Everyone who owns a business or service is looking for ways to increase profits and ensure its longevity. What this amounts to is having something people want or need to make their lives easier or better. More often than not the demand for goods and services has to be created in order to compete in any given field. Therefore, attracting customers depends on the ability to influence them and reach them on an emotional level.
Sometimes doing this comes naturally during the process of informing the public about what you have to offer. Other times it is achieved by modeling or doing what seems to be working for others. However, the best way is to learn the true psychological reasons of what makes people want to buy something and put them into action.
When we’re mostly concerned with the day to day rigors of our own fields of expertise, it is important to look to the experts, especially while dealing with something so complex and layered as the psychology of the human mind. Luckily, there are some principles in existence that have been studied and tested that deal with exactly how people are actually influenced.
They are known as the Six Principles of Influence and they were brought to our awareness by Dr. Robert Cialdini in his book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” After years of observation and research he compiled his findings into what became a New York Times Best Seller that has sold over 2 million copies. This book has also become a reference to top advertisers and marketers since being published in 1984.
In the book Dr. Cialdini identifies the six principles as Reciprocity, Commitment or Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority and Scarcity. This post will explore these principles and give examples of how they can be applied in the context of sales and marketing.
The Six Principles of Influence
1. Reciprocation – You know all the terms and phrases, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” live by the Golden Rule, quid pro quo, and so on, well these are all inherently reciprocity in action. As people, we naturally tend to want to repay in kind any gesture or gift which is given to us. This is one of the most positive characteristics of our species, and based on all the research, it tops Dr. Cialdini’s list of persuading factors that influence us the most.
Reciprocity can be applied to marketing in many ways and has been used effectively in ways we may not be aware of. Free samples are a prime example of this, it not only allows you to try the merchandise, it leads to a greater probability of the item being purchased. The receiver actually feels some sort of obligation to return the favor by buying. Another example of this is when a service, such as a carpet cleaner, may offer to do one room free. Try to incorporate a giving spirit into your business and you will see a difference. It can be challenging with some kinds of businesses, but if that is the case, information is always valued and appreciated, be it in the form of pamphlets, ebooks, or the spoken word.
2. Commitment and Consistency – This principle deals with the fact that people are inclined honor an agreement once they have agreed to do so, hence the decision to commit is a form of consistency. In other words, most folks don’t like to back out of deals nor do they want others to do it. The principle also refers to how people get set in their ways and appreciate the status quo. Cialdini states, “People strive for consistency in their commitments. They also prefer to follow pre-existing attitudes, values and actions.”
The principle of Commitment and Consistency is one of the more complex of the six, as it applies to many different aspects of human nature. For example, consistency can apply to time or routines, as well as, the frequency of actions we are exposed to. One technique salespeople use to move toward closing a sale is to ask a series of questions in which the answer will be yes, this conditions the prospect to thinking and saying ‘yes’ to the actual buy. Another technique is to have a customer sign or agree to some non-binding element of the sales process, like a meeting, a form, or a questionnaire; then they will feel they have entered a commitment and follow through to the final purchase.
3. Social Proof – Another natural human tendency is that people look at what others are doing and base their decisions accordingly. This principle probably developed very early in society or even in tribes, if you will, as a means of survival. If something is good enough or working for their neighbor it must be OK. Are we not attracted to a restaurant or nightclub based on the line outside? It can also relate to adding prestige to an item by creating an air of exclusivity for owning or using it. Another example, the laugh tracks used on situation comedies are used to spur the real audience to laugh or influence at home viewers to perceive the show as funny. The main point Dr. Cialdini makes is that as social creatures we look to our peers for guidance and reassurance.
In terms of persuasion this “follow the leader” or “safety in numbers” mentality is very important to consider in sales and marketing. Probably the most effective method of using social proof is to provide testimonials or endorsements. Having somebody vouch for you or sing the praises of your company either on camera or in print is invaluable. You can also let your work speak for itself by showing what you’ve done for other satisfied customers. This can also be achieved indirectly by showing people similar to your target market using the product; which is a format evidenced in most television advertisements. So when it comes to your business look for ways to allow your existing customers to endorse your service; this is especially effective if the two groups are assembled together at some sort of event or conference. If this is not a practical strategy, emphasize how many people you’ve helped yourself, and of course, always remember the power of testimonials.
4. Liking – This encompasses so much in regard to our emotional vocabulary and how we interact with our world. Simply stated, people would rather buy from or do business with those that they like. Liking can take on many forms, such as knowing somebody personally, having a good feeling toward a person, or even just sharing a common bond with someone based on almost anything. This principle can be expounded on ad infinitum and how it translates into the media and throughout all cultures; and it has been a subject in one form or another in many publications about interpersonal relationships. Suffice it to say, Dr. Cialdini observed this as a major principle of influence.
How can this be used in the world of sales and marketing? Well, you already know this if you have done business with a friend. You probably considered asking a friend or accepted an offer from a friend of a particular thing because they were a friend. How about a stranger? Salesmen are constantly looking for common ground to connect with prospects to increase the buyer-seller bond to hopefully get a sale. Even the largest companies on the grandest scale of advertising attempt to connect with an audience by showing others using the service that are just like them. Sometimes emotions can’t be manipulated or explained, we just like people for different reasons; which is why it is a given to treat customers with respect and kindness.
5. Authority – This premise basically means we are more apt to believe and trust authority figures and experts. It has been observed that even those remotely associated with authority can be seen as experts, as well as, those who just appear to be an authority figure. In our society there are certain indicators of authority and they usually relate to given dress customs; in particular: business suits, uniforms, doctor’s attire, lab coats, and the like. However, one can be perceived as an authority figure based on their overt display of wealth, like owning an expensive car. The same attitude applies to different milieus, for example, the glamorous Liz Taylor launched a successful perfume and brawny boxer George Foreman became the spokesman for an electric hamburger grill. Probably the most widely used example of this is the use of statistics, or even more so, the medical opinions of doctors.
“Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum,” “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.” These are both tag lines from very successful television commercials. The first one for Trident gum states a very vague and random sampling, yet it still makes an impact. The other one features a daytime-drama doctor touting the benefits of cough medicine. It has become so ingrained as a meme in our society it has reached the point of parody, even still, a very effective campaign at the time. People may even follow authority despite the element of danger or the law; in a surprising example highlighted in the book they describe a man on a city street corner crossing unlawfully against the light and against traffic. During part of the experiment he is wearing jeans with a casual shirt, while in the other part he is wearing a business suit. They observed how many people followed behind him then counted the results and the number of people who followed him when he was in the suit increased by 350 percent. Use the principle of authority judiciously and with common sense; if you are promoting rock music maybe feature a guy with a guitar; as for websites, look for associations and seals of approval, like a badge from the Better Business Bureau. Whatever you do let the image you project be congruent with the business you’re in and always be ethical about it.
6. Scarcity – The principle of Scarcity deals with supply and demand and how our desire for something naturally increases as it becomes harder to get. “Buy now before it’s too late!” “Only three more left.” “I have another guy looking at this very car.” Sound familiar? These are all examples that demonstrate the Scarcity principle. Over the years our sophistication and awareness have rapidly evolved so we are now more cognizant than ever when such tactics come into play. However, time and time again I have used and witnessed their effectiveness when utilized in the most truthful and genuine manner; even when the customer is suspicious of being pressured. There are situations when the sale will end and you no longer have the authority to offer something at a certain price, and yes, often more than one party is interested in the same item. Either way, a sense of urgency in addition to there being a limited supply greatly contributes to moving product.
There are many ethical ways to create demand for what you offer, in fact, it is your responsibility as a business owner to present your service as something unique and valuable. You wouldn’t be doing yourself or your customers any favors by glutting the market with cheap and inferior goods available for next to nothing. The way to effectively employ this principle is to offer value and demonstrate that value through the life of your business. It would then follow that by providing exceptional value you will be appreciated more and be a commodity, hence something that is scarce. It is up to you in how to communicate this to others be it by price, unparalleled service, time limit, or exclusivity.
There you have it, the six principles of influence as determined by Dr. Robert Cialdini. These principles or as they are called in certain circles, weapons and secrets; should be at the core of every marketing endeavor. They are, however, not weapons or secrets meant to deceive, misguide, and exploit people’s emotions; but they are designed to be used in a positive way. When misused or abused they are only hurting the practitioner and reflecting poorly upon the organization who does this.
Along with Cialdini’s book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” there are many good resources to learn the skills of influence necessary to promote a business. It is important to always strive to hone these skills in order to survive in today’s competitive marketing environment. It is also worth noting how these principles translate to the technical online world. The methods are executed through different channels, but the behavior of human beings remains somewhat constant. What are some examples of influence you use in your business that reflect the six principles of persuasion?