By Andy Crestodina published December 30, 2013

This is Your Brain on Content Marketing

[Editor’s note: Happy Holidays! This week, the editorial team at Content Marketing Institute wanted to share some of the best content marketing blog posts we’ve seen from the CMI Online Training and Certification program’s roster of expert instructors. Today’s post is an updated version of one that originally appeared on Andy Crestodina’s Orbit Media Studios blog in May, 2013.

areas of the brain-graphicContent marketing isn’t brain science, but if you know a bit about the brain, you’ll be a better content marketer.

The brain is specialized, each part with its own function. Planning, emotion, and language are all managed by different lobes. They each have their own natural tendencies, and these tendencies are common to all of us.

As we look at the research, we find that there are at least five content marketing tactics that align with different parts of the brain.

The amygdala: Basic emotions

Amygdalae are involved in emotions and storage of emotional memories.

  • Tactic 1: Headlines — Emotion and sharing: In the words of Antonio Damasio, “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.”

Headlines are the fastest ways to tap into emotions, since they are the most prominent element on any page. Eye tracking studies show that headlines aren’t just the first thing visitors see — they’re looked at more than anything else.

They also have a lot to do with sharing and virality. Headlines that trigger emotions are much more likely to be shared — especially headlines that trigger very positive or negative feelings. More specifically, there are three types of emotions that get shared the most: anxiety, anger, and awe (inspiration).

emotions - making the list

Notice how sadness is the emotion people share the least? Never write a sad headline.

The frontal lobe: Logic and motivation

The frontal lobe handles motivation, planning, and short-term memory. It weighs options and consequences of actions.

  • Tactic 2: The order of lists: List posts are a popular format for content for bloggers everywhere. You’ve probably written a few yourself. But how carefully did you consider the order of the list?

recall - position in sequenceThe order is important because of what’s called the Serial Position Effect. Our brains are best at attention and retention at the beginnings and ends of things. So when writing lists (or even organizing the navigation of your website), put the most important items first and last. The items in the middle are least likely to stay in your visitors’ short-term memory.

  • Tactic 3: Scarcity, loss and marketing copy: The human brain is generally not very good at calculating costs and benefits. We tend to undervalue gains and overvalue losses. For example, the pain of losing $5 is greater than the pleasure of gaining $5. This is called “loss aversion.”


Knowing that your audience has a biological fear of losing something or missing out, you can write your marketing content accordingly. Here are a few examples:

o   Write about the costs (and risks) of not using your service: “Companies without a documented content strategy have lower return on investment.”

o   Use limited-time offers to create urgency: “Early bird discount ends today!”

o   If the product is scarce, say so: “12 copies remaining in stock.”

  • Tactic 4: Social proof and testimonials: This one might not surprise you. All things being equal, people will do what other people are doing. Behavioral scientists call it “herd behavior.”

This is why it’s so important to give some evidence. Your marketing needs to show that other people have made the choice that you want your readers to make. Make it obvious that other people have used your service. The goal is to make any decision other than hiring you seem abnormal.

This “social proof” can take many forms:

o   Testimonials from current clients

o   Product reviews from customers

o   Endorsements from respected people in your field

o   Logos of media sites that have mentioned your business “As seen in…”

o   Facebook and Twitter widgets showing the size of your following

o   Awards, memberships, security certificates, and other “trust seals”

Tip: Never make a testimonials page. People don’t go to websites to read testimonials, so these pages tend not to be visited. Instead, sprinkle them throughout the site. Testimonials are supportive content. They are strong when added to service pages; they are weak when they are kept together on one page.

The temporal lobe: Language

The temporal lobe plays a key role in language comprehension and processing meaning.

  • Tactic 5: Readability and choice of words: Great marketing is easily understood. Complicated sentence structure, long words, and technical jargon are bad. They force the temporal lobe to work harder.

success - literacy rates

Use common words and simple sentences. Avoid jargon. Content that works well for “low literacy” readers is good for everyone.

In a study by NN Group, a pharmaceutical website was rewritten to bring the reading level down to an 8th-grade level. Not only was the site more successful for lower-literacy visitors, it was also more successful for the higher-literacy visitors.

Don’t “dumb down” your content. Just do the temporal lobe a favor and use the simple words that everyone understands.

Keep the brain in mind

Your readers have brains and those brains have certain tendencies. For best results, create content that aligns with those tendencies. Test these tactics and measure the outcomes. Content marketing is like brain science. It’s all about research and experimentation.


Stay tuned for more details on the CMI Online Training and Development program. And if you are looking for more content marketing inspiration, Read CMI’s Content Marketing Playbook: 24 Epic Ideas for Connecting with Your Customers.

Author: Andy Crestodina

Andy Crestodina is the Strategic Director of Orbit Media, a web design company in Chicago. Andy is also an instructor for the Content Marketing Institute Online Training and Certification program. You can find Andy on and Twitter.

Other posts by Andy Crestodina

  • Qasim Eisa

    My god, this post blows me away…

    • Andy Crestodina

      Thanks for the positive feedback, Qasim. Have fun putting these into practice!

  • Qasim Eisa

    Again, it is the best article I read in 2013. Oh

  • margiedana

    I love this post for so many reasons – what excellent insights and usable advice for those of us in the content business! Especially agree with the “don’t create a testimonials page” tip. Thanks again, and happy 2014!

    • Andy Crestodina

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Margie. Yes, hopefully the content marketers who read this are removing their testimonials pages and putting that “social proof” into other pages. Happy 2014 to you!

  • Ryan Biddulph

    Excellent tips Andy 😉 The idea of loss weighs huge on most folks. using a loss-themed list style posts reels in readers quickly.

    • Andy Crestodina

      Some loss-themed posts are also easy to write. If you’ve written the “10 best practices post” you can hold it up to a mirror and quickly write the “10 mistakes” post. Every how-to post is just waiting to be reborn as a how-not-to post. This also creates an instant cross-linking opportunity…

      Thanks for the comment, Ryan!

  • Tim Wirth

    Great writing and demonstration. I find this post the most efficient read this year. And the most applicable in whatever we build.

  • checkfloor

    Now i can figure out how much time to give part of my blog ……

  • Jay Acunzo

    @andycrestodina:disqus – smart, unique take. Really enjoyed this. I notice you don’t mention superlatives. Any details around that by any chance? Seems to be right up there with listicles to write posts about the best/ultimate/essential/definitive/quickest/most effective [insert thing here]. Just curious!

    • Andy Crestodina

      I’ve never seen any research on superlatives, but I know a lot of marketers who say they’re the best. (see how I did that? couldn’t resist!) If you see research here, neuromarketing or otherwise, please let me know. Thanks, Jay.

  • Devan Perine

    LOVE this, Andy! So cool to see how different human psychological factors play such a huge role in marketing. Got a TON out of this article — thank you!

    • Andy Crestodina

      Thank you, Devan! Fun seeing you here in the CMI comments. Looking forward to collaborating again soon…

  • dtstanley

    THIS IS OUTSTANDING! I love, love, love this Andy. As a social media/marketing professor at UW Madison and a neuroscience geek on the side, this is so fitting and valuable. I will definitely be sharing this with my students this semester as a required reading.

    I’d love to connect with you about this topic sometime and maybe have you guest lecture via Skype if you’re game.

    Thanks again!

    • Andy Crestodina

      I’d be happy to talk to your class, Don! I see we’re already connected on Twitter. Drop me a line anytime and we’ll plan something. Looking forward to it.

      • dtstanley

        Great! Will do Andy. Thanks much.

  • heidicohen

    Andy–Useful content as always. I love the point “Make your content easy to read but don’t dumb it down.” Happy marketing, Heidi Cohen

    • Andy Crestodina

      Thank you, Heidi! Seeing you here in the comments is triggering the “collaborate-with-Heidi” circuit in my brain…

  • Lily154

    Great info. I work in the insurance industry, so tactics 1 and 3 really apply to copy we produce.

  • Michael Bian

    great information. its very useful to my my business. thank you for this.

  • Geoff Reiner


    Awesome post! I love how you break this down into simple, scientific evidence. I always find myself re-reading your info with a notebook in hand so this is my homework for tonight! And I must say that science certainly sells 🙂

    Also, I’m half way through your book and I can’t stress how much I’ve learned. Thanks again!