5 Powerful Cognitive Biases to Aid Conversion Rate Optimization

Following the CXL Institute’s training in digital psychology and persuasion, this article identifies and highlights the power of cognitive biases in aiding conversion rate optimization.

The joy of any marketer, especially digital marketers, is to influence her customer to take a premeditated action that leads to conversion. In digital marketing, a ‘Conversion’ occurs when a website’s visitor does what a marketer wants her to do. What counts as a “Conversion” depends on the marketer’s set goals. For e-Commerce sites, a Conversion is usually when one of your visitors makes a purchase. In a subscription service, it could be the download of a newsletter, filling of a subscription form, or even for a visitor to start a free trial. Meanwhile, at every stage of the customer journey, a marketer loses some of her potential customers. This process is known as Conversion Funnel, in which the final stage of the funnel is a completed goal. Conversion Rate Optimization, experts posit, aims to reduce the number of customers you lose at each stage of the customer journey, maximizing the Conversions you get from your traffic.

To gain more knowledge and enhance capacity for conversation rate optimization, digital marketing is expanding its horizon, and are gradually verging into the social sciences to draw strength. Understanding psychology helps digital marketing professionals to burrow into consumer behavior as tools to aid them in conversion. Cognitive biases come in handy, in this regard.

Cognitive biases are tendencies, particularly in specific perspective – to view things in some certain ways – a way of creating a binding worldview that unconsciously persuades people to take certain decisions that deviate from logical or rational decision making. People make both emotional and rational decisions, but more often than not, they make emotional decisions, and then justify those decisions using their rationality.

A study by Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, revealed that, people with damages in the brain, where emotions are generated, are unable to take simple decisions – such as whether to eat rice or beans. According to him, logically, they could describe what they want to eat, but find it difficult to take a decision. To sell to such people, marketers need to sell to the old brain – the emotional brain – and create a vision for prospects to bring about a decision on their part. To aid the marketer in conversion rate optimization, the marketer should remember that the old brain is selfish and only cares for its own interest, so you seek conversion at the point of where you will meet his need – they should fall in love with your product or service emotionally, and then justify it rationally. For instance, in content marketing, the marketer ensures she uses large prints, attractive images, appealing and inspirational headlines to capture his emotions and then cap it up with a Call to Action, CTA. Let emotions precede rationality.  

There are many cognitive biases that persuade prospective visitors or customers, but we will discuss the top five that are very powerful, and mostly aid conversion rate optimization.


“If we figured it out, we will like it better”

During brain storming sessions, people are given opportunities to contribute their ideas to a certain project or issue. In such meetings no idea is considered superior or inferior. However, research have proven that people tend to like and support those ideas that align with their own contribution. So the Self Generation Affect Effect is the tendency for people to prefer those ideas contributed by them or that support their own ideas. People also remember those ideas more easily than others.

In digital marketing this could be applied by asking questions in your content to engage consumers, get them to give you feedback on your brand – its profile and features. Find a way to get them discuss your brand’s Unique Selling Point, USP. That way you get involved, and also cause them to remember your brand.


“We decide differently depending on our emotional state”

This cognitive bias states that the way we feel influences our decisions. It posits that we appear to try new things when we are on a good or happy mood, compared to when we are in bad mood. We make more conservative choices when we are in a foul mood compared to when we are in a good mood. Affect Heuristic means that our emotion causes us to make different decisions even with same set of facts. According to Joseph Fogas’ Affect Infusion Model, AIM, “the effects of our mood on our judgment becomes stronger on complex situations. The more complicated a situation is the more we rely on the affect heuristic.” As a marketer, make every effort to develop initiatives and creative ideas to make your site visitors happy. The more you stimulate their mood in a positive way, the more you are able to lead them to your conversation goal.


“We pay attention to things that touch us emotionally”

This bias states that the more something touches our emotions, the more we pay attention to it. Dominant emotions include fear, sex, and pain. To convert a customer, the marketer needs to identify the emotional aspect of her brand or product, and represent it visually and contextually. And also ensure that the USP is placed near the Call to Action, CTA.


“We will fight threats, but only if we’re told how to defeat them”

Fear appeal is when a message is scary and presents a threat, with the intention to motivate someone to act against the threat. Over the years, alcoholic companies, insurance companies and even politicians, have used fear appeal to influence their audiences to act in certain specific ways.

However, if fear appeal is not properly managed, it could have a negative effect, especially when the customer decides to ignore it. For instance, for a message like “Cigarette smoking is dangerous”, the customer could say “surely! Something ‘sha’ will kill somebody.” This is a recurring kind of phrase in Nigeria. Some will even say “and so what”? After all my dad smoked all his life, and he lived up to 80 years,” or “’abeg’, we have heard this same story since Imo River.” To avoid this kind of message regress, the marketer could reverse the message to mitigate the obstacle by saying “smoking can cause a slow and painful death. Join 230,000 successful stoppers, and go to right now.” The marketer should try and create a message that would directly boost the consumer appeal by convincingly offering his solution as easy and effectively as possible. She should also provide a call to action, CTA, just like the one sited above, directly after or next to the scary message.


Clustering illusion happens so often amongst researchers, especially those who use sample size in their quantitative study. It is a form of cognitive bias which summarizes the tendency to overestimate the importance of small samples from random data distribution to make them have significant ‘streaks’ or ‘cluster’,  and cause them to look like phantom patterns. Sometimes you think you have spotted a trend or pattern based on a small sample, when in actual fact it was just a similarity and not a pattern. To optimize your website based on that small sample will be an error.

Digital marketing professional’s advice that marketers should ensure consistency in their user experiences, as this will help in visitor navigation and decision making. Recognizable patterns, researchers claim, reduce cognitive load as they assist with automatic decision-making and can have a persuasive influence on users. To persuade customers or website visitors, a marketer should focus on the patterns that put her products or services in the best light.

Desmond Ekeh, is a PR consultant, digital marketing professional, and researcher in media and communication.

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