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In Content Marketing, 'People Buy on Emotion and Rationalize With Logic' Is a Mistake (Pt. 1)

by Catherine Sherlock  |  
August 12, 2013

The saying "people buy on emotion and rationalize with logic" has been around so long that people rarely question it.

But in content marketing, you need to question it. Otherwise, you run the risk of either not providing people the right information or—worse—alienating your audience.

The idea that people buy solely on emotion is old-school selling. Nowadays, buyers are running the show more than ever. Selling solely on emotion can make you come across as condescending and slimy.

It's obvious that emotions are big motivators for people making purchases. After all, we're human and emotions are a large part of how we operate. However, they're not the only part. We're not just emotional; we also have the capacity to think and question.

Under old-school selling, people felt manipulated—which is why they started turning to the Internet and to friends for answers rather than engaging with salespeople.

So, what's a better way? When you start to realize that people use both emotion and logic in making buying decisions, you can start creating much more powerful content marketing materials that really serve your buyers.

Better yet, when you understand how emotion and logic function within your buying cycle, you have the framework for creating not just good content but also great content marketing strategy.

That framework helps you to know what kind of content to produce, how to capture and keep people's attention, and even what formats to use for your marketing and when. You can create great content that provides people with what they need at each stage of your buying cycle.

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Catherine Sherlock (Sherlock Ink) is a communications professional and sustainability (CSR) strategist who revels in working with companies seeking to make the world a better place. Her specialties include storytelling, content marketing, and purpose-based consulting. Contact her for a complimentary consultation on your content or sustainability strategy.

LinkedIn: Catherine Sherlock

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  • by James Clouser Mon Aug 12, 2013 via web

    Catherine: Great article. Very thoughtful.

    I agree that logic is an important component of thought process in human psychology. And I'd like to add that the limbic system (emotional brain) is dominant over the neo-cortex (complex thinking) brain because otherwise we wouldn't have the capacity to fight or flight.

    It's not so much any issue of whether or not we're logical people. Of course we are. That's what makes us human. It's more of an issue of accepting the fact that we're primarily emotional decision makers because our survival as a species depends on it.

    Plus, content marketing works so well BECAUSE of this complex. We feel that we SHOULD be logical decision makers, therefore we ACT in a logical way as we approach a sale. And that's still an emotional response based on our self-image.


  • by Annette Simmons Mon Aug 12, 2013 via web

    Great article. I love when smart people question "common wisdom!"

  • by Jason Ball Mon Aug 12, 2013 via web

    The fact that emotion drives purchase decision by an enormous degree is very well supported by a range of in-depth research (there's an excellent summary in How Customers Think by Gerald Zaltman).

    While we might all wish that customers were rational (ourselves along with them) this is simply not supported by evidence. When we're talking about the effectiveness of a long ebook vs quirky video, this is more a case of people's attention spans and the signal:noise ratio of varying formats than whether or not we tap into emotional drivers (eg at Considered Content, we know that if we go much over 12 pages for an ebook or 90s for a video, attention drops like a stone).

    Using emotion in content and communications does not have to be any more manipulative than other forms of marketing. However, whether it's B2C or B2B, recognising and talking to customers' emotional drivers and then helping them rationalise where necessary will out-perform a logic-led approach every time.

    If anyone has research that shows otherwise, I for one would love to see it.

  • by Kathy Klotz-Guest Mon Aug 12, 2013 via web

    Nice article. I appreciate the discussion. As has already been said in the comments, the research does show a heavy emotional component that occurs first, and the research isn't the issue.

    However, Catherine, you bring up an important point: You need both an emotional component and a logic component. So I think where the mistake comes in is in marketers' interpretations of the research - not the research itself. I don't think the research is suggesting that there shouldn't be a logic component. I've always advocated both, and I haven't truthfully met many marketers who would say that some logic part isn't important. Are they equal? Probably not. But both should be there. When we buy on trust - that's a feeling. It's not logic. As the research shows, we irrationally believe that we make rational decisions most of the time. We don't. As marketers, we all know that. Still, the logic brain has to be appealed to somewhere in the buyer's journey - that is for sure.

    Because many of my clients are steeped in the tech industry, the emotional component is often missing. So when we raise that part - it feels to some that we're leaving the logic part behind. We're not: it's just left-brained dominated industries have often gone to the logic extreme at the expense of the human, emotional component. I've written about this as well.

    At any rate, it's a great reminder and a good discussion to have! Both do matter - in different degrees. Thanks for a robust piece.

  • by Mary Rose Maguire Mon Aug 12, 2013 via web

    I agree with Jason Ball. Although B2B marketing needs to support its message with logic, it is the trigger emotion that will cause the prospect to stop in the first place to pay attention.

    I think the points made here are primarily about our attention span and as Jason said, the signal:noise ratio. But I'm a bit confused. Your title indicated that the commonly held belief of focusing on emotion was a wrong approach. Yet your table shows that the initial touch is relying on emotion but then requires more logical information to justify the buying path.

    Emotion has been the driver in buying decisions for decades. Claude Hopkins, who many still turn to for advertising advice, first came up with these principles in 1907. Whenever his approach has been tried, it's won. And I feel his approach is much more preferable to what many ad agencies consider "clever" or "cool."

    For instance, that Rogers Speed Experiment? Have no idea what it's about from that commercial. There is no benefit let alone identifying any pain or pleasure point for me. So I move on.

    I still believe that content marketing not only has to use emotional triggers to first gain the attention of the prospect, but has to keep hammering on those points throughout all the content. Anger. Frustration. Embarrassment. Envy. Greed. A good content writer or copywriter won't make the experience feel sleazy.

    In fact, a good copywriter is able to deliver that kind of sales-writing without the person even realizing they're getting a pitch. All that prospect cares about is getting the solution to their problem because the marketer has created a rapport, trust has been built, and the prospect believes that the marketer has the solution.

    I'm looking forward to Part 2. :-)

  • by Catherine Sherlock Mon Aug 12, 2013 via web

    Thanks so much for all of your great and thoughtful comments and discussion.

    If we look at the people that we're marketing to as 'emotional', there's a danger of talking down to them (partly because there's a tendency to think of others as emotional and ourselves as rational). Humans use both logic and emotions - and truthfully, it's hard to sort out where one starts and the other ends - our thoughts fuel our emotions, our emotions fuel our thoughts (a point which you make well, James).

    Jason, your points about the length of content - that once it's too long, attention drops like a stone - are good ones. I'll be curious for your comments on Part 2 of the article next week when I discuss the rest of the buying cycle. Particularly in the case of complex sales, people need good information to be able to make a decision. When they're in the evaluation stage of making a purchasing decision, people are willing to spend more time if you've provided good content that helps them better understand the decision they're making. I'm not saying an approach should be logic-led - there's emotion throughout the process. But recognizing the flux and interaction of emotion and logic through your buying cycle will help you create good content strategy (next week I'll be talking about which cycles tend to be more emotion-based and which have a greater need for that logic component).

    Kathy - good comment about tech companies. There is a tendency toward logic which results in not connecting well with their audience. In their case, too much logic and not enough emotion.

    And Annette - thanks for calling me 'smart'.

    Have a wonderful week!

  • by Catherine Sherlock Mon Aug 12, 2013 via web

    Mary Rose - you're right on the money when you say that marketing has to use emotional triggers to gain people's attention.

    The article isn't saying that you don't need to key into emotions, but rather that you also need logic (depending on your company's unique buying cycle.). Next week I'll go into more detail on the emotion-logic ratio through the rest of the buying cycle as well as which purchases need more logic.

    I like your comments about the skills of a good copywriter. Emotion creates that initial connection but then you need strong content to keep building rapport.

    Thanks for commenting and I, too, look forward to hearing from you next week,


  • by Amber Mon Aug 12, 2013 via web

    Like the article. As a marketer, it is important for us to focus on both logic and emotion. It is not enough to create content and wait for it to deliver. We need to understand what our customers need and wants in order to provide them the best service/product.

  • by Mike Searles Tue Aug 13, 2013 via mobile

    I was trained in professional selling by the pharmaceutical industry (I was a Medical Sales Rep.) back in the mid 1980's.

    This was in an 'old-school selling' era.

    I don't remember once being trained to think that 'Need Satisfaction Selling' - as it was called then - was an either/or case of persuading to logic or appealing to emotions.

    To the contrary I recall being taught that the sales process takes the prospect through an often overlapping and inter-changing continuum of thoughts and feelings. Through analytical and emotional filters.

    In defence of 'old-school selling' I suggest that we still use the same proven, tested and immutable methods to market and sell to our prospective customers today.

    The semantics used to talk about selling today are different because we have a different medium for communicating our messages ie. the web.

    I enjoyed reading your article.

  • by Catherine Sherlock Tue Aug 13, 2013 via web

    Mike and Amber - I like your additions on the need for logic and emotion. Mike - it sounds like you had some great sales training.

    When I say that 'old school' sales and marketing, I think of things like the attitudes you see on Mad Men - the looking down on the people you're selling to. Fortunately, not everyone did it, but it was a bit of a prevalent attitude. Salespeople became infamous for using emotional triggers to manipulate - I've heard salespeople brag they could sell ice cubes to penguins (or whatever that saying is). Content marketing is a different process.

    I think partly we equate 'emotions' with bad and logic with good and we need to realize that as humans our logic and emotions are intertwined and neither is better or worse.


  • by Spook SEO Wed Aug 14, 2013 via web

    Amazing post Catherine!

    I totally agree with what you said about awareness. Based on my experience in CRO, I have found that emphasizing on a page's focus and using trigger phrases can a make a world of difference to a site's conversion rate.

  • by Catherine Sherlock Wed Aug 14, 2013 via web

    Thanks, Spook. I like your moniker.

  • by Gracious Store Wed Aug 14, 2013 via web

    The days when people buy on emotion are long past. These days people rationalize more than ever before they unzip their wallets. They want to know why they should buy what they are buying. So marketers must answer that question before customers will unzip their wallets and pay for any goods or services.

  • by Catherine Sherlock Thu Aug 15, 2013 via web

    In Part 2 of the article I'll talk about some of the reasons logic plays a larger role in certain purchases. As long as we're human, though, I imagine we'll never get a way from emotions being a large part of our decision-making - and nor should we, they provide guidance. Our logic and emotions are intertwined.

  • by Kym Heffernan Fri Aug 16, 2013 via web

    Hi Catherine,

    It mades sense that along all stages of the buying cycle its a blend of both emotion and logic - but either Emotion or Rational is leading.

    The challenge of course with all great ideas is how to use this information. How to (and if it's possible) to accurately know and track the different buying stages and know when a customer has moved to the next stage.

    Then communicate the right mix of emotion and logic. Would be interesting to hear of any examples where others have used model like this and got some wins.

  • by Catherine Sherlock Mon Aug 19, 2013 via web

    Thanks Kym.

    The model provides a framework for thinking about a content marketing strategy, but it is a model so has to be adapted to each unique buying cycle. Also, not everyone comes in at the beginning of your buying cycle and follow through in a linear fashion - sometimes, for example, people find you in the evaluation stage. Thinking about the stage and the type of content the people you want to reach need creates a content marketing strategy.

    Of course, the idea of the buying cycle is also a model and so not always easy to identify the 'stages' in real life.

  • by A. Mon Aug 19, 2013 via web

    These are interesting videos, but is there any indication that Evian's sales were boosted?

  • by Catherine Sherlock Mon Aug 19, 2013 via web

    Hi A,

    That's a great question. When I was doing research, I contacted Evian with some questions but couldn't find anyone who was able to answer them.

  • by Michael Harris Wed Oct 21, 2015 via web

    After doing research for my HBR article “When to Sell with Facts and Figures, and When to Appeal to Emotions,” I discovered that people DO NOT decide to buy emotionally. In fact, the decision to buy is made subconsciously, and these subconscious decisions are based on a deeply empirical mental processing system that follows a logic of its own. Once our subconscious/intuitive mind decides to buy, this decision is then communicated to the conscious mind via an emotion. The conscious mind then searches for rational reasons, and that’s how the rational mind that we identify with maintains the illusion that it is in control.

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