How to use behavioural psychology to improve your content marketing

I am a big fan of the Content Marketing being done by the guys over at Buffer. I think they create some great content and I have personally learnt a lot from them about happiness, productivity and other topics.

Recently however, I was looking at their Open Blog and in particular the Content Marketing Report for April and found some of the statistics quite interesting. Here’s a rundown:

  • 729,832 unique visitors
  • 962,389 total visits
  • 1,193,967 pageviews
  • 1,604 conversions
  • 22,291 total email subscribers
  • 20 total posts published

Now I don’t want to take anything away from them here, 729,000 unique visitors is incredible and it’s probably one of the highest trafficked blogs I know of.

However what shocked me was the fact that they only got 1,604 conversions from the blog, a conversion rate of 0.2%.

Contrasting this, companies like HubSpot and KISSmetrics (who both run highly trafficked blogs) both claim that the blog and their content marketing efforts in general are their most effective customer acquisition channel driving significantly higher conversions than this.

Now I know there’s a big difference between Buffer and HubSpot with different content goals, acquisition models, price points, sales processes, etc…. But is there something that we can learn here about how to increase the effectiveness (read: conversions) of our content marketing?

I spent some time analysing both of these blogs and the content in general and I think one of the key differences is how HubSpot focuses on using content to create behavioural change, where Buffer do not.

In this post, I want to dive into what behavioural change is, what causes it and how you can use content marketing to make it happen.

What is behavioural change and what causes it?

All marketers are in the business of changing behaviour. If you’re not changing people’s behaviour in a way that benefits your business, it would be difficult to call it marketing.

Regardless of what your product does, it is highly likely that your potential customers have a ‘status quo’. It may be a competitors product or it may be a substitute such as excel spreadsheets or email, but either way they were using something else to accomplish what your product helps them to achieve.

Therefore, in order to acquire new customers it is your job as a marketer to change their behaviour. To shift them from their current methods of doing things to using your product to achieve the same thing.

In The Advertising Effect, consumer psychologist and advertising legend Adam Ferrier states there are 3 conditions that are considered necessary to change a persons behaviour, including:

  • The person has formed a strong positive intention to perform the behaviour (AKA motivation).
  • The person has the skills to perform the behaviour.
  • There are no environmental constraints that make it impossible for the behaviour to occur (AKA they have the opportunity to do the behaviour)

Let’s break these down a little bit to help you truly understand them as they are critical to both the learnings of this post and to the success of your content marketing.


In the book, Ferrier states motivation is composed of two different factors; individual incentive and social norms.

Individual incentives is the idea that at a basic human level we are motivated to undertake a certain behaviour either to gain pleasure or avoid pain. It’s that simple.

Similarly, social norms is the idea that we are driven to act in a way we believe would be considered normal. When deciding on a behaviour, we think about things like ‘How will I look if I perform this behaviour?’ ‘What are the social norms around this behaviour?’ and ‘Are people I consider influential performing this behaviour?’

So in order to satisfy the ‘motivation’ factor of the behaviour change equation and drive people to make the change you want them to make, you actually need to satisfy both the individual incentive and social norms factors. To do this, you need to show people how the desired behaviour you want them to take will either reduce pain or increase pleasure in their lives, and you need to reassure them that is a perfectly acceptable behaviour to undertake.


Another key factor in changing behaviour is whether or not the person has the skills to make the behavioural change.

Ferrier illustrates this with a great example of weight loss programs. Majority of people who are overweight want to lose that weight (therefore motivation isn’t an issue), yet only a very small few actually do. This is because the biggest inhibiter to taking that action is not motivation, but that they usually don’t have the skills to do so.

So in order to satisfy the ‘skill’ factor of the behaviour change equation and drive people to make the change you want them to make, you must either upskill the user (through educational content for example) or reduce the complexity so that it comes into line with the persons existing skillset. Continuing the weight loss example, vendors like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers have come up with simple points systems (as opposed counting calorie intake, carbohydrate levels, etc) which make it easier to measure your food intake and therefore bring the skill level required down to a common level.


The final key factor in creating behavioural change and getting people to adopt your product is whether or not their external environment allows them to do so.

A great example of this from my own personal experience was at Dubsat. When marketing our Adsend product we found that often while the product had enough benefits to make the ‘champion’ in the buying process sufficiently motivated to change, they often had to convince others (like the CEO and CFO) of the benefits before being able to make the change.

In this case, the person had sufficient motivation and skill to make the change, but due to external environmental factors did not have the ‘opportunity’ to make the change.

So in order to satisfy the ‘opportunity’ factor of the behavioural change equation and drive people to make the change you want them to make, you need to make sure you understand the external enviornmental factors in the change and ensure you can address and minimise them.

How can I use content marketing to create behavioural change?

This little lesson in behavioural change theory is all well and good, but without some actionable advice it isn’t likely to help you much.

So how can you use content marketing to address the 3 factors of behavioural change and get people to make the change you want them to make at scale?

Let’s dive into each factor one at a time:

Using content marketing to create motivation

I believe the key to creating motivation through content marketing is by telling a brand story.

A brand story can be defined as the underlying ‘theme’ that disseminates itself across every one of your content pieces, including blog posts, eBooks, webinars and more.

To illustrate this and help you understand it a bit better, let’s look at HubSpot’s brand story which they thread across all of their content (taken from one of their webinars):

We all do marketing a similar way. Banner advertising, trade shows and other methods that interrupt the user with our messages but offer little value or education.

But the old marketing playbook isn’t cutting it anymore. The world’s changing. People have gotten very good at tuning it out and have ended up hating all marketing. 

There’s a better way to do marketing and that’s Inbound Marketing. Creating content that people love because it educates and offers value to them. HubSpot’s software allows you to do this effectively.

If you’ve ever read a bunch of HubSpot’s content, you will definitely be familiar with this story.

But how is it creating motivation for you to make some sort of behavioural change? Here’s how:

  • Diss the status quo – Notice how in HubSpot’s brand story (and subsequently in their content) they diss the status quo of traditional marketing and show why it isn’t working anymore? By doing this, they are showing you that by undertaking the behavioural change they want you to take (adopting Inbound Marketing) you are avoiding the pain associated with the traditional methods and how ineffective they are.
  • Present the benefits – Notice how in HubSpot’s story they also present the benefits of Inbound Marketing? By doing this, they are showing you that by undertaking the behavioural change they want you to take (adopting Inbound Marketing) you will be getting the pleasure of effective marketing that people love and drives your business forward.

By telling this brand story throughout their content, they are creating the motivation people need to ditch traditional marketing and adopt an inbound marketing approach using their software.

Contrast this to the content Buffer creates and you’ll see how the brand story is important. Buffer write about everything from happiness and productivity to best practices for using social media sharing, and while this content is awesome and gets shared a lot it does very little to present the reduced pain or the enhanced pleasure using their product will give to a person and therefore does little to actually create conversions & sales.

So in order to enhance the effectiveness of your content marketing, create a brand story that both disses the status quo and presents the benefits of your product (in a non-salesy way) and tell that story subliminally across all your content pieces.

Using content marketing to create skill

All good content marketing educates the reader and creates skill, but are you creating the right kind of skill that actually encourages the kind of behaviour change you want people to take?

Again looking at HubSpot and Buffer, HubSpot’s content is all about educating you on how to do Inbound Marketing effectively. They produce blog posts, eBooks & webinars which educate you on how to blog, use social media, create lead nurturing campaigns & everything associated with Inbound Marketing.

By doing this, they are giving people the skills they need to undertake the behavioural change that HubSpot want them to make. At the end of the day, HubSpot’s goal is to get you doing Inbound Marketing using their software and by educating you on best practices for doing so, they are giving you the skills you need to make the behaviour change.

Contrast this to Buffer’s content which is also educational and enhances people’s skills, but I’d question whether they are the right skills to create behavioural change. Majority of their content is around things like productivity, happiness, etc and while it’s all awesome and has definitely given me new skills, they weren’t the kind of skills I needed to make the behavioural change they want me to make (which would be starting to use their tool to share on social media rather than my previous tool).

So in order to make your content marketing effective, make sure you are educating people in the skills they need to make the behavioural change you need them to make. To do this, think about what the switching costs would be to go from their previous method of doing things to using your product. What data or content would they have to move over and how do they do it? What people would they have to re-train and how? What else would they need to know to successfully use your product? By using content to give them this information, you are effectively giving them the skills they need to make the change you want them to make.

Using content marketing to create opportunity

The final piece of the behavioural change equation is creating an external environment in which the person has the opportunity to make the behavioural change you want them to make.

Again looking at HubSpot and Buffer, HubSpot does a great job of mapping their content to the different information needs a person has as they go through behavioural change HubSpot wants them to make (adopting Inbound Marketing).

As a prospect moves through the different stages, they have different content & offers that match the information needs at each stage. Through research, they have a deep understanding of the information needs of both the ‘Champion’ and the other people who have influence in the process and the use lead nurturing to deliver that content to the right person at the right time.

By doing this, they are giving people the opportunity they need to make the behavioural change. They are removing roadblocks that may exist from other people or environmental circumstances and paving the way for the person to use the motivation and skill they have gained to make the change.

So in order to make your content marketing more effective, make sure you understand the stages a person goes through when making the behavioural change you want them to make and ensure you have content that addresses their information needs at each stage. By doing this, you will be removing blockages that prevent them from making the change and creating for them a perfect opportunity to make the behavioural change you want them to make.

In conclusion

By understanding some of these psychological principals of behavioural change, you can begin to shape your content marketing in such a way that people who consume your content will be more likely to make the changes you want them to make (such as signing up for and using your product), therefore making your content more effective.


P.S I want to make it known that it was in no way my intention to put down the content marketing work the Buffer team do. I understand I have somewhat bastardised their content throughout this article but in actual fact the reason they don’t do the things I have said HubSpot do is because their goals are different to HubSpot’s, not because they don’t know this stuff or aren’t capable of doing it. I actually have huge admiration for them (729,000 uniques!) and personally know and admire Belle Beth Cooper (who wrote most of their content for a very long time). If any of the Buffer team are reading this, I apologise for using your content as an example to illustrate my point. You’re awesome and keep it up.

Aaron Beashel

Just two loves: marketing & surfing. When I'm not in the ocean, you'll find me helping B2B SaaS companies acquire and retain customers.


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