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Marketing 360® Blog

Why Your Creative Content Doesn’t Convert (and the Danger of Cognitive Load)

Post By Scott Yoder | Design & Branding

An acquaintance of mine is baffled by digital marketing. His fine work isn’t driving results.

He invested heavily in design for his website; it’s a beautiful piece of work. He hired a creative social media manager. He is the star of his Youtube videos, which are polished productions.

The colors, images, typography and overall branding in his marketing are all top-notch. They put the creative in creatives.

But his numbers are well below forecasts. If this keeps up, he’ll burn through cash reserves in the next year.

We’ve seen the opposite of this story. Websites with bare-bones, plain design elements – that convert like gangbusters.

On the surface, this doesn’t make much sense. It seems clear that something with strong design elements would convert better. Why does this happen?

It comes down to this: Cool design and abstract branding are not – alone – enough to drive conversions.

What does? Helping people quickly and easily complete the task they set out to do before they ever arrived at your website.

You must understand the mindset of your audience. Your content must relate to their needs and make it as easy as possible for them to apprehend what you can do for them.

Get Into Your Customers Heads and Know Their Hearts

The biggest mistake people make with their business website is to focus content on the business and its solutions instead of the users’ needs. This leads to an emphasis on design over messaging.

Instead, your website needs to reflect your customer’s mindset and connect to their needs.

When this mistake is made, creative design takes over. Business owners start obsessing over the perception their website creates instead of the message it communicates. The result is a creative, decorative website that doesn’t make the needed connection with the target audience.

Beautiful website designs are common today. It’s hard to impress people on looks alone. You have to know what their problem is and be clear about how you solve it. You need to get in touch with their aspirations and create a narrative that motivates them.

The Danger of Creative Copy

I recently interviewed a prospective copywriter for our company who couldn’t stop talking about what a great creative writer he was. His prose was filled with wit, unexpected twists, and unique word choice. He could spin a tale that would engross any reader.

I read his samples. He was a strong creative writer.

He didn’t get the job – and I’ll tell you why.

It’s a dangerous myth that creative writing makes effective website copy. The goal is not to be inspiring, funny, cute, or creative. Overly creative web content is disorienting on business websites.

It’s more important that your copy be relevant and speak to the user’s motivation. Remember that people visit business websites to complete a task, not to be entertained.

Clarity beats clever every time.

Cognitive Load

The argument we’re making here isn’t always clear to people. Creative work just looks so much better.

The concept of cognitive load helps illustrate the problem.

Cognitive load is a psychological theory involving how much information people can process at any one time using working memory. This includes how we organize information into chunks (called schema) so it’s easier to commit information to memory.

For example, if I showed you a list of random items (carpet, guitar strings, icebergs, etc) and asked you to memorize the list quickly, you’d struggle.

But if I showed you a list of things you’d find on a tropical island (beach, waves, palm trees, etc.) you’d remember more because you’d put it into a memory “chunk” of things found on an island. The first list creates more cognitive load.

If I showed you a picture of a square, you’d immediately know what it is. But if I described it to you using just words (this object is one vertical line 10 inches long connected at a 90-degree angle to a horizontal line that is also 10 inches long…) it would take you longer to understand that it’s a square. The verbal description creates more cognitive load.

Abstract, irrelevant website content increases cognitive load.

When someone is looking for a solution to a problem they use a schema – they chunk the information so it’s organized in their memory.

Say, for instance, I need to make a quick, unexpected trip to Atlanta. It’s an unexpected expense, so I’m really interested in getting a discount ticket even though I have to do it on short notice.

In my mind, I’m looking for last-minute deals on airline tickets.

Now, if I arrive on a website that makes an immediate connection to my mindset, it decreases my cognitive load. I more quickly apprehend that they have what I’m looking for, so I’m more likely to convert.

If, on the other hand, I arrive on a page with a big stock photo of airline stewardesses and suggestions for cruise vacations, but no immediate information on how to save on a last-minute plane ticket, I have to process that content and overcome my initial disorientation. This lowers the chance that I’ll convert.

We often talk about how you just have a split-second on a webpage to convince someone you’re the right solution for them. Cognitive load is the technical explanation for why this is true.

Creative designs (particularly if they’re overdone), irrelevant imagery and vague, fluff copy increase cognitive load for your visitors. This forces them to take the time to figure out if your offer is the solution they seek and to find ways to complete their task.

Asking your website visitors to take the time to overcome high cognitive load is the kiss of death.

Research Your Audience

Research and customer insight are more important to conversions than being creative. Developing high converting content is about understanding your audience so you speak to their needs, make an emotional connection, and help them complete their task.

It’s worth it to have professional, attractive design and a strong brand voice. But these things are there to support the narrative which tells people they’ve found what they were looking for.

Creative but irrelevant content is a load that blunts a person’s ability to make a decision. That works against the goals of a conversion-based business website.