Influence and Persuasion

Influence and Persuasion

I have just finished reading “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini. In it he goes through the various ways that humans are influenced instinctively and subconsciously and how these can be used to persuade us to follow other people’s instructions, to help them and to buy from them.  Our instincts have been designed to allow human society to co-operate in our long-term interest but they can be manipulated.

Professor Cialdini provides many examples, from Chinese interrogators to Hare Krishna followers, and often shows how salespeople use these principles to make us more likely to purchase – for example pretending that an item is scarce, which makes it more desirable.  It is frightening how easily people can be persuaded.  If we think we would not fall for the “simple” tricks, we ought to think again, since research shows that the vast majority do.  Are we the strong-minded, reflective people who think before reacting and have the backbone to stand out from the crowd?

The book gives some tips for avoiding being taken in.  Mainly this involves knowing the different subconscious pressures that can be applied and being self-aware when we are suddenly starting to trust someone without a rational reason.

For me it raises questions about the other side of the coin.  As a marketer, can I ethically use any or all of these techniques? How can I avoid being a snake-oil salesman, or even being seen as one?  Here is my take on Cialdini’s six key principles and how they should be used in marketing:

  • Reciprocity: if someone gives us something, we feel an obligation to give them something back. Helping others out will provide us with the opportunity to ask for favours later on.  But we should keep it proportional – don’t give a pound and expect a million in return
  • Consistency: once we have started down a track, we find it difficult to go back.  As marketers, we can encourage people to make small commitments or buy introductory products, but we should not use this to follow up with sales of things that they do not want
  • Social proof: we like to do what others are doing and follow their example in terms of purchases.  For ethical marketing, it is simply a matter of honestly advertising other users who really do love your products and benefit from them
  • Liking: we will follow those we like more easily. Being likeable is a great way to start the marketing conversation – again it is just a question of not using this to sell something that is not valuable to the customer
  • Authority: we have an instinctive respect for authority.  In marketing, we should use this to find real authorities who can honestly endorse our services
  • Scarcity: we are much more attracted to something that is seen to be scarce.  In marketing, we should not abuse this by creating false scarcity

In summary, we can use these principles to understand how to motivate potential customers.  However, they should be used ethically by being honest in what we are saying and offering genuine benefits to the customer.  This is anyway the only effective way to operate successfully in the long-run.

You might also want to read the Harvard Business Review’s interesting article about using influence well and badly in business