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The 7 Deadly Sins of Cognitive Bias in Copywriting

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Editor's Note: This post was originally published on Phrasee.co.

If your brand’s digital marketing isn’t performing up to the standard you would like it to, there could be countless reasons for this, most of which you’ve already looked into to some degree or another. 

There is, however, one possible reason for unsatisfactory marketing performance you might not have thought about yet: cognitive bias in copywriting.

Cognitive bias and the sub-optimal marketing copy it results in could be holding your brand’s digital performance back without you even realizing it. 

Let’s take a look at how.

What is Cognitive Bias?

The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology defines cognitive bias as “a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgement.” Cognitive bias plays a massive role in human decision making and lies at the very core of our belief systems and the behaviors those belief systems produce.  

Put simply, cognitive biases are the subconscious prejudices we all  have. They permeate every aspect of the human experience, including the small, professional decisions we make every day. Our biases play a huge part in judging the best words and structure to use when writing something as simple as an email subject line.  

Maybe you have a preference for a certain phrasing that you just can’t explain, or maybe a copywriter in your team tells you that something just doesn’t look right to them. While on the surface we call this experience and acumen, in reality, they  are both examples of how cognitive biases can jeopardize your marketing copy. 

There are many different types of cognitive biases, but we’ll focus on a few which are likely to come into play and impact digital marketing outcomes when attempting to write effective marketing copy.

1. Ambiguity Effect

Ambiguity effect is a tendency to avoid making choices for which the probability of a positive outcome is unclear or unknown.  

Most copywriters will have experienced examples of the ambiguity effect throughout their careers. Perhaps you’ve thought of an idea for a piece of copy or had a suggestion from a colleague that doesn’t fit with what you would normally write. Perhaps that idea or suggestion would produce a more positive outcome than your standard approach, but why take the risk? If it doesn’t work, you’ll feel like you failed. Plus, what you’ve been doing has been working well enough.

Probably best not to rock the boat. Few people like unknown outcomes.  

2. Choice Supportive Bias

Choice supportive bias is a tendency to remember one’s own decisions as having been better and produced better results than was actually the case. 

As a human, you have a natural tendency to maximize your recall of instances when your own actions and decisions produced positive results and minimize recall of instances when they produced negative results.

It’s evolution’s little way of keeping us from feeling terrible about ourselves all the time.

Hence, you may be quite confident about your abilities and instincts, believing that you already know the best way to phrase a piece of marketing copy. The trouble is, that overconfidence could very well be keeping you from exploring more variation in your marketing copy, which isn’t ideal.  

3. Clustering Illusion

Clustering illusion is a tendency to lend too much credence to apparent patterns emerging from small runs, short streaks, or small clusters in large samples of random data.  

You’ve had a great month. Your marketing copy has been nailing it on every campaign. Your KPIs have shot through the roof. You may think to yourself, “I’ve finally figured it out.”

The following month, you attempt to duplicate this success by using a similar copywriting approach. Yet, somehow, your copy’s performance nosedives.

What happened? Clustering illusion, that’s what. Short runs and small clusters are largely meaningless when measured against the massive piles of copy that consumers are exposed to over the course of a year or a decade.

4. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a tendency to focus on and interpret information in a way that confirms one’s existing preconceptions.  

A campaign’s performance isn’t up to snuff? Probably due to poor targeting or sub-par attached media. A campaign nails it? All you, baby.

As any sports fan can tell you, there are thousands of ways to interpret any data set. It all depends on where you focus. Look at any marketing campaign’s performance metrics, and it’s possible to find information that confirms what you already “knew” in 99% of cases. Taking a step back and looking at the data without confirmation bias at play will produce vastly more valuable insights.  

5. Default Effect

Default effect is a tendency to favor a comfortable default option when presented with several different (and possibly more effective) alternatives. 

You’re presented with a long list of taglines, email subject lines, or CTAs, and told to select the one that should be used for your brand’s next big campaign. The default effect will almost certainly lead you toward the one most similar to the one that worked last week.

The thing is, the tastes and preferences of any digital audience can change on a dime. And in many cases, trying something different would likely yield better results if you just gave them a chance. 

6. Optimism Bias

Optimism bias is a tendency to be overly optimistic and expect favorable outcomes to the choices one makes.  

Oh yeah! You’ve got this! That copy you just wrote is going to set the world of marketing on fire! It is pitch-perfect, on-brand, and generally awesome. Sit back and watch the praise roll in.

The only question is, what if you’re wrong?  

7. Illusion of External Agency

Illusion of external agency is a tendency to view self-generated preferences as the result of, or evidenced by, external sources. 

If you’ve just finished writing copy for an important campaign, and you come across two blog posts, one eschewing the effectiveness of the strategies and approach you just finished implementing, and the other warning that those strategies and approaches are stale and ineffective, which are you more likely to pay attention to? Be honest.

This is the illusion of external agency at play. Focusing attention on things that reinforce what you already believed is a perfectly natural aspect of human life. 

These are just a few of the biases that impact the decisions we make when deciding how to word a piece of marketing copy. We may not be aware of them, but they are always there. They color our interpretations. They determine our preferences. They affect every aspect of every sentence we write.   

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