psychological tactics

14 psychological tactics you should use in your copywriting to get your readers to take action

Wanna know what separates the yawn-inducing copy from the “OMG–where’s my wallet?!” type of copy? 

The latter is concrete and easy to understand. It speaks the customers’ lingo. And it’s based on proven formulas, data and psychology.

It requires getting inside your reader’s head and speaking to their motivations, fears and hesitations in the buying process.

So how can you do that? 

Easy. Just follow these psychological tactics…

1. Rhyming

Whenever I need to remember how many days there are in a month, I repeat this phrase in my head: “30 days in September, April, June and November. All the rest have 31, except for February which has 28.”

I don’t even remember who taught it to me or when I learned it, but somehow (even though I have a terrible memory) it’s stuck with me all these years.

Turns out, there’s a reason for this: We’re more likely to remember phrases that rhyme (which also helps explain why most of your favorite songs probably rhyme).

But that’s not all: According to the rhyme-as-reason effect, we’re also more likely to BELIEVE rhymed phrases.


Rhyme improves processing fluency, which increases perceived truthfulness.

So when it comes to your copy, tell a rhyme if you can, like CityScoot does.

Yeah ok, don’t force it, but if it sounds natural to rhyme (especially in your taglines, headings, email subject lines etc), then go for it.

2. Serial-Position Effect

Psychologists have found that, when provided with a list of words, people have a tendency to recall the words at the beginning and end (but not the middle).

Words at the beginning go into long-term memory (primacy effect), while words at the end are only recalled short term (recency effect).

So when crafting your copy, put the information that you want your readers to remember at the beginning and end of the text (like the postscript in emails).

3. “But You Are Free” (BYAF)

Surprise, surprise: Nobody likes to be coerced into doing anything–including the people you’re selling to.

But here’s where it gets interesting: Just reminding your prospects that they’re free to do what they want can make them wanna buy.

The But You Are Free (BYAF) technique is used after making a request to remind your readers that they (yup, you guessed it) are free to do whatever the hell they wanna do.

Christopher Carpenter of Western Illinois University performed a meta study of worldwide research on BYAF, with 22,000 participants and 42 studies.

He found that the use of “BYAF” DOUBLED the success rate of compliance.

So if you ask your readers something, remind them that they have a choice in the matter (and no, you don’t have to say the exact words “BYAF” to do that).

Soooo you might say something like “Sign up for our newsletter to get 50% off your next purchase. Not interested in discounts? That’s cool too.”

Here’s another example from the online retail company, Moosejaw:

That’s the type of thing you want to do with your copy. 

4. The Word “Because”

In 1978, Ellen Langer performed a study where she had several people ask to cut a line to use the Xerox machine. The participants asked in three different ways:

  1. “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine?”
  2. “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
  3. “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

The first statement resulted in a 60% compliance rate. The second statement, 93%. And the third statement? 94%.

It didn’t matter how silly the reasoning was; just saying “because” encouraged people to comply with the request.

They then repeated the experiment, but this time, the participants asked to copy 20 pages instead of five. In this case, the “because I’m in a rush” was the only reason that swayed the majority of people.

So…what gives?

According to Langer, when people hear the word “because”, they tend to respond automatically as a heuristic or shortcut to make decisions quickly.

If the trade-off is low (like letting someone cut the line to copy 5 pages), then the “why” part isn’t so important. But if the trade-off is higher (like 20 pages), then the askers better have a good reason.


Tell your readers WHY they should buy that coffee machine or hand over their coveted email address. And if you’re asking for a lot (like a purchase), make sure you give a darn good reason.

5. Textural Descriptions

What sounds better to you: Succulent berries or delicious berries?

The former makes you almost TASTE the berries, doesn’t it?

According to Krish Sathian from Emory University, textural adjectives, which relate to physical sensations, activate the brain’s somatosensory cortex.

Say whaaaaat?

The somatosensory cortex is the part of the brain that receives and processes sensory input from the body (thank you, Google).

So readers actually FEEL those textural adjectives.

Plus, that increased brain activity is tied to improved memory and recall.

So ditch the boring, everyday words and opt for textural descriptions in your copy whenever possible.

6. Urgency and Scarcity

“Quick! Time is running out!”

“Grab it before it’s sold out!”

“Only 10 HOURS left to buy!”

We’ve all seen those messages before. But there’s a reason why they work so well.

Feelin’ lost?

Urgency is the use of time-based trigger words that get prospects to take immediate action.

There are two types of urgency: implied urgency and real urgency. An example of real urgency is “this offer expires in 12 hours.” The urgency is legitimate.

Here’s an email I received from the mattress brand, Casper, that uses real urgency (and a LOT of it):

Implied urgency, which is when you don’t set a deadline, is safer to use. It’s more subtle, using words like “now,” “today” and “soon” to subliminally convey urgency. For example, “get your free copy today”.

And then there’s scarcity, which relies on quantity (as opposed to time) to get people to take action. It’s based on the fact that we human beings place a higher value on things that are scarce in supply.

So what does all this mean for you and your copy?

Use scarcity, along with (implied and real) urgency, wherever you can in your copy. BUT definitely don’t lie or overdo it. Otherwise, your readers will stop listening and worse, lose trust in your brand.

7. Storytelling

When you tell people a story, chemicals like cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin are released in their brains.

Cortisol helps with memory formation (so your readers remember your brand). Dopamine helps regulate emotions (and keep your audience engaged). And oxytocin, linked to empathy, helps them build and form relationships with your brand.

So if you can, tell your readers a story as you write. And no, a story doesn’t have to be long. It can be just a few words.

Like this ad for Rolls Royce, written by the legendary David Ogilvy:


Note all the specifics. Instead of “At a high speed,” the ad reads “At 60 miles an hour.” Instead of “it’s quiet,” the ad gives a direct comparison to something that all readers are familiar with: an electric clock. Can’t you hear the clock ticking? I can.

So go on and tell your readers something memorable. Paint them a picture. Relate to them. Make them feel something.

8. Loss aversion

Last year, I was thinking about selling my iPad. I had a laptop, so I didn’t really need it.

I posted an ad for it on a Craiglist-type site here in Spain and got a few offers for more than the iPad was probably worth. But I didn’t think the price was high enough. And ultimately, I never sold it. Losing the iPad wasn’t worth it to me.

This is loss aversion at play. Or the idea that a loss has a greater emotional impact on us than a gain of the same size. According to research, losses may activate more activity in the area of the brain that processes emotions.

Which explains why when we buy something, it’s hard to let it go. And why we often try to sell our used items for a higher price than other people are willing to pay for them.

It’s also why tech subscription companies often offer free trials and some eCommerce companies, like Warby Parker, even let you try out their products before purchasing.

So how can you take advantage of this in your copywriting? Well, you could use urgency and scarcity (in moderation), like we talked about.

Remind people what they have to lose by not choosing your brand, like Sumo did in this email:

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9. Clustering

Take a look at the following words:

rain, horse, coffee, sun, dog, juice, wind, sprite, orangutan, clouds, water, cat

Now try to memorize them.

If you’re a typical human, you probably grouped the words that are similar to each other, rather than memorizing each item one by one.

This natural tendency to group related information is called clustering. And it helps to improve recall.

So when you’re determining what copy goes where on a page, consider grouping similar topics together. Doing so will make it more likely that your readers will retain the information (and remember why your brand is so gosh darn amazing).

10. Verbatim effect

Get this: Visitors spend less than 15 seconds on a website. And they definitely don’t remember everything they see or read. Not even close.

The verbatim effect is the cognitive bias whereby people remember the gist of what was said, but not all the nitty-gritty details.

So how can you seize your prospect’s attention AND get them to think of your brand after the fact…like while they’re on the treadmill…at work…or hell, honeymooning in Bali? 

Sticky copy. Copy that’s simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and tells a story.

That…and don’t overload your visitors with info right off the bat. Follow in Apple’s footsteps:

Notice how they use just a few words to introduce each computer. Then if readers are curious about the product features and how the computers compare, they can scroll down the page:

Highlight the most important benefits in as few words as possible, and then provide more information in smaller font or further down the page.

11. Action Paralysis

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I were trying to decide where to move to within Spain. We weren’t too picky: Our only requirement was that the city be affordable.

We considered pretty much every city in the country but could NOT make a decision. 

Finally, at the last minute (literally the day we had to move out of our apartment), we decided to book a flight to Valencia. For that night.

THAT, my friend, is action paralysis. When people overthink a situation SO much that they’re unable to make a decision…and end up not taking action.

The idea is to reduce your readers’ action paralysis as much as possible. Make it so incredibly easy for them to take action that they barely have to think.

So instead of asking a question (like “do you want to sign up for our newsletter?”), tell your readers what they’ll get and exactly what to do to get it.

Or…you could ask a question that’s pretty much impossible to say no to, like the CBD brand, Feals does:

Here are a few other ways you can reduce action paralysis in your copy:

1. Think about your prospect’s hesitations in the buying process (and address those hesitations).

2. Present your readers with fewer options (and highlight one that’s clearly the winner).

3. Make the distinction between choices crystal clear.

Soooo this is what you should NOT do:

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Do YOU know the difference between those two calls-to-action? Because I sure as hell don’t.

That’s the type of thing that leads to action paralysis. Instead, clearly differentiate between the choices you’re offering so your readers don’t have to wonder what’s going on.

If you sell several products that are similar to one another, then create a table that clearly defines the differences between them.

4. Guide your prospects through the buying process. Tell them the steps they have to take to become a customer or create a quiz that they can fill out to find the product that best suits them.

5. Default to what majority of users choose. For example, are most of your users from the U.S.? Then make that the default in the dropdown menu.

6. Make taking action a no-brainer. E.g: Tell prospects about that kick-ass return policy you offer.

Ok, I could write an entire post about just action paralysis…but we’ll leave it at that for now.

12. Social proof

We all know that social proof is powerful. But did you know that it’s so powerful that it can even turn your customers away when you’re trying to do the exact opposite?

Lemme give an example (provided by Bushra Azhar):

One study at the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park found that messages were more effective when they highlighted the desired behavior.

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The message on the left was more effective at decreasing theft.


The second message stated that “many past visitors” removed the petrified wood from the park, which acted as social proof for stealing. People thought “well if other people have stolen, then I will too…”

So when crafting your messaging, frame it in a way that promotes the DESIRED behavior–not the unwanted behavior.

Here’s another example: If you’re trying to encourage people to recycle, don’t say “70% of people don’t recycle.”

Instead, say something like, “If everyone in the U.S. recycled just one plastic bottle, 54 million t-shirts or 6.5 million fleece jackets could be made.” (statistic stolen from Keep America Beautiful).

13. Self-fulfilling prophecy

Gotta give Bushra credit for this point (once again).

Labels tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. So if you call your readers “smart,” they will feel and become smart.

Make a (positive) assumption about your readers and they’ll act accordingly.

If you want your readers to give money, you could label them as “generous.” Before ya know it, they’ll be donating more moolah than Oprah.

If you want them to buy CBD oil for their pets, tell them what a fantastic pet-owner they are.

You get the idea. 

14. Bizarreness effect

“Sell more online!”

“Save time and boost productivity.”

“Boost your conversions.”

Do those messages stand out to you at all? I’m guessing…no. Because we see them ALL. THE. TIME.

And science backs me up on this one: According to the bizarreness effect, people remember weird information more than everyday information.

Sounds obvious, but then why do we continue to see the same vague, stale messaging everywhere?

So (unless you wanna be ignored more than Samantha in Sixteen Candles) steer clear of blah, overused words.

Spice things up with similies, metaphors and garden-fresh words that your readers don’t see every day.

Be the purple cow in a sea of black and white.

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