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  • Writer's pictureSara Kuehl

How to Harness the Goal-Gradient Effect in Copywriting

Want to increase conversions? Discover how to motivate your audience to complete an action using the goal-gradient effect.


woman triumphantly running across the finish line

During the pandemic, I decided to run a virtual 500K—the distance from Niagara Falls to Albany.


I had only run 5Ks before, but I was excited for the challenge… until 2 weeks in as the novelty wore off and I realized just how far I had left to go.


But I kept at it.


At the halfway point, I started looking at my progress across a map of New York State every time I logged a run. I watched the remaining kilometers count down. The closer I got to Albany, to zero kilometers left, the more motivated I felt. And I sprinted toward the finish line.


How did those visual cues sustain me through weeks of running?


They used the goal-gradient effect. Marketing professor Oleg Urminsky describes it like this:

“The closer we get to completing a goal, the more motivated we are to continue working on it and achieve that goal.”

You see this effect in action everywhere:

  • fundraising thermometers

  • loyalty rewards punch cards

  • online checkout progress bars



Like these visuals, copywriting can also tap into the goal-gradient effect. Simply let your audience know how close they are to completing a desired action.


Let’s take college applications for example. This important step in a student’s college journey is stressful. Applications can be confusing and often time-consuming. So how can we reduce the uncertainty and friction in this process to motivate prospective students to complete their application?


1. Include encouraging copy before and during the application process. In this application for an online degree program, I assure the prospective student they’re only 15 minutes away from achieving their goal. (And the streamlined application delivers on that promise.)

the goal-gradient effect applied to an online college application form

2. Use numbered steps or a checklist to clarify the process. In this email, I empathize with the prospective student in the opening copy. Then the checklist reassures them they only need 3 things to complete their application. Clear and simple.


the goal gradient effect applied in a checklist in an email to prospective college students


Next time you want to persuade your audience to take a specific action, show them how close they are to achieving that goal. Use the goal-gradient effect to give them that extra boost of motivation. Or work with a freelance copywriter like me to craft copy that converts.

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