Color psychology is awesome and it matters

Since my last post was a bit dark, let’s brighten things up (pun intended) with a fun topic that happens to be one of my not-so-secret passions – color psychology! It may sound fluffy but there’s a lot of hard data out there that proves color use in marketing matters and when used in the right context, colors can (and should) be manipulated to achieve particular outcomes.

I’m just going to hit on some basics:

The Color Wheel

This maps primary, secondary and tertiary colors across the color spectrum. The ‘wheel’ layout is important because it shows how these colors correlate to one another, such as complimentary, split complimentary, and analogous colors. Here’s a super helpful overview of the basic 12 point color wheel principles:


You would do yourself well to learn how to master the use of this color wheel. It’s not hard and lucky for you other folks already did the hard work to determine how to use colors for maximum effectiveness. For example, Paul Olyslager does a nice job in this blog concisely explaining how to use complimentary (think opposite) colors to draw the eye to the desired call-to-action (CTA).


The idea here is that the contrast of the complimentary color (red) jumps out against the blue background and draws the eye to the preferred CTA, which is of course to sign up. Cool, huh? If you like this and want to learn more about how colors impact conversion check out this post from ConversionXL.

Color Meanings and Associations

Believe it or not we all associate colors with tangible things and concepts. Don’t believe me? Let’s play a game:

Below is a list of colors, which I would like you to read one at a time and after each one, say the first thing that pops into your mind. This works better if you do it out loud. If you’re reading this on a plane or in the office, invite others to play along. Don’t be shy.

Here we go…

  • Green
  • Pink
  • Brown
  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Blue

Here are some common answers I get when I do this with others:

  • Green – Eco friendly, clean, luck, money
  • Pink – Barbie, cancer, babies, pepto-bismol, breasts
  • Brown – Earth, wilderness, government, safety
  • Red – power, winning, urgency, aggression
  • Yellow – fun, happy, caution, energy
  • Blue – technology, authority, peace, order

What’s really interesting about this game is everyone is going to have different answers depending on their current mindset, age, gender, social background and of course, geography. A 20-year-old guy might initially think of “breasts” for the color pink (yep, I said “breasts,” not “breast cancer” – it seems the cancer awareness part gets dropped quite a bit). Whereas a 30-year-old woman with children probably thinks of little girls’ toys and clothing. Similarly, red is a color of power and aggression in America, but in some Asian countries it symbolizes good fortune and wealth.

Colors also come into play when considering brand association. You’d probably find it pretty strange and perhaps even off-putting if you got an email from Target with a blue color scheme because we all have learned to associate Target with the color red.

When developing marketing materials and selecting colors, you need to consider your intended audience, how they perceive you and the message you’re trying to convey.


Using colors in the right context matters. Just because you prefer a specific color doesn’t mean that it’s best to use when considering the context. Here’s what I mean…

Which color do you prefer?

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 9.17.48 PM   Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 9.18.12 PM

Most people will choose blue. You might think I chose intentionally gender-polarizing colors, so the preferences would be split, but in fact studies show that in general, women are more averse to pink than men are (there are of course specific contextual exceptions to this, such as when making purchases for female children and donating to charity).

Now, which image do you prefer?

guy pink   blue nerd

Most women, and probably many men, will choose image #1 in pink. I mean, the guy in blue is fetching but the guy in pink in downright distracting. You can’t help but look. In all seriousness, though, both images have a quality that draws your attention.

What if I now told you the purpose of this ad is to sell custom t-shirts.

Which makes you want to buy a T-Shirt?

guy pink   blue nerd

I mean, maybe the shirtless guy is just waiting for his custom t-shirt to be made…

My point is, you need to consider not only sentiment about colors but how they’re viewed in context and what they’re intended to do. Oh yeah…and who they’re for (that all-important audience thing again).

Testing Matters

These principles above are good guidelines to live your marketing life by, but even equipped with these nuggets of brilliance I will encourage you to keep testing your color options. The things that do and do not work may surprise you.

A story about the color purple:  Not long ago I ran a pretty extensive marketing campaign which was targeted toward an IT audience. The primary imagery and CTAs for the campaign were in purple. Generally, purple and brown are the least successful colors for CTAs, but we had recently used purple very successfully in a campaign targeted at law firms and decided to use it again. It flopped. Badly. We knew the color was the culprit because we saw an increase in click rates when we ran an A/B split test with different button colors: orange and blue were both much more effective. We continue to see good click rates with purple CTAs for the legal industry audience, which just goes to show sometimes you don’t know what works for which audience unless you test.

In summary: Colors matter. Context matters. Colors in context can have a material impact on how people perceive and interact (or don’t) with your marketing programs. And never stop testing.

There is so much great info about this topic out there and I can’t cover it all here because ya’ll would be sick of me, but if you want to learn more, here are some great resources to dive into:

Is it OK to use your customer lists for other purposes?

email Overload

Every summer I hire a company to spray my yard with poison so as to fend off mosquitoes. In the winter I don’t use this service, so imagine my surprise when I received an email from them in the middle of February. My original thought was they were offering reaaallly early bird discounts. But no, it turns out they’re hiring.

I found it very strange (and a bit annoying) that I got an email advertising job openings from my mosquito poison vendor. It turns out that my neighbor, who also uses the service, got an email as well. I think its safe to assume that they emailed their whole customer list just in case any of us were looking for a new vocation as an insect hit(wo)man. I have a point (I swear) and here it is: 

Is it OK for business to use their customer list for purposes other than communicating things related to their customer relationship? My initial reaction was: No way! That’s not cool. 

But as I think about it more I realize that in B2B we do this all the time. We might not try to recruit employees (I hope not, anyway), but we definitely seem to assume that once someone’s email address becomes known to us, it’s fair game for whatever we want to bombard their inbox with.

Think about it. What do our customer get from us?

  • Welcome to our customer community
  • Pay your bill
  • Get to know your account manager
  • Your account manager has changed
  • Your customer newsletter
  • Your industry newsletter
  • Do you want to renew your service?
  • Do you want to buy more services from us?
  • Do you have anyone you want to refer to us (for rewards, of course)?
  • Are you willing to give us a reference?
  • Read our blog
  • Read our whitepaper
  • Attend our webinar
  • Attend our event
  • Are you going to the XXX Industry event? If so, visit our booth!
  • Are you satisfied with your service? Take our survey!
  • We have a new service – read all about it. Want to buy it?
  • We just released a new press release about ourselves. Want to read it?

…and I’m sure that list goes on.

How do we ensure that our customers get the information they need from us and want from us. And not the stuff they don’t need or want. We think all the stuff above is important. But is one more important than the other? How do we make sure the important things don’t get lost in the less important things? Do we need to say everything to everyone?

I have many more questions than answers. I don’t think there is one right answer, but I do think that the customer experience matters above all. Marketers – focus first on delivering a fantastic customer experience, and secondly on all that other shit. We all have goals to reach, but none of them matter without the customer, so find a way to put them first.

Time to Cut the Foreplay

Time to Cut the Foreplay

B2B Marketers today are seeking to cultivate meaningful relationships with our audience. We do this by understanding personas, paying attention to digital body language, and interacting with a series of touches online and via email.
We’ve abandoned the ‘wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’ approach to marketing relationships and are starting to learn the discipline of patience. And for the most part, it’s working.

However, we have fallen into a pattern of verbosity in our messaging that we think tantalizes and delights our readers as they build to the climax of understanding – that coveted call-to-action. In reality, all of this foreplay is just for us, and our reader would rather that we just get to the point so they can move on.

Have you ever gotten an email with a subject line that caught your attention, a headline that made you want to know more, and then an entire first paragraph of playful leading questions, what-ifs or teasing anecdotes?

Did you read it? Did it help you build up to that ‘ah ha!’ moment of realization about what you were being offered? Or did your eyes just skip all of that while you searched for the bold text or button that got you to the point faster?

I call all of that fluff at the beginning ‘messaging foreplay.’ And we marketers love it. We love it because we think you love it and because it makes us feel creative – like we are trying harder – because you’re worth it. You, our precious reader with whom we are trying to cultivate a meaningful relationship, are worth more than a ‘wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’ interaction that just gets to the point.

To skip the foreplay would be…inelegant…and crude. And no good marketer wants to be that. So we go through the motions of what’s essentially the same moves every. single. time:

  1. catch your eye with a subject line
  2. grab your attention with a header
  3. tease you with an opening paragraph that goes on too long
  4. finally get the the point
  5. give you a button to finish things off and hope at the end of it we both get what we want

We have all the best intentions. And often times the foreplay we offer up isn’t bad. Take the sample above – those are some interesting nuggets of info – but it’s just not necessary and in most cases, probably not even read.

Marketers it’s time to realize that all of this foreplay and creativity may just be for us. There is just as much – if not more – skill in being able to tactfully get to the point and help your reader arrive at the conclusion (what you want them to do) faster.

So cut the foreplay and get to the point. Give people just enough to get there and if you really can’t abandon your teasing creativity in your messaging, put it at the end for those who choose to give you a bit more attention after they arrive at the end goal.


A note about the above ‘foreplay’ sample above: This is an excerpt from an email promoting a webinar that was actually quite fascinating. I chose it because the paragraph itself contains interesting information and ultimately, I did register for the webinar. However, I didn’t read that paragraph until I was perusing my saved files for samples for this article. I skipped right past it and on to the main CTA. I registered, and went on with my day.

The irony of this particular sample is that the topic of this webinar, presented by Emma Email Marketing, was “The Sixth Sense of Marketing: How Our Primal Brain Rules When and Why We Click.” In their webinar, they cited research from Nielsen Norman Group that stated that 80% of people are only scanning your email. By their own admission, messaging foreplay is superfluous.

I do suggest you check out this webinar replay on MarketingProfs if you have the time – there are some interesting tidbits about email engagement psychology.

Originally posted on LinkedIn – Dec 12, 2014