“I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that no matter how great your product is, it is very likely that 40–60% of your free trial users never see the product a second time. Which makes that first use of the software really, really freaking important.”
Patrick McKenzie said that in an e-book I read about onboarding.
Not getting into the technical mumbo jumbo here, solid onboarding helps our customers continue to use their CoSchedule editorial calendar again and again. And we really want to help people plan awesome blog content and social media to rock at content marketing.
Now, this post isn’t about onboarding. But the same ideas from onboarding can help you grow your blog: Make the experiences with your content so excellent that people want to come back for more.
That’s where all this psychology stuff comes into play.
Whether you’re onboarding for your product or growing your blog, you want more than 40–60% of people to come back to your site.
So here’s how to grow your blog—to keep your readers coming back—with some really interesting insight from psychology.
- Rock your first impression with the halo effect.
- Make sure your climax is positive and your ending is happy with the peak-end rule.
- Build a relationship with your readers through the Psychological Foundations Of Trust.
- Help your readers build and maintain habits to come back to your content again and again.
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1. Make Your First Impression Count
No experience with your content is more important than the first one.
That's where the halo effect comes in. It's the first impression of how we feel about another person's character.
Norman Nielsen Group has already connected this social-psychological phenomenon to Web design:
"If users like one aspect of a website, they're more likely to judge it favorably in the future. Conversely, if users have a particularly bad experience with a site, they'll predict that the site will treat them poorly in the future as well and, thus, will be reluctant to return to the site." —Jennifer Cardello and Jakob Nielsen
Read that paragraph again, but substitute a few words to apply the concept to your blog content:
If readers like one post on a blog, they're more likely to judge the entire blog favorably in the future. Conversely, if readers have a particularly bad experience with a blog, they'll predict that the blog will treat them poorly in the future as well and, thus, will be reluctant to return to the blog.
So the first impression your content makes for your readers really matters.
How To Grow Your Blog By Understanding The Halo Effect
One element of the halo effect involves physical attractiveness.
As humans, we're influenced by the physical appearance of our surroundings. We experience different emotions—like thinking that a person wearing clothes from the 1990s is out of touch while the guy in the snappy suit must mean business.
Your blog's appearance—whether it's a post, a landing page, or your home page—leaves a distinct impression that builds credibility.
According to usability.gov (and cited through KISSmetrics), having a credible looking website scored a 4 out of 5 on the relative importance scale.
So here is what you can do to build a credible blog (loosely adapted from KISSmetrics' advice on websites):
- Answer your readers' questions as posts and in the comments.
- Organize your posts in a logical way. Your home page and landing pages should be super easy to navigate to help people learn what to do.
- Reference facts, research, stats, and other data that supports the claims you make in your posts.
- Show your authors' credentials. I've seen blogs who have the author as generic as the company's name—stop it! A person with intelligence wrote that—give them credit. Companies are made up of humans—don't take that away from us!
- Focus on your blog design. Hire a designer to capture the essence of your company and reflect it in your blog design. Just having a blog that "technically works" but looks like crap isn't going to keep your readers coming back.
- Provide an archive of your old posts. I'll add again—make it easy to navigate.
- Keep the blog as up-to-date as possible. So publish consistent content.
- Provide links to outside sources and materials. Do this to back up any claims you make in your content with facts, stats, etc.
- Help credible blogs reference your content. Links from other blogs indicate that you're an expert. That will happen when you publish amazing posts.
Write attractive headlines.
Headlines are like covers are to books. People tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but you do it anyway.
Think about that with an understanding of the halo effect: Physical attractiveness helps you decide if you even want to dive in further.
Only 8 out of 10 people who see your headlines will actually read them. And of those folks, only two will click through to read your posts.
Your headline needs to be attractive. So here are a few quick tips—based on real data—to write headlines that capture attention:
- Use the keywords your audience is looking for in your headlines. That also helps them find your content through search engines.
- Focus on a headline type that's proven to work. List, "how to", and question headlines perform the best.
- Make sure your headline is around 55 characters long with about 10 words in it.
- Write a positive headline that helps readers emotionally attach with an idea immediately after reading it.
There is actually a really easy way to do this, too: Use a headline analyzer. This free tool measures everything you need to write headlines that are most likely to result on social shares, traffic, and search results.
Write The Best Headlines With A Free Headline Analyzer
The headline analyzer will help you:
- Use headline types that get the most traction for social shares, traffic, and search engine ranking.
- Make sure you have the right word balance to write readable headlines that command attention.
- See the best word and character length for search engines like Google and email subject lines, while also seeing how your readers will scan your headlines.
Your introductions need to hook your readers.
A majority of your readers only see 18% of a blog post. Since you're reading this, you're my new best friend—and one of very few who actually reads entire blog posts.
Your introductions for your content need to hook your readers from the get-go to keep them interested in reading the remainder of your posts.
After headlines, your first 100 words are the most important part of your post. Less than half of your blog readers will actually read past your first 100 words.
So, how can you write a great introduction to help those first 100 words make a great first impression on your readers?
- Start with an interesting fact (and back it up). As you'll find out in a bit, people want to be able to trust you... your transparency of how you know what you know helps build that credibility.
- Give away the ending of the story in your introduction. Leave a bit of mystery as to how you got to the end to inspire further reading. Readers spend about 80% of their time above the fold.
- Use a catchy anecdote that happened to you, is funny, or even a quote.
- Ask a question that people can't answer with a simple "yes" or "no" that draws them in to find out the answer.
- Go for a cliffhanger that gets your readers crazy for the next paragraph.
- Try some gentle confrontation to show your readers why their standard belief was a bit misleading, and hint that you'll tell them why in the remainder of your content.
Include awesome visuals in your content.
Our brains process images 60,000 times faster than text. Think about physical attractiveness from the halo effect: It makes sense to include beautiful graphics with your content to make an awesome first impression.
Articles with relevant images get 94% more pageviews than those without. Pages with pictures get 50% more shares than those without. 67% of consumers consider images to carry more weight than customer ratings, review, and product descriptions.
And a cherry on top: Social media messages with images get up to 150% more clickthroughs than those without.
Was that enough stats for you to take the jump and add more visual content like images, graphics, and videos into your content?!
You can start making simple blog graphics with as little as four steps:
- Find and use the colors that will inspire the emotions you want from your readers. Use them to draw the eye where to look and know what to do.
- Choose a sans serif and serif typeface that complement each other.
- Figure out if you want to use stock photography, hero images, or vector graphics. You could do all of these.
- Find the icons, patterns, brushes, and shapes that you'll repeat throughout your content for brand consistency.
Your blog graphics, colors, design, and credible content help make your first impression stand out as a positive one.
All of this leads really nicely into the next psychological idea, and Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W. transitions this way better than I could:
2. "...And They Lived Happily Ever After"
Think of an experience like a story that has a beginning, climax, and an ending. The climax and the ending seem to stick with us longer than anything else.
At least, that's what the peak-end rule teaches us: People don't remember their experience by its entirety, but rather by a strongly positive or negative impression and its ending.
The Brothers Grimm version (AKA: the original story that comes off super negative).
In 1993, a few psychologists researched whether more pain could be preferred to less. Yeah, seriously.
They had two groups of participants. The first group was exposed to 30 seconds of 14 degree ice water. The second group was exposed to 60 seconds of 14 degree ice water, and then 30 seconds of 15 degree ice water.
So what did they find? The second group of participants actually rated their experience as less painful than the first group.
Craziness. That second group was exposed to super cold water a whole minute longer than the first group!
The peak end of their experience, however, was warmer. Therefore, their ending (although not that happy), was better than their initial experience with the cold water.
So experiences ending even slightly better than they started leave the lasting positive impression.
The Disney version (AKA: you can take out the gore and the story still works).
Another researcher tested the peak-end rule in 2008 starting with a positive experience and ending it with an even more positive experience.
In that study, participants got free DVDs. I wish I had participated, too.
The people who received more popular DVDs after getting less popular ones rated their experience a lot better than the folks who received the DVDs the other way around (popular first, lesser known stuff at the end).
How To Grow Your Blog By Understanding The Peak-End Rule
Shoot for Disney quality content. There's a reason the folks at Disney read the Grimm fairy tales and thought to themselves, "Yeah, I just don't know if all that gore is really necessary."
Even if you're trying to help your readers change something they're currently doing wrong, the morale of your story can remain the same and still be lighthearted.
Consumer confidence is super correlated with people's willingness to buy. So the happier your reader—and the more confident they are—the more likely they are to subscribe, signup, or whatever you're asking them to do.
- Focus your content on the outcome of a desirable behavior instead of what your readers are doing wrong right now.
- Eliminate words and phrases like "you should..." and "don't do this..." and replace them with positive words that indicate how their lives will improve after doing something new.
- Inspire confidence with your content! Help your readers see how you or someone you know has been successful doing something so they can envision themselves there, too.
Anticipate the end sooner than the conclusion.
Most of your readers only get through 18% of your blog post. So you should make that first 18% of your post like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel:
- Start with a visual that grabs attention. Header graphics are becoming pretty commonplace now—and for good reason. Humans understand data from visuals 60,000 times faster than text.
- Provide just enough context in your first 100 words so your readers will understand your post. Don't bury the lede—or the nugget (whatever you want to call it)—too deep so people never get there once they start reading.
- Include links to related content as soon as possible. If a reader is more interested in something else that's somewhat related, give them the path to take to keep interacting with your content.
- Give them a gift after your first 100 words. Like the DVD example, you can provide a free download to engage them with the content from your post in a slightly different format. People like presents.
- Give people a way to share your content as they head out the door. I know some of you may be thinking, "Well, why should I give my readers who don't stick around the ability to share my content?" The answer is simple: More shares = more potential eyeballs on your awesome headline. And that means you have more opportunity to build propinquity throughout your industry with your content.
If you haven't noticed before, this is something we focus on heavily at CoSchedule:
- Every post begins with a visual header graphic with a catchy alternate version of our headlines.
- The introduction gets straight to the point without a lot of fluff. Then, we hook with interesting facts, stats, and stories.
- The first paragraph starts as a sentence to ease into reading. By the second paragraph, we try to have at least one link to related content available.
- Nearly every post has a free download after the introduction. You guys are big fans of checklists, worksheets, and infographics. We make sure you get a gift right away for taking the time to read our content.
- After you get your gift, we encourage you to share by embedding a Click To Tweet right in the body of the post. So if you do need to leave us, we give you the option to share the love with your network.
And that's something you can do, too. That way, you still give the majority of your readers who leave your content early a happy ending.
Make your conclusion a happy ending.
That's a shame since the peak-end rule teaches us that those lucky few who make it to your conclusion remember those final words as their primary experience with your content.
So you need to make your conclusion amazing:
- Keep it simple. Start by summing up the main points of your content.
- Provide actionable guidance on what to do next. In a way, it's a call to action: Become a better [fill in the blank] by doing [fill in the blank] like you just learned from this post.
- Give them the opportunity to read related content. If they liked your content so much that they made it to the end, give them the gift of seeing other stuff you've written that's similar to the topic at hand. I don't like the idea of automation here. Curate these posts yourself if you have to so that the context of the relationship from one piece of content to the next is natural.
- End with a question that encourages comments. The value of engagement through comments is hard to define. But the experience of helping your readers through any questions they have is invaluable if you ask me. You can use what you learn to connect with your audience even better—which will help you create better content.
- Participate in the conversation. The end might not really be in your comments or on your blog. If people share your content somewhere else, you will want to listen for it and participate in the conversation. That could be an awesome end to your readers' experience with your content.
I couldn't sum up the idea of just being helpful in your conclusions better than Neil Patel:
3. Your Readers Want A Relationship
You've heard it said everywhere that content marketing exists to get people to know, like, and trust you.
Yeah, yeah. And maybe they cobbled together some meaning from that, but here's how it actually works:
- People get to know you from your first impression. You just learned how to rock at that by understanding how to influence your readers' perception with the halo effect.
- Your readers will grow to like you by leaving happy. You'll rock at that by knowing how to apply the peak-end rule to your content.
- Now it's time to build trust with your readers. And trust comes from building on that happiness by providing reliable, cooperative, and helpful content.
According to The Psychological Foundations of Trust by Jeffry A. Simpson:
Trust “may be the single most important ingredient for the development and maintenance of happy, well-functioning relationships."
And that's exactly what you're doing through content marketing: Content is your salesperson that builds a happy relationship with your clients (your readers). That relationship is what will keep your readers coming back for more.
Your readers look to you to provide reliable, cooperative, and helpful content, and when you provide that to them, they'll trust you.
How To Grow Your Blog By Understanding The Psychological Foundations Of Trust
You probably saw the recurring theme: Trust stems from reliable, cooperative, and helpful relationships.
Your content needs to build that type of relationship with your readers:
- Reliable content is consistent. If someone reads one post that's really awesome, so should every single post you publish. And part of that consistency is that it's published consistently—your readers will look forward to seeing new content from you based on a regular schedule and cadence.
- Cooperation in a relationship is really about "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours—we're in this together." You need to give—and you need to give what your readers want and how they want it. That includes figuring out what topics they love, the types of content they want (blog posts, e-books, infographics, etc.), how they want to receive it (email, Web push, search engines, etc.).
- Helpful content provides Youtility, as Jay Baer coined it. At CoSchedule, we call it actionable content. Your content should help your readers solve a problem right after they finish reading it. That includes giving them the ability to ask you for help through comments and social media—and getting a useful response.
There are so many useful nuggets of information from the psychological foundations of trust, but to me, these three really stand out for content marketers:
1: Give helpful content away selflessly.
You build trust by going against your own personal self-interest to rather support the best interests of someone else. So trust forms from a selfless act to help someone in need.
To use a psychology term, content marketing must past a strain test. That is, it's probably not a good idea to ask your readers to convert into paying subscribers right off the bat.
Well, at least don't be pushy about it—your readers know you're marketing something, so it's not an entirely selfless move to publish helpful content. But, if you want to keep readers coming back, you need to give selflessly—secrets, transparency, helpful advice.
Give away content for free, without asking for anything in return. To make sure their experience is great, help them jump to another piece of content within your first 100 words.
Give them additional content whenever you can—and do it selflessly.
2: Publish awesome content consistently—and give it time.
Trust forms naturally and unintentionally. It takes time to form, which is where reliability comes into play—consistency in building your relationships.
People need time to build trust. They need to know you’re worth building a relationship with. You can influence that by publishing awesome content consistently.
Again, people need time—continue publishing even if it seems like no one is reading. The reason for the boogeyman statistic that most blogs fail within the first 3 months is that you haven't given your readers enough time to trust you.
Without a backlog of credible content and no audience to begin with, you need to have patience to build a reader base. It will come if you focus on the last point here:
3: Meet your readers half-way.
Trust depends on the action of both partners in a relationship. You can definitely influence it, but it takes both parties (you and your reader) to form a relationship built on trust.
The Field Of Dreams is total BS. "If you build it, they will come" isn't a reader-first perspective.
Just because you have a blog with great content doesn't mean that you will grow your readership.
You need to figure out what topics your readers want you to cover, the types of content they prefer, and the delivery channels they enjoy using already. That's how you form a cooperative relationship with your readers.
Your content builds the relationship between you and your reader.
There's a model that Jeffry A. Simpson uses in his Psychological Foundations of Trust that shows the stages of building trust in a relationship with two participants.
It's pretty interesting to apply this model of trust in relationships to content marketing. There are 5 stages leading up to ultimate trust:
- Commonalities start a relationship between you and your readers in the first place. So your content covers a topic your readers care about. This first impression is made through your content.
- Now "relationship-enhancing transformations of motivation" play a role. This is where your content selflessly provides something extremely useful to your reader.
- That selfless act of providing something your reader needs helps both of you come to make "mutually beneficial decisions". At this point, your readers start to feel positive emotions about your content, and they develop future expectancies. So this is when they realize you provide great content and believe they can continue to get that on a regular basis as part of your relationship.
- Those positive emotions and expectations enhance their perception of trust. Notice that this is the first time the t word is mentioned in the relationship building model!
- When your readers know when the trust is well placed in your content, they feel security. That is the point at which you could ask for something more from the relationship—an email address, product conversion, or whatever else floats your boat.
The hard part is that no one experiences your content the same as another person. They'll enter your site seeing different content which they all found uniquely.
It's OK to have elements like asking for email addresses in all of your posts even though you can only expect readers to sign up much later than their first visit.
And that's OK.
To build trust, however, don't be pushy about selling. Great content that essentially tells your readers how to do their job without your services or products should come back to help you make the sale in the end.
Because great content builds trust through the 5 stages of building relationships—and at some point, your audience will feel secure enough to buy from you.
Think about it. When was the last time you had a first-time visitor on your site convert into a paying customer?
At CoSchedule, we track these stats to know how many times a reader visits, then signs up for our emails. We know how many emails they receive before they sign up for a trial of CoSchedule. And we know how many days they trial CoSchedule before becoming a paying customer.
Content marketing is our salesperson, but we don't sell CoSchedule using content marketing. We use content marketing to help people know, like, and trust our content enough to feel secure enough to trial CoSchedule.
4. Teach Your Readers To Keep Coming Back—And Do It On Their Turf
Lately, I've been talking a lot about building new habits to make blog planning part of your routine. Habits are the thing of loyalty—and there is a lot of science about how to stick with new habits.
Honestly, right now I could write a bunch of stuff about how to create loyalty. There is tons of information out there about how to create brand loyalty, customer loyalty programs, marketing loyalty programs, etc.
But. A lot of them just talk about building trust, which you already know how to do from the halo effect and peak-end rule.
What you want to do is grow your blog and keep your readers coming back by helping them develop and maintain new habits.
Behavioral psychologists have found 3 elements to build and maintain habits:
- A trigger that helps people know to start the habit.
- A routine that forms the habit itself.
- A reward that is the benefit of the new behavior.
But we all know forming new habits is tough. Think about all those folks who set up New Years' resolutions only to stop what they set out to do a few weeks in.
There's a psychological phenomenon called synaptic pruning that basically says adults build strengths with the things they do frequently. When that happens, they dedicate more of their energy toward building those skills than to areas they don't use every day.
James Clear, a blogger who covers science-based ideas for building habits, explains the concept of synaptic pruning really simply:
For example, if you practice playing the piano for 10 years, then your brain will strengthen the connections between those musical neurons. The more you play, the stronger the connections become. Not only that, the connections become faster and more efficient each time you practice. As your brain builds stronger and faster connections between neurons, you can express your skills with more ease and expertise. It is a biological change that leads to skill development.
Meanwhile, someone else who has never played the piano is not strengthening those connections in their brain. As a result, the brain prunes away those unused connections and allocates energy toward building connections for other life skills.
That made me think of that old adage: "You can't teach an old dog new tricks."
But that's not true. Because you can use your readers' existing habits to your benefit.
How To Grow Your Blog By Helping Your Readers Develop And Maintain Habits
While you can't make your readers form a routine to check out your content again and again, you can help them form habits with triggers and rewards.
Begin by focusing on triggers (AKA reminders).
James Clear explains that trying to change a habit with a new dose of willpower probably won't work. He suggests instead to build a new habit off of ones that already exist.
Here are 3 big ways to trigger your readers to keep coming back:
1: Time can trigger action.
A common misperception is that it takes 21 days to develop a new habit and maintain it. If you've ever tried that, you might realize that's a load of crap.
It actually takes as little as 66 days to form a new habit (notice I said as little as... since it could be longer for some folks).
So from your very first impression when someone sees your content for the very first time, you have 66 days to prove your content is worth coming back to again and again and again.
2: Locations can remind folks what to do.
This is where content distribution comes into play.
Your readers probably wake up in the morning, and the very first thing they do is check their Facebook newsfeed. Others may get to work, and the very first thing they do is check their email. Still others may check out their RSS feeds when they get back from lunch. Still others may participate in forums, Twitter chats, Facebook Groups, or LinkedIn Groups.
Those habits already exist. Learn the channels your audience already uses, and distribute content in the locations they already use, love, and trust.
If your audience has to remember to visit your blog to receive your content, James has this to say:
Getting motivated and trying to remember to do a new behavior is the exact wrong way to go about [forming new habits]. If you're human, then your memory and your motivation will fail you. It's just a fact.
3: Other people influence action.
Think about how powerful word of mouth is from your peers. If anyone on our team shares content with me directly, it's a good bet that I'll check it out as soon as I see it.
On the other hand, there are tons of industry influencers who seem to publish and share content that is pure gold. They have a ton of clout that inspires me to read what they're sharing. Again, I only see what they're sharing when they share in the right locations I already frequently check out like Twitter.
Reminders, routines, and rewards: The 3 R's of forming new habits.
James says that habits come from reminders, routines, and rewards.
- Let consistent content be your reminders.
- Distribute that content they way your readers' already consume content to piggyback on their existing routines.
- Optimize your content with facts, references to industry influencers, and psychology of sharing.
One blogger who does all of this extremely well is Seth Godin. The guy publishes at the same time, and I know lots of folks who look forward to his emails coming around 5:30 a.m. CT every day.
Seth perfected his consistent publishing and distribution to the point where it's normal for lots of people to get to work in the morning and read his email before they do anything else. It's not fancy. But it's super effective.
A few last-minute things to keep in mind as you help your readers change their habits.
- Your readers must be willing to change. Chances are, if they found your content in the first place, it's pretty likely they're looking for ways to do something better.
- Be nonjudgemental. Successful therapists make their careers by listening and being nonjudgemental. Your content tone needs to be happy, helpful, and actionable instead of feeling like commands and orders.
- Habits come from increased self-awareness. Help your readers identify what's not going so well, and provide them an actionable solution they can implement immediately.
And That Is How To Grow Your Blog With 4 Lessons From Psychology
Understanding these basic psychological effects, rules, and foundations will help you publish and share better content.
While this post includes some actionable takeaways, these are by no means all-inclusive—I'm sure you could think of dozens of ways to optimize your content even more.
- Use the halo effect to make a good first impression with every piece of content you publish.
- Make sure every post has a positive climax and a happy ending with your know-how of the peak-end rule.
- Understand the Psychological Foundations Of Trust to write, edit, publish, and share content that builds positive relationships.
- Do all of this consistently to help your readers form habits that keep them coming back to your content.
And since you're one of the 16% who made it to the end of this post, would you be so kind to share this with your networks? I'm sure there are a few people you know who would find this information super helpful to publish even better content based on real lessons from psychology.