large bar of chocolate, each with a similar value. 


In the pretests, the students were equally likely to pick one over the other. But when students were asked if they’d like to swap their item, only one in 10 switched their item. 


What does this tell us? People hate losing stuff. 


When it comes to marketing, and especially framing, loss aversion is something you need to be aware of. 


The most obvious examples of loss aversion being used in marketing are the swath of emails claiming “Very limited stock!”, “Last chance to sign up!”, and “Sale ends in 24 hours!”. 


This combines our loss aversion with the ‘scarcity principle’. We deem something more or less valuable depending on how much of that thing is available. 


This form of marketing can be effective for the stock-shifting hard sell. But when done too much, this type of marketing can damage your brand. It’ll make you appear like a discount brand. Yikes!. 


If you send out an email every week claiming this is your last chance to get discount jeans, then the user will stop believing they have something to lose. 


Loss aversion only works if the audience genuinely believes they have something to lose. 


A more subtle way to use loss aversion in your copy is to combine it with your new-found knowledge of framing. Consider these two propositions. 


“Switching energy companies could save you £360 a year.”


“If you don’t switch energy companies today, you could lose up to £360 a year.” 


Of course, the factual statement is the same, but people have a stronger emotional reaction when the statement is framed in terms of losses. 

Status Quo Bias and the Herd Mentality

People are social creatures, and we care very much about what other people do. A classical economist would disagree, because for them, people only make decisions based on gains and losses. 


But real humans don’t behave like that. We care very much about what others do, and this informs our decisions tremendously. 


A great example of this is organ donation. A study published in 2003 showed that the rate of organ donation in Austria was close to 100%, but was 12% in Germany. The difference is simple, opt-in versus opt-out. 


In Austria, you had to actively opt-out of organ donation, whereas in Germany you had to opt-in. Opting-out made it appear as if it was what everyone else was doing. 


To apply this principle to copywriting, you must think about how much people are persuaded by others’ decisions.


Consider these two CTA’s. 


“Be one of the first to join in our free marketing webinar!” 


“Join thousands of other marketers in our free webinar.” 


Us social creatures take joy in herds. By using this principle, you’re making sure that the herd comes your way. 

What Other Experts Think

If you’re going to use scarcity, it’s important to remember that people aren’t stupid. A ‘limited edition’ that’s clearly mass-produced, with no numbering of individual editions, isn’t going to be that compelling. A time window that’s endlessly extended, like those shops that are forever having ‘closing down sales’ and then returning to normal trading, will soon lose its power to motivate.” 


Tom Albrighton, writer, ABC Copywriting

Be as specific as you possibly can in your content – in everything from the statistics you use to the words you use. Generalities and vague pronoun references will get you nowhere.


Julia McCoy, writer, expresswriters.com


Before you start using the techniques above on your copywriting, let’s recap what we’ve got to grips so far.


Good copywriting isn’t just about having a knack for words. It’s also about tailoring everything to how your audience thinks and behaves. 


To be effective, you should be mindful of the words that will make your audience buy more:


  • When offering someone a choice, use words that will highlight the benefits that they will get from the product or service so that they’ll be driven to purchase.
  • Statements like “buy now”, “limited stocks available” and “last chance to buy” create a sense of urgency, but don’t overdo it if you want to be credible.
  • Phrase your CTAs in a way that would encourage your audience to join the bandwagon. Because people are social creatures who go with the flow, they’ll most likely convert.


Consistency and accuracy are key elements in copywriting if you want to persuade people to buy your product or service. Remember to:


  • Get the numbers right when you’re coming up with a package. If you’re saying that your customers will be able to save “as much as 25%”, make sure that it adds up.
  • Know how and when to use reverse psychology when throwing in statistics for your copy. 


We’ve just scratched the surface and the tip of the iceberg of behavioural economics. 


By understanding why people really do what they do, you can level up your writing and pack a punch.


Use these tips and go on, nudge your audience your way.


Love you,

Konrad xx

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About the author

Konrad Sanders CEO & Lead Strategist at The Creative Copywriter
Hey you. I’m Konrad. A full-funnel content strategist and CEO with a pretty darn creative noggin on my shoulders. I run a team of word-slinging cowboys and strategists who blend science with art to help bold brands get their words right at every step of the customer journey. Which means? They sell more stuff and grow predictable revenue. Brands like AECOM, Thomson Reuters, TikTok, Panasonic, Adidas, Mercedes-Benz, plus shedloads of tech scale-ups...and you? Let's connect.

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