Optimize Your Conversion Rate With This Psychological Phenomenon

Psychological principle makes CTA irresistible

Whether it’s an ad, an email, or a landing page, one of our main jobs as marketers is to funnel people’s attention where we want it. Once we get that attention, we need to turn it into action, which typically comes in the form of a click.

But what makes our audience click?

Sometimes it can feel like a random act of chance, but in reality there are deeply rooted psychological factors that influence what draws our attention and drive us to act.

German psychologist Hedwig Von Restorff revealed some of these principles, and by understanding how they apply to digital marketing, marketers can grab more clicks and up their conversion rates.

A Basic Overview of the Von Restorff Effect

In 1933, Von Restorff conducted research that demonstrated the fact that our brains tend to seek out and remember items that are different or out of the ordinary.1

Generally speaking, this means that an item that’s shown in a list of items that are very similar to one another, but are different than the item itself, has a better chance of being remembered than if you showed it in a list of other similar items.

The difference might be one of format (a red word in a list of black ones) or subject (cat, dog, fish, ferrari, hamster), but in either case you’re more likely to recall the isolated or different item. 

Why Our Brains Scan for Differentiation

Why do our brains notice such distinctive stimuli? Basically, it’s because we’ve evolved to be able to process large amounts of information quickly as a means of survival.

This skill enabled us to detect predators and other new dangers in our environment.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Take this picture, for example. You notice the snake, right?

It’s a different color from the surrounding foliage, and your brain needs to notice it right away in order to avoid being attacked. Modern marketers can use this evolutionary trick in visual content (you don’t have to use real snakes).

It has served us well that our brains are able to scan and identify differences quickly, but this does come with a cognitive limitation: we can only process a limited amount of data at any given moment.

Overcoming The Brain’s Limitations With Visuals

Think of your call to action as a blade of grass amongst a field.

If our brains paid attention to every blade of grass in the field, we’d literally go insane with the overload of information. Because of this, our brains have developed cognitive biases to protect them from being overwhelmed.

This means that we have a set of structured beliefs, created by our past experiences, that help our brain decide what to focus on.

Every new experience is filtered through these structured beliefs so that we know how to categorize and make sense of new experiences quickly. These cognitive biases determine exactly what is salient to us.

The easiest way to become salient to someone is to appear outside of the norm in some way.

If you appear as just another blade of grass, the brain will simply recognize you as a blade of grass and place its attention and energy elsewhere because it believes that it already knows what a blade of grass is.

If you start growing flowers, however, then the brain knows something is up.

It must invest energy and attention in investigating and working to understand this new experience fully.

Bottom line: (metaphorically speaking) Create calls to action that will appear as flowers amongst the many blades of grass.

Differentiated Calls to Action Get Clicked

As we saw above, our brains tend to notice and remember items that are distinctive. They might be different in color, size, or shape, but they are clearly unique from the surrounding items.

For example, which word would you remember most from this list?






Color is important, but your CTA doesn’t have to be red in order to stand out.

Play with color choice, as each color has a specific impact and may or may not encourage people to click, even it draws their attention. Try out different colors and measure the impact of each.

In our case, once we changed SurveyGizmo’s trial buttons from orange to pink, we saw a huge lift in trials.

The lift in trials may have been due to the fact that we already had orange on our website, and so our orange buttons may not have been impactful enough. The pink colored buttons, on the other hand, stood out more because it is the only pink of its kind within view.

The Element of Surprise and Recall

It has also been suggested that our brains strongly react to the element of surprise: “Surprise increases the attention paid to the item and hence the likelihood of recall.”2

For this reason placing an object in an unusual circumstance is a great way to create the element of surprise, encourage recognition, and garner attention.

This elephant is clearly an expert surfer and is striving to surprise your brain.  Your brain knows that elephants are not likely to demonstrate such skillful surfboard expertise, so the incongruence of this picture is what calls your attention. 

When it comes to make a purchase, Accenture has a better chance of remaining top of mind with those who saw its surfing elephant ad.


Word Choice: Don’t Be A Blade of Grass

The text of your CTA is another item you can affect to help garner attention. Just don’t go too extreme or you’ll scare off your clicks.

The takeaway from this is that it’s a good idea to help your CTA to stand out, but once the user’s attention is directed at your CTA, be mindful of the psychology behind your CTA’s wording.

We’ve experimented with the text on our buttons quite often at SurveyGizmo.

Early on, our buttons used to say “Start A Free Trial.”  We were getting sign ups with this button, but not as much as we’d like. The moment we changed the button to say, “Try Building a Survey,” we noticed a huge spike in trial signups.

“Start A Free Trial” gives the impression that there will be somewhat of a commitment in testing out the software. It might even imply that a credit card will be needed to sign up.

“Try Building A Survey” does not give any indication of any commitment needed from the user.  It simply implies that you can test out the software, which is what we want users to do!

Use Psychology to Give Your CTA an Advantage

If you go up to bat, knowing exactly how the pitcher is going to throw the ball, well that just increases your chances of hitting, doesn’t it?  It’s the same with understanding how our brains work in order to increase the likelihood that you’ll be seen and acted upon.

Starting with the initial understanding of what directs our attention, and then moving forward with some trial and error will help you develop the best calls to action and advertisements.




1. https://destech.wordpress.com/about-2/the-von-restorff-effect-making-things-stand-out-from-the-background/

2. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 1995,2(1),I05-l/2 The subtlety of distinctiveness: What von Restorff really did R. REED HUNT University of North Carolina, Greensboro, North Carolina


Other Articles You Might Be Interested In:

get the agile marketing styles ebook

About the Author:

Heidi Haskell

Heidi is a content marketer for MarketerGizmo and SurveyGizmo. She has a B.A. in Psychology and is always intrigued by neuroscience and anything that drives behavior. She is an appreciator of yoga, improv, and meaty marketing content. If she didn’t have to work for a year, she’d go study yoga with Ana Forrest and Shiva Rea.You can connect with her on Twitter @SurveyYogini.

Leave a Comment