3 Psychological Triggers that Can Move Your Audience from Indifference to Desire

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I’d like to tell you about a powerful but elusive emotion that you can trigger to increase traffic, click-throughs, and conversions.

Used properly, it can entice your reader to give you their full attention and follow your call to action.

But there’s a catch.

Despite its intensity, this emotion is fickle. And it’s often mishandled in copywriting. Make a mistake and your reader’s interest can disappear with the smallest of distractions.

So what’s this powerful but tricky emotional state?


Even if you’re familiar with using curiosity to attract readers to your content, if you’re not following these 3 rules, you might be losing more potential customers than you can imagine.

Why curiosity is so hard to get right

Stemming from our need to gather information to make sense of the world, curiosity can have us glued to puzzles and games for hours, finish books we don’t enjoy, or bounce from article to article in Wikipedia resulting in a completely lost afternoon.

More constructively, curiosity has been the driver behind the greatest discoveries in science, medicine, and technology.

And yet, the sudden curiosity to read the latest celebrity scandal — caused by seeing magazines at the store counter — can disappear as soon as you finish paying.

So how can you trigger curiosity and turn it into action such as clicking a link on Twitter, signing up for your newsletter, or downloading your free report?

Psychology and economics professor George Loewenstein conducted an in-depth study and discovered that the peak combination for triggering a high level of curiosity included:

  1. Violating the right expectations
  2. Tickling the “information gap”
  3. Knowing when to stop

Let’s take a look at each of Professor Loewenstein’s three triggers, and how you can use them to turn curiosity into conversion …

Violate the right expectations

You’re probably already familiar that most curiosity is triggered by challenging common beliefs.

For example, a headline which reads:

Increase Sales By Making More Sales Calls Than Other People

Doesn’t really turn our world upside down. The headline makes sense and leaves nothing to the imagination. Instead:

How To Increase Sales 50% In Just 15 Minutes A Day

Violates expectations by suggesting something small can create dramatic results.

You’ll often see Copyblogger violating expectations in their headlines. For example:

There is No ROI in Social Media Marketing

In both headlines there is something readers may not expect. As a result, disorder is created, which requires investigation to restore sense and meaning.

Curiosity headlines are some of the hardest to write, because simply turning something on its head usually isn’t enough to encourage your reader to take action.

To create a real desire for your reader to click, read, or sign up, you have to violate the right expectations.

Loewenstein discovered that curiosity increased when you highlighted a gap in someone’s knowledge, particularly when it related to a topic that interested them.

For example, Copyblogger readers are interested in becoming better writers so they can attract more traffic, links, subscribers, and profits. So if Copyblogger ran a headline like:

How Your Writing Is Like A 7-Foot Banana

It might violate expectations BUT most readers probably feel they can live without this knowledge.

However a headline such as:

Why Bad Writers Are Eating Your Lunch And What To Do About It

Is more effective because:

  • It violates the expectation that bad writers can be successful
  • It suggests that writers worse than you know something that you don’t, which may hamper your own success
  • It promises the benefit of solving this problem for you

Tease … just a little

Even if you violate the right expectations, curiosity is a fickle mistress.

It’s not enough to create disorder. You have to stop your reader from thinking, “Oh, that’s probably going to be about X, Y and Z — I bet I already know that.”

To sustain curiosity, Loewenstein suggests using feedback to quash this thought before it arises.

Tests revealed that most people assume they know more than they actually do, so you definitely want to make sure you’re not losing readers who “think” they know what you’re going to tell them.

For example, a Copyblogger reader who sees this headline:

5 Marketing Lessons You Can Learn

Might assume she already knows those 5 marketing lessons. As a result, she doesn’t feel compelled to read the article.

That’s why:

5 Marketing Lessons You Can Learn From A Weird “Real World” Business

Is going to work much better for the Copyblogger audience. For one, there’s the curious mention of “weird,” so we’re already thinking this will violate expectations.

In addition, you have “real world” business, indicating again, that this advice may be new or unexpected to an online audience.

Ultimately, you’re directly poking at their area of expertise and saying, “I know you know a lot, but you don’t know this.” And this really encourages the curiosity gremlin to wreak havoc.

Know when to stop

Loewenstein discovered that curiosity doesn’t intensify indefinitely, rather it peaks and declines if left unsatisfied for too long.

A common problem in sales copy is overdoing curiosity, believing the reader will stay interested forever.

It’s true that your headline is important in getting the attention of your reader. But it doesn’t guarantee continued interest.

The headline gets them to read the first line of your copy, and the first line gets them to read the second line and so on until the end.

For example, when you start a sales page, landing page, or blog post, your opening paragraph needs to acknowledge the curiosity you highlighted in your headline. Don’t introduce something new and unrelated, hoping that your reader’s curiosity will cause them to power on through your copy looking for the answer that was promised to them.

You don’t have to reveal everything straight away. Telling them to read the article to the end to discover what they want to know can nudge them sufficiently into the body of your copy.

From there you can start relying less on curiosity and more on compelling benefits, rich imagery, and strong storytelling to keep their attention and encourage them to take action.

What makes you curious?

What about you? What is a sure fire way to trigger your curiosity? Are there headlines that you’ve clicked on only to be disappointed? Have you used similar methods with success?

Let us know in the comments below.

About the Author: Amy Harrison is a copywriter for entrepreneurs over at Harrisonamy.com. Check out her recent free report on how to write sales copy when your personality is part of your business.

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Reader Comments (59)

  1. says

    One of the biggest emotional triggers for me fear and I use that emotion on a daily basis to beat procrastination and consistently take action in my business. As noted in this article, a headline that poses a question which can trigger the emotion of fear will probably get a fairly high clickthrough.

  2. says

    A very nice article.

    For me one of the most important things is what you touch on when you mention how certain headlines work better for the Copyblogger readers – knowing your audience. Knowing who your readers are and what makes them tick, makes it that much easier to appeal to their curiosity.

    Some very good tips I’ll be sure to use :)

  3. says

    Just entering into the field of content marketing and learning how to trade information for attention. I found this very useful in that it shows how people can be drawn in by what they don’t know than by what they already know. If you look at it closely, you realize that curiosity is how we sell. No one will buy a solution to a problem they can solve by themselves. So presenting a new solution stirs up their curiosity and if you do your job well enough, can earn you the sale.

    Thanks Amy for sharing.

  4. says

    There’s nothing more disappointing (in the blogging world that is) than browsing an incredibly intriguing headline, only to find out that you’ve been misled.

    That being said, when you read a great headline and the content actually delivers, you leave feeling more satisfied, like I felt after finishing this post. :)

    Really great writing Amy.

    • says

      Great point. Being a headline Ninja only helps if the article itself delivers. Delivering on promises is a skill in itself. (And Amy did that very well!)

    • says

      I’m with you, Greg! There’s nothing worse in the blogging world than a completely misleading headline. The practice puts a sour taste in my mouth and makes me far less likely to visit that blog again.

      Great post, Amy! Even though headlines that pique curiosity are great, I think I would still read a Copyblogger article titled “How Your Writing Is Like A 7-Foot Banana.” I imagine only great things would come from that. 😉

    • says

      I’m glad the headline lived up to it – had me worried then :-) Poor headlines have been abused so much that more people are ignoring them because they think they know what’s going to be delivered, or don’t believe that the article will deliver.

      That’s where tinkering with the curiosity trigger can really help you stand out and deliver…

      Ooh, was getting all “Adam Ant” then… well, almost

  5. says

    Amy, this is a great post and its going to work for me more than just a post.
    I have to read and read and read until i get the main picture. Its going
    to work like a course for me


  6. says

    Fabulous post Amy. I’m a curious dude by nature, but I’ve never really understood how to generate it in others. Powerful stuff.

  7. says

    Great info. clear. points, nice follow through. Some good tips to think about (and… perfect timing as I’ve got some writing I’ll be doing this afternoon.!!)

    thanks Amy

    PS — anyone reading.. DO check out Amy’s sales page — one of the BEST video I’ve seen ( it’s like a real person talking to you.. naturally, friendly…. believable!)

      • says

        Yep, and your practice shows… good results ! ( things like .. you smile.. and leave pauses …. things like your voice varies in pitch. (especially when you do your pitch.. if you know what I mean!!?!.)

  8. says

    A great reminder that all marketing is connected to human emotion. In short, we’re tasked with creating “want”, and generating curiosity is a great way to do it.

  9. says

    This is great — your headline was a prime example of this post. I immediately saw it in my inbox, clicked it, and dived in.

    Well done.

  10. says

    Spot on advice Amy!

    Don’t overdo it. Like cooking a fish, as Lao Tzu said, don’t overdo it. You want to get it just right. Too over the top and people will ignore it. If you introduce little curiosity, people have been there, read that, and you get no clicks.

    Nail it, and you’re golden.

    Thanks Amy!


  11. says

    Love the idea.

    Creating a great headline with curiosity is definitely the best way to attract readers to read the whole post.

    Thank you Amy for this great post. Really love it. 😀

  12. says

    There’s nothing wrong with teasing readers as long as you deliver them what you promise in the headline, and you’ve done just that with this post. I can’t tell you how often I click on blogs because of the catchy headline and then immediately click away due to a virtually unrelated article. It’s disheartening. Anyway, nice work!

    P.S. I have to know — what happens when a curiosity demon wreaks havoc? And what does it look like? I’m intrigued! 😉

  13. says

    Nothing sparks my curiosity more than a headline which promises to teach me something unexpected and immediately helpful about a service I already use. I can’t resist headlines that promise new tricks for an old site.

  14. says

    I don’t like the fear factor – too much of it in politics. I’ll take the honesty factor any day, any time. Love the curiosity factor – you’re right on with that one!

  15. says

    I the best way to move your audience to a stress free enviroment is by building relationships that will reward you in a positive way. Building relationship should be via social media by infusing energy and passion.

  16. says

    Great points. I think that I react very well to emotional headlines, but, of course, just as anybody else, I also click on headlines that awaken my curiosity.

    Yes, there have been many times that I have been disappointed by headlines. There are always bloggers who don’t get it right and over promise, but never deliver in the actual article. So, you have to be careful with promising too much and you have to hit exactly what you are writing about and not just go for the clicks. Nobody will stick around if you have a great headline but an awful post.

    • says

      Thanks Anne-Sophie, It’s a difficult temptaions to resist because you know a big promise in a the headline is going to pull some clicks, , but you don’t get many opportunities to disappoint readers before they just stop coming back.

  17. says

    Your article headline stimulated my curiosity. I am always looking for ways to improve my headline writing skills as well as my article writing skills. Good article. Thank you for the tips.

  18. says

    I second what Lauren said!

    Amy, your writing style and copy knowledge are both just superb. I love how you pick at the real little habits most of us have (such as endless wiki surfing) to drive home a fantastic lesson on persuasive writing.

    And I was pleased to see you talked about when to stop as well. If you never deliver on your tease, well then people are just going to walk away. :)

    • says

      Thanks Danielle!

      I have lost many hours to endless wiki-surfing. It’s a problem I’m trying to get help for (but I keep looking for the answer on Wikipedia and so…) :-)

  19. says

    Thanks, Amy – great tips! That balance is such a tricky dance, isn’t it?

    How about combining fear and curiosity: “Is Your Date is Serial Killer? Five Ways to Find Out”

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