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As a course creator, the success of your marketing efforts depends on factors like your budget, the marketing channels you use, and your target audience. But these factors don’t mean a thing if you don’t understand the motivations behind people’s buying decisions. When you don’t understand how and why people act the way they do, it’ll be much more difficult for you to create compelling marketing assets that prove that your course can help them solve their problems. 

Marketing psychology aims to explain how people operate when they’re considering purchasing something. In this article, you’ll learn eight marketing psychology principles that will help you understand, predict, and influence the buying decisions of prospective students.

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What is marketing psychology?

Marketing psychology is the practice of understanding how consumers think, reason and make decisions so that you can incorporate those principles into your marketing and sales strategies

The human brain is complex. But through experiments and research, scientists have been able to identify some human behavioral patterns — usually subconscious — that govern people’s buying decisions. These predictable behavioral patterns come from heuristics, which are shortcuts that the brain cultivates for tasks that it carries out repeatedly, such as assimilating information, making decisions, and solving problems.

You can use marketing psychology in several ways, including: 

  • The colors you choose for your course’s landing page 
  • The power words you use to trigger emotions in your audience 
  • The structure of your landing page copy 
  • Your course pricing, etc. 

The goal of marketing psychology is not to change the way your target audience thinks to suit your own purposes. Instead, the goal is to understand these behaviors that are hard-wired into their brains so that you can tweak your strategies to align with them. Doing this will give you an edge over the competition and help you sell more course units. 

8 important principles of marketing psychology 

In this section, we’ll explore some important principles of marketing psychology and how to apply them as you set up and market your online course. 

  1. The anchoring bias 

Have you ever wondered why you find it so difficult to resist whipping out your bank card when your favorite clothing store is having a sale? 

Most of the time, it’s because of the anchoring bias. This refers to the tendency of people to use the first piece of information about something as a benchmark for making other decisions. Think of it as a reference point for comparison. 

Let’s use the example of your favorite clothing store. Say this store typically retails jackets at $70, but if you see them on sale at $45, you’ll likely be excited. Why? Because you’re going to save $25 if you buy the jacket. But if your best friend buys jackets from a different store at $40, they won’t think the $25 you saved is such a big deal.

When you use anchoring in your marketing, you’re strategically giving prospective customers information that you want them to know so they’ll make the exact buying decision you want them to make. 

This applies perfectly to pricing online courses — especially if you’re running a sale. You want to clearly indicate the original price of your course (this is the anchor). Then list the sale or discount price right next to it. The anchor will lead people to believe that they’re getting your course at a steal. 

Let’s see this example from Kat Norton’s The Excelerator Course

See how she’s leading prospects to believe that, if they pay for the course now, they’ll be able to save over $1,300? If the initial price was not clearly stated, people might wonder if the course is truly worth $297. But when they realize that they’ll be getting over 80% off, they’ll be more inclined to pay for it. 

You can take things up a notch by stating what percentage you’re slashing off the original price as a discount. This makes it easier for prospects to put things into perspective.

  1. Reciprocity 

The concept of reciprocity was introduced by Dr. Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. This concept is simple: people are more likely to do something for you if you do something for them first

In terms of marketing, the idea is that you have to give your audience something for free first to influence them to buy what you’re selling. This could be anything from free checklists to branded hoodies to free blog content or even free consultations. 

Here are two ways you can use the reciprocity principle to sell more courses:

  • Provide valuable information for free. Posting informative articles on your blog, hosting eye-opening webinars, or even offering free email courses can go a long way in helping you get more sales. 

Not only does this communicate the value of your paid course, but it also makes your audience feel indebted to you. They’ll think, “If this person can share so much value for free, then their paid course would likely be power-packed.” So if they’re considering buying a course in your niche, they’ll pick yours over your competitors who aren’t sharing free information on their websites. 

Ryan Robinson grew his blog,, from 0 to 500,000+ monthly readers by posting articles on blogging, business, podcasting, freelancing, and writing for free. Now, Ryan has a paid course ($497) where he explains how to make a living out of blogging. Although he has the street cred and tons of free information on his blog, Ryan still offers his audience a free 7-day blogging course to prime them for the paid course. 

    • Offer exceptional customer service. There’s nothing customers love more than timely solutions to their problems. But they’ll love you and your brand even more when you go the extra mile to anticipate and meet their needs. If you do this, you might not even need to actively collect reviews and testimonials from them, because they’ll willingly give them to you as a reward for providing a great customer experience. 
  • Offer free trials and discounts. If your course is subscription-based, rather than a one-time payment structure, you can offer your audience free trials and/or discounts if they pay annually or biannually. 
  1. Social proof 

Social proof is another psychology principle that Dr. Cialdini talked about in his book. In fact, he coined the term himself. Social proof is the theory that when people are not sure what to do, they’ll rely on the opinions and actions of other people to make a decision. 

For example, imagine a middle school dance. When the music starts, students feel awkward and shy at first. But when a couple of students start jamming to the music, the rest slowly start joining in, and before you know it, the dance floor is filled up.

Let’s relate this scenario to marketing. Think about the last time you bought something because a friend recommended it to you. Chances are, you might not have heard of that product before — or if you’ve heard of it, you’ve never used it. But your friend’s glowing recommendation gave you faith that the product will serve you well if you use it. 

That recommendation is social proof. 

But social proof in marketing goes beyond word-of-mouth. In marketing, social proof comes in form of testimonials, reviews, logos, and more.

Here are five ways you can use social proof to influence buyer behavior:

  • Include testimonials on your course’s landing page. Ask your beta testers and existing customers for testimonials talking about how your course benefitted them. Then include those reviews on your course’s landing page. This proves to prospective customers that they can benefit from your course too. 

The landing page of Joanna Wiebe’s Copy School is covered in customer reviews —— as it should. 

Notice how these reviews include actual numbers, values, and revenue that show prospects that enrolling in the school is worth it.

Pro tip: When adding testimonials to your landing, include the titles and headshots of the customers who gave the testimonials. This adds more credibility and emotion. If possible, set up a dedicated testimonials page. 

  • Get an industry leader or expert to endorse your course. Industry leaders are respected because they’re experienced and knowledgeable in their field. When these experts endorse your course, people are more likely to trust their recommendation. They think, “It has to be good. If it isn’t, this leader won’t throw their brand behind it.” Their endorsement can also serve as free marketing because their followers will learn about the course and purchase it.

An industry leader can endorse your course by leaving a review, writing a guest post on your blog, or even hosting a live Q&A session on your social media pages.  

  • Include logos in your course’s landing page. Adding logos of popular companies you’ve collaborated or worked with can add extra credibility and make potential customers feel confident that your course is worth it. You can also add the logos of major media outlets that have talked about your course. 

Pro tip: Ask permission from the company before you add their logo to your page.

  • Add certifications to your course’s landing page. If you’ve won any awards or gotten any certifications or accreditation for your work in your field, you should include them in your sales page as they add to your credibility.
  • Show the number of students that have bought your course. When people are making buying decisions, they tend to go for something that other people have tried (remember your friend’s recommendation?). This is called the wisdom-of-the-crowd mentality. Personally, I use it to vet courses to buy, especially on massive open online course (MOOC) platforms like Udemy. 

For instance, consider these two graphic design courses: 

Which would you rather buy? The one with nearly 200,000 students and a 4.7-star rating from 47K+ people or the course with 119 students and a 4.9-star rating from just 7 people? 

I bet you picked the first one. Even though the second course has a higher rating overall, the number of people who rated it is negligible compared to the number of people who rated the first course. 

  1. Scarcity 

Ever tried to order something online and saw a disclaimer that says, “Only 4 items left at this price!”? That’s scarcity — and it’s another principle Dr. Cialdini discussed in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. This principle originates from the concept of supply and demand: the rarer the product is, the more valuable it’ll be in the market. 

People place a higher value on things that are difficult to obtain. In the mid-1800s, aluminum was worth more than gold, so much so that Napoleon III served his esteemed guests with aluminum cutlery. But when miners started digging up aluminum in large quantities, the prices fell. Today, precious stones like diamonds and rubies, or commodities like Birkin bags are extremely expensive because of how difficult they are to get. 

When done right, scarcity leverages people’s fear of missing out (FOMO) to tilt their buying decisions in your favor. The key is to make your audience think that there used to be many units of a product or service, but due to popular demand, there aren’t many left anymore. In this situation, people would want to grab their unit right away so they don’t get left out. 

However, if you make them think that you only have a few products in total and they should buy one now, this won’t work as it should. 

Here’s how to use scarcity to sell your online course: 

  • Use countdown timers. If you’re running a sale on your course, using countdown timers can help people know how much time they have to get your course before the price goes back to normal. If you don’t want to use countdown timers, you can set up a popup or slide-in bar that shows how much time is left. 

Or you can merge both, as Udemy did here:

    • Grant exclusive access to certain students. Offering upgraded membership options (online community, 1-on-1 meetings with you, extra features, etc.) along with your course makes your product feel exclusive and premium. When offered the option to get access to something that isn’t readily available to other people, your existing customers will feel as though they have something special. 
  • Run Black Friday sales. Black Friday is a massively popular time when businesses all over the world give their customers huge discounts on popular products — which often leads to them being sold out. Running a Black Friday sale on your most popular courses can help you make more revenue than you would when you run a regular sale.

How to run effective Black Friday campaigns or seize other seasonal opportunities:

  1. Loss aversion

In 1979, Nobel Prize-winning psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky conducted some experiments on decision-making during their research on Prospect Theory. These experiments showed that, for people, the pain of losing something is twice as powerful as the pleasure of acquiring that same thing. They called this phenomenon Loss Aversion. 

Per this concept, the average person who has to risk something to gain something else will want the gain to be at least twice as valuable as the risk for it to be worthwhile. That’s why you’ll likely not buy a stock you might lose a lot of money on even though the potential reward is high. It’s also because of loss aversion that it hurts more when you lose $20 than when you find $20. 

The best way to employ the loss aversion principle as you market your online course is to offer free trials. Not all courses are set up this way, but if there’s a way for you to give prospects a small taste of your course for free or a minimal amount, do it. When a prospect gets a glimpse into your course at no charge to them, they’re more likely to buy it so as to avoid the loss they’ll feel if they don’t.

Peep Laja’s CXL Institute costs $1,100/year. But not everyone is willing to pay that amount without knowing for sure that the courses offered will benefit them. So Peep offers a 7-day trial for just $1. 

Once people pay $1 and try the courses for a week, they’ll be more likely to pay for the whole year because they want to finish the course they started studying during the trial period. 

  1. The decoy effect 

Also known as the asymmetrical dominance effect, the decoy effect involves optimizing your product pricing by including one or more unattractive options. 

A famous example of this is the ad from The Economist that Dan Ariely talked about in his famous 2008 TED talk titled “Are we in control of our own decisions?” The ad outlined The Economist’s latest subscription packages: 

  • Online subscription: $59
  • Print subscription: $125
  • Online and print subscription: $125

Notice how they offered the print-only subscription and the online and print subscription for the same price? It didn’t make sense to Ariely, so he reached out to the people at The Economist asking why they did this, but he didn’t get a definitive answer. 

So he ran his own study with 100 MIT students. He showed them the pricing packages and asked which one they’d buy. With all three options present, students chose the online and print subscription because it seemed like the best deal. But when Ariely removed the print-only subscription option, the students went for the cheapest option (online-only subscription).

While the print-only subscription seems useless at first glance, it’s actually serving an important purpose. It gave students a reference point for them to see how good of a deal the combo subscription is. Without that option, people would go for the online-only subscription and The Economist won’t make as much money. 

That’s what the decoy effect is — it’s a way to shift the preferences of your potential customers and make them choose a more expensive option.

A great way to use the decoy effect with an online course is to offer multiple pricing options. Say you have an online course where you teach stock investment for beginners. Your packages could be: 

  • Monthly plan – $20/month 
  • Yearly plan – $200/one year 
  • Lifetime access – $310 one-time fee 

The yearly plan will help people put 0things into perspective and see that paying a one-time fee for lifetime access is the most cost-effective choice. And in turn, you’ll make maximum income from your course. 

  1. Information-gap theory 

In 1994, American economist, George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon University developed the information-gap theory of curiosity. Loewenstein argued that humans experience curiosity when we feel that there’s a gap between what we know and what we want to know. In other words, when we only have access to part of a certain knowledge we want to have, we are likely to take action to uncover the missing information so that we can close the gap. 

Marketers often employ this psychology principle in their content to draw people’s attention and make them curious. And they do this through headlines. Headlines like: “How to do X”, “10 things you must know about Y”, and “The Secret to Z” pique our curiosity and makes us want to learn more about the subject matter.

For online courses, this can come into play in the title of your course and your ad copy. The key is to use language that will make people curious enough to visit your sales page (either through search engine results pages (SERPs) or social media/search ads) to learn more.

Note: As you try to craft the perfect title, headline, and ad copy to trigger people’s curiosity, be careful not to take things too far. If you do, it becomes clickbait, which leaves people underwhelmed, and drastically reduces your chances of building trust with customers and getting more sales.

  1. Color psychology

In 2006, researcher Satyendra Singh examined how colors influence people’s perceptions and moods, and how brands strategically use colors to differentiate themselves from competitors. In his paper, Singh noted that people make a decision within 90 seconds of their initial interactions with other people or products, and about 62-90 percent of those decisions were made based on colors alone. 

It is because of color psychology that people associate green with growth, yellow with warmth, grey with balance, and white with purity. That’s why colors are an important part of branding — they invoke feelings and perceptions in your audience that, with time, they’ll associate with your brand. 

Take Victoria’s Secret as an example. If you had to pick a color that is synonymous with this brand, which would you pick? Pink, right? Red, maybe. 

Here’s Victoria’s Secret’s website. 

Notice the recurring themes of pinks and reds? The marketers at Victoria’s Secret know that pink conveys femininity and youth, and red shows sensuality and passion, so they made those colors a huge part of their branding. 

You can do the same with your online course too. Scientists have been doing research into the emotions that different colors can trigger to help marketers choose the best ones for their logos and web design. 

Image source

So think about what feelings you want to evoke in your audience as they look through your course’s sales page and the course itself (after buying it). Then do some research and customer testing to choose colors that reflect these feelings. 

Finding the right colors for your brand will help you appeal to the subconscious of your target audience. Over time, people will associate your colors with your brand and, with time, your business will be set apart from your competitors. 

Pro tip: Many people’s views of colors are shaped by culture and life experiences. So before you pick a color palette for your course branding, consider the demographic of your target audience and the context of your marketing campaign.  

Sell more online courses with marketing psychology principles

The marketing psychology principles outlined above are not the only ones that exist. There are dozens of psychology principles right now and scientists are still finding out more about human behavior as it relates to buying and selling.

You don’t have to use all the principles as you market your course, though. Just find the ones that you can incorporate in your marketing strategy, master them, and see how they work for your audience. 

Remember: The goal of learning marketing psychology principles is not to change the base purchasing tendencies of your target audience, but to leverage their behaviors to suit your own ambitions. In this case, that’d be making as much revenue on your online course(s) as you possibly can.

Want more marketing ideas? Check out our list of 58 ways to market your online course!

This post was originally published in February 2023. It was updated in August of 2023 with more information.