How to apply psychology to design and content marketing (and attract audience’s attention)


As a content marketer, I have always considered design as the best friend of content. Can better design bring more conversions and content consumption? The simple answer is yes.

In the past, when working on the creation of hubs, blogs, newsletters and content destinations of known international firms, I discovered though that design principles were not as simple and straightforward as I imagined; I realized I was going beyond the boundaries of content marketing, touching a new ‘undiscovered’ domain.

Why do web visitors and content consumers behave the way they do? What can drive readers’ behavior and facilitate content consumption? I realized soon enough that the domain I was investigating was no longer content strategy: it was psychology. Even better, it was psychology applied to content and design with the objective to facilitate and attract visitors’ attention.

Other questions came soon to my mind. How can I apply psychology to content and design? Isn’t persuasion a bad word, or even a dark art? And what does it look like to design without considering users’ psychology?

Why psycology?

Psychology is interlaced into everything we do. Nowhere is this more apparent than when you design products or web sites. Why do users behave the way they do? Which elements of your design are key to facilitating the behaviors you want users to engage in? Psychology helps answer these questions, guiding us to make effective design decisions. Yet psychological principles stem from academic research and literature, which can often be inaccessible for practitioners.

Psychology, definition

This is the first of a series of three posts that will cover: psychology, the study of the mental processes that lead to human behavior, and how you can apply it to design and content, written from a content marketer for content marketers. A comprehensive list of references and contributions is shared at the end of the series.

Design clearly impacts behavior. Good design reflects users’ psychology as a way of meeting their needs. As a content marketer or designer, you might want to understand psychological principles so that you can adapt your content destination to new technologies or social contexts without relearning concrete design patterns. Whether you want to optimize an existing website to make it more intuitive or build a digital experience aligned with how users make decisions, this post might represent a good starting point. You will learn principles of psychology that allow your design to:

  • Facilitate or change user’s behavior
  • Present users with a call to actions (triggers) at the right time
  • Shape users’ positive attitudes toward your design
  • Incorporate social elements and interactions to influence users
  • Persuade/influence users to engage deeper with your content 
Example of good design, Amazon
Example of good design, Amazon


Before we start, a short note on persuasion. This post covers a few principles focused on persuading users. Although I know persuasion has a bad reputation – and I understand why – it isn’t inherently negative; it is just a way to influence, for better or worse. Victor S. Yocco, author of “Design for the Mind: Seven Psychological Principles of Persuasive Design”, writes:

Persuasion has a bad reputation. The word [persuasion] typically conjures up images of a smooth-talking salesperson, someone who doesn’t have your best interests in mind. In design, this can mean trickery and deceit through dark patterns. 

Again, Mr. Yocco, on his article on ‘A List Apart’ adds:

Utilizing dark patterns or tricking a user into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise do is not persuasion. It’s being an asshole.

That’s exactly the point. This post is not about that kind of persuasion. What I’ll present here is a collection of principles, examples and best practices that will make your content and design experience persuasive by making it simple and easy to use in order to trigger behaviors users were already considering. In other words, and in a language more suitable for content marketers, I will write about how to increase conversions via the means of understanding psychology, engaging readers in specific behaviors and creating a call to action at the right time.

Elaboration Likelihood Model applied to Design

Persuasion is part of every aspect of our lives. Politicians want our vote, businesses want us to buy their products, and people want us to like them. This reality is no different for websites, apps, content destinations and other digital properties. Persuasion is a necessary component of good design, ensuring that users will engage with your product or content in the way you intended, leading to the outcome you expected.

Persuasion is communication. At its core, persuasion needs a strong, clear message sent from one party to another. Persuasion involves more than words. Aesthetics, interactions, ease of use, and other factors can make a website or application more persuasive to potential users. Persuasion can reinforce attitudes. Your audience has opinions that need to be strengthened from time to time.

Persuasion goes hand-in-hand with messaging and design, but there are also ways to do it wrong: distractions can undermine your persuasive techniques just as quickly as you can develop them. If your potential user encounters nine pop-ups, long loading time, or three pages of disclaimers to get to the core of your message, there is a high probability they will leave your site before you get your point across. Distractions, whether physical, visual, or intangible, can temporarily halt the whole elaboration process

Academics have attempted to explain how persuasion works on individuals for decades. The Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty and Cacioppo, 1986), one of the most frequently cited models of persuasion, explains how shaping attitudes also shapes behaviors. Incorporating the principles of the Elaboration Likelihood Model into your messages and design will maximize your influence on user attitudes and, therefore, behaviors. The Elaboration Likelihood Model attempts to explain how attitudes are shaped, formed, and reinforced by persuasive arguments.

Central and Peripheral Routes

When someone is presented with information, some level of elaboration occurs. To elaborate on something means to take the time to really think about it. If you have to buy a TV or a car, for instance, you will give lots of thoughts on which car is best for you. You will search on search engines, watch commercials, listen to people, visit a car dealer. Elaboration is the effort someone makes to evaluate, remember, and accept (or reject) a message. Now, we don’t always do so much work. This is what the elaboration likelihood model is about: how likely are we to elaborate, think hard about what we see, read and hear? The level of elaboration then determines which processing route the message takes: central or peripheral.

  • Central route processing means your audience cares more about the message. They’ll pay more attention and scrutinize the quality and strength of the argument. Any attitudes formed or reinforced this way are thought to be more enduring and resistant to counter-arguments.
  • Peripheral route processing happens on a more superficial level. Your audience will pay less attention to the message itself while being influenced by secondary factors, such as source credibility, visual appeal, presentation, and enticements like food, sex, and humor. Attitudes formed or reinforced this way are thought to be less enduring, subject to change through counter-arguments, and in need of continual reinforcement.

How the Two Routes Work

To illustrate the difference between central and peripheral route processing and how messaging and design can be used to simultaneously address each route, let’s look at a few examples

Imagine two potential customers, both in need of a new compact car. Abby is an expert of car and mechanics, and a regular car magazine reader, while Joe barely understand about cars, and is mostly interested in finding a quality car, with good design (he loves design products) at a good price.

While both users will have some level of central route processing (pricing), it is more likely that Abby, with her interest in cars and mechanics, will be attentive to the content and web design. Abby searches for car details, specs and comparison which she finds on It is likely she will be the one going through a central route.

Central route
Central route

Joe, instead, looks at different sites and is finally attracted by the new model of the Mini Cooper. He’s not really interested in technical details. He loves the way the car is presented. He loves the design, and he’s attracted by the customizable color combination. Joe goes through the peripheral route.

Peripheral route
Peripheral route

Now that we have clarified the difference between Central and Peripheral Routes, let’s move to a different example: Amazon.

Amazon has designed its web site with elements of peripheral and central routing. Many elements of its web and content design are meant in fact to appeal to peripheral route processing:

  • the product page’s main point is a nice large photo of the product and is perfect for holding attention
  • it also offers options to view the product from multiple angles and perspectives
  • the filtering options allow potential customers to choose from a broad range of categories that can serve as a shortcut to select a product they have little interest in researching in-depth (e.g. price, rating, age of product).
  • it provides a detailed product description, highlights potential savings, and makes adding to the cart obvious and simple
  • it highlights that free shipping option is available, and this is also a way to compete with physical stores

At the same time, elements like product specs, reviews and the 1-click button facilitate the central route processing. Both routes lead to the same outcome, and design elements are not exclusive to one route or the other. Take a look, for instance, at the following Amazon’s page design showing a high-end watch.

Central Route
Central Route

It is also true that potential customers not interested in tech specs might be easily influenced by other factors. Tudor’s website facilitates peripheral route processing associating watches to different genres of personalities: All Blacks, David Beckham, Lady Gaga.

Peripheral route
Peripheral route
Peripheral route
Peripheral route
Peripheral route
Peripheral route

These examples led to the next step of our path into psychology: what promotes central route processing and high elaboration? How can we push visitors to the central route?

Motivation and ability

Researchers have explored two main factors influencing a shift to the central route: these factors are motivation and ability.

  • Motivation is often influenced by the relevance of a topic to an individual. A user who feels directly impacted by a topic is more likely to process a message through the central route. You can account for this in your own work with a strong message that shows your users why your product is relevant to their lives
  • Ability is a straightforward concept. For central route processing to occur, your message must be in line with the thinking abilities of your audience. If an individual does not have the mental ability to process your message, they will not be able to critically evaluate it, and are guaranteed to process it through the peripheral route. If you want to effectively persuade someone, your message actually has to be conveyed in a way they understand.

In other words: if you want users to actually pay attention to your message, make it directly relevant and easy to understand. Motivation and Ability, and the model interlacing them, Fogg Behavioral Model, will be investigated in the second post of the series.


Featured Image by Ken Treloar

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