Marketing in Mind

by Jessica Ramesh

Web Psychologist Nathalie Nahai is the author of the book Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion. Figaro Digital caught up with her to chat about ethics, web design, psychographic profiling and whether there’s a ‘buy’ button in the brain

Anyone who’s been near a digital marketing conference recently will be fully familiar with rule number one in the online marketers’ manual: know your customers. Easy to say, of course. But since customers are also human beings, consumer behaviour is subject to a vast range of influences and impulses. Some of those are broadly predictable. Others may appear wildly random.

Web psychologist Nathalie Nahai is the author of the book Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion, which helps businesses understand behaviour online by applying the principles of psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics. A frequent speaker at industry events, she also works directly with brands and agencies as a consultant and trainer and runs her own weekly podcast.

“I’m interested in how the online environment affects our behaviour and actions,” she says. “If you’re looking at a website, what psychological principles are employed in the design, copy and user experience? What principles are being employed to encourage people to take certain actions?”

Nudge theory

The interface between marketing and psychology, of course, goes back to the birth of both disciplines. Back in the 1950s Vance Packard’s bestsellerThe Hidden Persuaders presented a proudly sceptical account of the methods employed by Mad Men-era advertisers to influence consumers. Here in the digitised 21st century we’re highly aware of when our buttons are being pushed and integrity is an integral part of effective online marketing.


“I’m a massive advocate for the ethical use of persuasion principles,” says Nahai. “And the way you judge whether something is ethical or not is to ask yourself: does this create an outcome that’s mutually beneficial to my customers and to myself? The work I do involves understanding better the motivations behind online actions and how those can be influenced or nudged for mutual benefit.”

Nahai divides her book into three sections. The first focuses on targeting. The second explores persuasive communication techniques and examines the relationship between cultural specificity and aesthetic judgement. (In the UK, for example, orange connotes cheapness, but in the Netherlands it’s the national colour.) The third section explains how to deploy some of those techniques ethically. So how can marketers apply psychological insight in their day-to-day work?

Analyse this

“With big data and analytics you can get quite a clear picture of who your customers are and how they’re segmented, but it’s much less obvious what the psychography of those audiences is.”

Psychographic insight, explains Nahai, is the study of the various, interwoven factors that make us who and what we are: our values, opinions, social attitudes and cultural inclinations.

“Take 18-25 year old females working in PR, for example.” she says. “You know they’re accessing your website on a number of devices, which browsers they’re using and so on, and you can make certain inferences from that. What you might not know is the degree to which they’re conscientious, open, extrovert, agreeable or neurotic, which are the classic five big personality traits.”

That psychographic information, which can be gathered through quizzes, questionnaires, surveys and other tools, provides powerful insight into consumers’ motivations.

“Then you need to reflect those preferences and communicate them successfully,” says Nahai. “That can be done through content, copy, layout, your use of video and language – making sure all your messages are congruent. Most people have fairly standardised websites so, all other things being equal, it’s your copy and content that set you apart.”

As consumers, says Nahai, we tend to look for cues in our environment which tell us what’s important information and what isn’t. Psychological insight can play an important role in directing users to the information you want them to take note of.

“A picture of a person looking at the text you want consumers to look at is very standard practice,” she says. “To take another example, the process of payment tends to be slightly painful. It triggers the same part of the brain that becomes active when we’re in physical pain. Using more permissive language in your check-out process – ‘upgrade’; ‘try it for free’ – can have a dramatic effect.”

Chasing the dopamine spike

In some respects, says Nahai, the internet is still a playground and the mix of intimacy and anonymity that characterises our online environment allows users to behave in ways they wouldn’t offline. Think of the disinhibition associated with online bullying and trolling. With so much technological development happening so quickly, what other changes is Nahai observing in the way consumers interact?

“Things like ‘Likes’ and Retweets are very hard to quantify or recreate offline,” she says. “We have a hardwired, universal desire for social validation – to be admired and liked by our peers, and the online environment exploits this. The Facebook ‘Like’ distils those desires down to a single button but it’s an impulsive, binary response. Either you ‘Like’ something or you don’t. A ‘Like’ can’t possibly fulfil or represent the multiplicity of emotions or the nuance that you have in a real-life relationship, so the danger is that it doesn’t have much qualitative meaning.”

Push notifications like emails and Tweets, explains Nahai, generate a small, brief spike in dopamine – the chemical in the brain associated with risk and reward. It’s that dopamine spike that makes us want to react or respond to those stimuli. Frequently, however, there is no reward. “So you end up scrolling down the page trying to get more of a ‘hit’,” says Nahai. “The danger is we end up seeking online connections that never satiate that desire or take us out of the dopamine loop.”

Social proof

With so many brands desperate to provide consumers with more relevant, engaging content, who does Nahai see as implementing some of the issues she discusses in her book?

“One is Betabrand in the States. They sell ‘cordurounds’ – corduroy trousers in which the mesh is horizontal rather than vertical. They’ve created a very humorous site that features something they call the ‘Crotch Heat Index’ (CHI), inspired by the fact that horizontal corduroy creates less friction. Though the brand’s target group is quite niche, they’ve created a relationship on social media which is very joyful. They inherently understand what’s driving their customer behaviour and they’ve taken that insight into their marketing by creating messages with a very unique tone of voice.

“Another is Nasty Gal, a female clothing brand in the US that targets women aged 16 to 25. They’ve teamed up with a visual commerce platform called Olapic which allows customers to upload pictures of themselves wearing the Nasty Gal clothes. The brand then decides who they want to act as models. So, you’ve got the principle of social proof right there: if enough of my peers are doing something I’ll want to do it too. And you’ve got the principle of social validation: if they pick me I can put it on Facebook and people will think I’m cool. Those are two companies who’ve used marketing based in psychology, whether they know it or not.”

Is there a ‘buy’ button?

Discussion of the incentives brands put in place to prompt and facilitate purchase leads to modern marketing’s $64,000 question: is there such a thing as a ‘buy’ button in the brain?

“The ideas of neuroscience and neuromarketing are very sexy at the moment and play to our general scientism. But brain scanning technologies are very much in their infancy. Neuroscientists are coming up with extraordinary discoveries, but the brain is so complex that it’s very difficult to say which part represents the ‘buying’ button. I’m very sceptical of neuromarketing in that sense. However, as a tool that allows us to measure brain activity in response to cues and stimuli which we otherwise wouldn’t be able to investigate, it does have a role. The difficulty – and the source of my scepticism – is that we tend to look for a silver bullet which simply doesn’t exist in psychology. You have to use it as one tool within a spectrum of tools which will provide insights into certain aspects of the situation you’re studying.”

More: Nathalie Nahai writes about storytelling and brand identity for Figaro Digital.

As featured in Issue 21 of Figaro Digital magazine.

Article by Jon Fortgang