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Emotional Persuasion: The Key to Getting People To Do What You Want

emotional persuasion

Understanding psychology is the key to understanding decision-making processes. Often, what you think you know about how decisions are made and why conversions happen isn’t so black and white.

Many people think a logical argument with facts, figures and product specs is the best (and only) route. The truth is that the brain is quite emotional.

A better understanding of how the brain makes decisions and how emotional persuasion works will help you improve conversions (and your bottom line).

What is emotional persuasion?

Emotional persuasion is developing an awareness of your audience’s emotional state and evoking those emotions (or new ones) to get them to take the actions you want. Emotional persuasion is all about leveraging someone’s feelings to influence their thinking and behavior.

Ecommerce brands can use emotional persuasion to their advantage by identifying and evoking the feelings they want their audience to have. They can then leverage this awareness to appeal to the emotional decision-making side of buyers and convince them to convert.

Why is emotional persuasion important?

People like to think they’re logical beings making logical decisions, especially when it comes to how they spend their hard-earned money.

Enter dual process theory, which states there are two different systems within your brain: System One and System Two. System One is your emotional processor. It’s automatic and unconscious. System Two is your logical processor. It’s controlled and conscious, but much slower.

System one vs. system two characteristics

System Two is easily depleted because it’s slow and requires your full focus. The more time you spend thinking critically throughout the day, the less and less you’ll see system two pop up when it’s time to make a decision. System One, on the other hand, is always around, which is why you might initially make an emotional decision and rationalize it later.

For example, let’s say you bought an expensive clothing item online late at night after a long, hard day at work. By the next morning, System Two likely will have assured you that the free shipping and an upcoming event make the pricey purchase totally logical.

So, System One is a huge factor in decision-making, right? Yet marketers continue to appeal to System Two, the logical processor, almost exclusively. Even if your product happens to be the most logical option in your entire industry, there’s a solid chance your customer’s System Two will be depleted at the time, causing them to default to system one.

System One and System Two work together as a decision-making team, and ideally your marketing will persuade both systems. But if you have to choose between the two, choose System One, as it doesn’t get depleted.

We’re emotional people making mostly emotional decisions. It’s time to start optimizing accordingly and stop writing off emotional persuasion.

How emotional persuasion works

Emotional reactions are driven by two core factors: valence and arousal. Valence is whether the emotion is positive (high) or negative (low). Arousal is whether the emotion is active (high) or inactive (low).

Here’s how those factors look when visualized:

Valence and arousal graph

There are hundreds of different emotions you could try to evoke, so it helps to think in terms of valence and arousal. Where does your store and where do your products fall within this graph? Where should it be, given your unique goals?

1. Low Valence, High Arousal

Essentially, you’re evoking anxiety and intense negative emotions in your visitors. It’s a bold move that will only work selectively. For example, political campaigns and some charity ads will use low valence, high arousal copy, and design to persuade visitors into action.

While risky, this works because of a little cognitive bias known as the negativity bias, which states that strong negative stimulus has a greater impact on psychological states and processes than strong positive stimulus. One example of this in action is when you see brands using scarcity to invoke a sense of urgency. Negative emotions also contribute to higher virality.

This tactic, however, isn’t commonly used in commerce, so it’s on to the next quadrant.

2. High Valence, Low Arousal

High valence, low arousal persuasion is often based on humor.

Humor is a persuasion technique because not only are your customers more likely to recall funny memories, but they’re more likely to share them as well.

But why?

  • The element of surprise. Humor is often unexpected; it’s unusual.
  • Humor distracts the brain from the fact that it’s being sold to.
  • Laughing makes us happy!

Chubbies, a men’s clothing retailer, is a perfect example of using humor on its homepage and About page to evoke strong emotion.

Chubbies homepage, a man sitting on a sofa holding a TV remote with a gleeful expression.

Screenshot of Chubbies About page with a man on a sun chair in swim trunks on the left and text on the right describing Friday at 5 pm.

Chubbies makes you laugh, and that isn’t just a branding strategy—it’s also a conversion strategy.

3. Low Valence, Low Arousal

Sad, but calm. It may sound odd, but it’s actually quite a common technique. Sad people seek immediate gratification rather than long-term reward, even if the long-term reward is the more logical choice.

As long as the price tag is small, your happy solution to something sad will seem almost irresistible.

Take the World Wildlife Fund store, for example, which gives you the facts about endangered species and lets you choose how and where to help.

World Wildlife Foundation product listings featuring a frog, elephants, a whale, and a grizzly bear, animals you can “buy” with your donation.

You could spend $100 or less—which seems like an easy choice.

These differ from the uncommon low valence, high-arousal technique because, while they evoke sadness, they’re inactive. Contrast an active depiction of outright animal abuse with WWF’s more inactive technique, for example.

4. High Valence, High Arousal

Anything that captivates an audience or inspires falls into this quadrant. This can include any stores that encourage you to be your best self, to adopt a new positive action.

Healthy living brands like Organic Burst come to mind. Its homepage promises to transform you into your most fit, most energetic, most positive version of yourself.

Organic Burst homepage with headline and text and CTA button.

Its product tagging also makes it easy to find the products designed to transform you into your healthiest self.

Organic Burst content tags.

Remember to focus on the benefit and not your product features to evoke these positive emotions. People don’t buy products—instead, they invest in better versions of themselves. This is especially relevant for high valence, high arousal approaches.

How to use emotional persuasion

Before you get started, there are a few more things you need to know. Emotions are tricky in general, let alone as a persuasion tool.

Here’s how to get it right the first time (spare yourself the hard lessons).

Have a well-defined process

Emotions are messy and complex, which is why a clearly defined process to guide you is even more essential than usual. You know the basics, you’ve seen some examples, but it’s not enough. You need to know how to apply emotional persuasion techniques to your specific target audience.

Talia Wolf of GetUpLift happens to be a leading expert on emotional persuasion. Fortunately, she was willing to share her four-step process:

  1. Get to know our customer. In this stage, our goal is to get into our customers’ heads. Understand their emotional drivers, concerns, motivations, and real intent. We use heat maps, Google Analytics, and other analytical tools to identify our customers’ behavior on every page of the store. We run customer surveys and interviews, do voice of customer research, competitor research, emotional SWOT, and build the psychological profile of our customers.
  2. Identify what we need to say to them. Once we’ve identified our customers’ emotional triggers, we build the strategy around it, the main messaging we want to use, map out the customer journey, create hypotheses for fixing the leaks in the funnel, and set our goals.
  3. Figure out how we’ll say it. This is where persuasive design, consumer psychology, and emotional triggers come to play. Using all the information and research we gathered, we choose the copy, psychological colors, cognitive biases, the social proof, the hero image and even the fonts we want to test to trigger those emotions.
  4. Leverage A/B testing. Continuous optimization, reading the data and finding new ways to create persuasive customer journeys that solve our customers’ pain and help our clients’ businesses grow.

You’ll notice this process looks a bit like the optimization and growth process, but with a focus on emotional persuasion and qualitative research (surveys, interviews, etc.):

Growth process according to Morgan Brown

Image source

The emphasis on qualitative research allows you to become customer driven instead of product driven, which is important, because what works for one store might not work for another.

High valence, high arousal might be a terrible choice for your store, for example. Or maybe just the way you implemented it will flop, but you’re in the right quadrant. Eliminating this uncertainty means conducting qualitative research.

“It’s not enough to read a blog post about persuasion, download an ebook about it, or follow ‘the one hack that persuades customers.’” —Talia Wolf, GetUpLift

Talia says one of the most common mistakes brands make is blindly following best practices. “It’s not enough to read a blog post about persuasion, download an ebook about it, or follow ‘the one hack that persuades customers,’” she says. “This method leads to marketers making assumptions about their customer versus doing the heavy lifting and digging.” Every audience is different, so you need to tailor your approach to your unique audience rather than a best practice.

Write emotional copy

Emotional persuasion techniques can be divided into two categories: copywriting and design. Ideally, the two work together to tell one cohesive story and evoke a certain emotion.

Emotional persuasion in copy comes in two forms: emotion words and emotional storytelling.

Emotion words are also commonly known as emotional trigger words. Some words are inherently more emotional than others, so the specific words you select carry a lot of meaning.

For example:

  • Private or secret: Which is an emotion word?
  • Fast or instant: Which is an emotion word?
  • Happy or carefree: Which is an emotion word?

If you guessed secret, instant, and carefree, you’re right. Here are some other emotion words you can use:

  1. Serene (high valence, low arousal)
  2. Uplifted (high valence, low arousal)
  3. Unburdened (high valence, low arousal)
  4. Light (high valence, low arousal)
  5. Meditative (high valence, low arousal)
  6. Centered (high valence, low arousal)
  7. Bold (high valence, high arousal)
  8. Brave (high valence, high arousal)
  9. Eager (high valence, high arousal)
  10. Daring (high valence, high arousal)
  11. Dynamic (high valence, high arousal)
  12. In the zone (high valence, high arousal)
  13. Vulnerable (low valence, low arousal)
  14. Trapped (low valence, low arousal)
  15. Threatened (low valence, low arousal)
  16. Disempowered (low valence, low arousal)
  17. Insecure (low valence, low arousal)
  18. Paralyzed (low valence, low arousal)

A single word isn’t going to skyrocket your conversion rate. Some words are more likely to trigger emotion than others, which you can use to your advantage. Try to sprinkle emotion words throughout your copy. Remember, these are just examples. The best emotion words will come from your qualitative research.

Swimwear brand Seea uses emotional persuasion in its copy to inspire active women to get out in the water and be active. Phrases like “supreme style” and “built-to-shred” make its audience excited to purchase and use its products.

Screenshot of Seea homepage banner image with Supreme Style headline.

Storytelling is another key component of emotionally persuasive copy. You can use storytelling in a number of ways. Maybe you tell a story about how the product came about, tell another customer’s story about your product, or you help customers imagine their own story with your product.

It’s up to you, but a story is much more relatable than a brand. Think about companies that have built a loyal following thanks to their fearless protagonist, like Apple.

Use emotional design

Emotional persuasion in design comes in three forms: font, color, and images.

  1. Font: Are you familiar with the idea that it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it? Online, font is the how. The font you choose is impacting the emotions of your visitors, whether you realize it or not.
  2. Color: The internet is no stranger to the concept of color psychology. According to a study conducted by the Seoul International Color Expo, more than 92% of people say color plays an important role in purchase decisions. Let’s be clear, though, it’s not black and white. For example, yellow is considered a very happy color, right? But everything is contextual and color has to work with other emotional design factors, not alone.
  3. Images: Arrows, hands, and eyes can direct attention. Facial expressions can evoke emotion. After all, one person’s emotions can directly trigger the same emotions in someone else. Contrast can draw attention to emotion words and images. The list goes on and on.

What’s important here again is that all of these factors work together. Copy and design can’t work in silos, and color alone isn’t enough to emotionally persuade. Anima Mundi Apothecary, for example, promotes an ayurvedic and intentional lifestyle through the products it sells. Its site design reflects that, evoking the feelings of serenity and connection to nature.

Screenshot of Anima Mundi Apothecary homepage.

Run A/B tests

You will need emotional persuasion techniques to work together simultaneously, so you’ll likely end up with a variant that looks much different from your original store. This is a good thing. While you might be used to minor A/B tests, it makes more sense to go big in this case.

For example, A/B testing the introduction of a few emotion words or a button color change would be insignificant. Instead, you want to test an entirely new look and feel focused on evoking your desired emotion.

Get an emotional baseline

How do your visitors feel when they land on your site? Look into this during your qualitative research phase so that you can get a baseline.

For example, someone visiting an outdoor apparel store might be feeling adventurous, while someone visiting a bank’s site might be feeling stressed.

You want to evoke a specific emotion, right? You can’t do that as effectively if you don’t understand the average arrival emotion.

Use emotional persuasion to drive sales

We’re emotional people making mostly emotional decisions. We might like to think otherwise, but our brains simply aren’t as rational and logical as we’d like to believe. Luckily for ecommerce marketers, there are ways to leverage this.

Emotional persuasion is the key to getting shoppers to make the decisions you want them to make—and you can get started with some of these tactics today.


Emotional persuasion FAQ

What type of persuasion uses emotion?

Pathos is the type of persuasion that uses emotion.

How do emotions persuade?

Emotions persuade by making people feel connected to brands and/or products and thus motivated to support said brands.

What are the 4 types of persuasion?

  1. Ethos
  2. Pathos
  3. Logos
  4. Kairos

What is emotional appeal in persuasion?

Emotional appeal in persuasion is leveraging the awareness of your audience’s emotions and feeling state to make more compelling arguments to get them to do what you want them to do.