Many social psychologists, behavioral scientists, marketing professionals, and persuasion experts consider Robert Cialdini, Ph.D. to be the world’s preeminent expert on social psychology and behavioral science. For example, in describing Cialdini’s new and expanded edition of his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, these titans of academia had this to say:
"Robert Cialdini has done the impossible: he has improved a masterpiece. The new version of Influence is a marvelously rich and engaging account of the subtle power that people exert on each other." - Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize laureate
"In this update of his classic book, the world’s most practical social psychologist shares his wisdom and reveals his charm. There’s dynamite here. PLease use what you learn with care!" - Richard Thaler, Nobel Prize laureate
As a marketer, you can apply the principles of social psychology to your craft to become more effective. In this post, we look at each of the seven levers of influence from Cialdini’s Influence, and suggest ideas for how you can apply them to improve your marketing. Read on to learn more.
The Principle of Reciprocation
The rule of reciprocity means that “we are obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations, friendly actions, and the like.” In plain writing, this rule suggests that we feel obligated to repay someone for things or favors they’ve given to us. Cialdini notes in Influence that the rule carries significant power over people.
And, you can make it more powerful if you customize your gift or favor to “the recipient’s current needs or preferences.”
According to research cited by Cialdini, this rule can cause people to feel indebted to others even when those others have performed an uninvited favor. In other words, if someone does you a favor or gives you a gift without you asking for help, you will still feel indebted to them.
To fully understand the rule of reciprocity, you need to know that it also applies to “concessions,” where concessions are a compromise over something.
If you make a concession to someone else, that person will feel obligated to make a concession to you. How does that actually work? One way companies use it in their sales and marketing strategies is the “reject then retreat'' technique. This tactic involves making a large request of someone that they turn down, which then makes them much more likely to say “yes” to a smaller request that you wanted all along.
Applying The Principle of Reciprocation to Online Marketing
Let’s look at two tactics you can use to apply the principle of reciprocation to your online marketing.
First, have you ever visited a website that offered you a free guide or PDF as a gift in exchange for entering your email address? Then you’ve seen the power of reciprocation at work in online marketing!
Many websites give away lead magnets with valuable information as a way to encourage visitors to become leads or newsletter subscribers.
For example, take a look at Leadpages’ conversion tactic generator that requires you to enter an email address in order to receive your results:
By offering a valuable incentive as a gift, Leadpages visitors feel a need to reciprocate by entering their email address to become a lead for the company.
The company understands the power of offering prospects free services that create the need for reciprocation. These services help them acquire new leads and loyal customers.
Your business can also create free tools or lead magnets that activate the principle of reciprocation. To learn more about creating successful lead magnets, check out HubSpot’s guide to the topic.
Gifts are another way you can use the principle of reciprocation in your online marketing. Once someone completes the new account checklist in ConvertKit, they receive a free t-shirt from the company:
Not only does providing this free t-shirt turn ConvertKit customers into evangelists, it also creates a feeling of indebtedness to the company due to our nature to want to reciprocate gifts. While we’re not sure if giving away a t-shirt to new customers has had a quantifiable impact on reducing churn or increasing life-time value (LTV), we suspect that it helps.
If you want to increase customer loyalty through gifts, check out these 24 gift ideas that will keep them happy all year.
The Principle of Liking
This rule of persuasion and influence is simple: people prefer to say yes to people and companies they like. With this fact in mind, you can make your marketing more effective by emphasizing parts of your brand and customer experience that increase your likability.
What factors increase likability? According to Cialdini, they include:
- Physical attractiveness. While people don’t have attractions to software or physical products, you can ensure your product looks appealing through good design.
- Similarity. We like people who are similar to us, and we are more likely to say yes to their requests without thinking about it.
- Praise. Complimenting someone leads them to like you more if the compliments are genuine.
- “Increased familiarity through repeated contact with a person or thing.” When you experience repeated positive contact with someone or something, you like it more.
- Association. You can improve how people like your company or brand by associating it with positive things.
Applying The Principle of Liking to Online Marketing
Every day, thousands of companies use the principle of liking to boost their online marketing. Two of the main ways they do this are by:
- Working with influencers.
- Running co-marketing webinars with larger or equal size brands.
Influencer marketing is an enormous topic that’s a bit beyond the scope of this post. But, know that companies work with influencers (as well as other celebrities and athletes) to endorse their products and increase people’s liking towards them.
After all, we know that one of the ways to increase liking is by associating your brand with positive things. Influencers have positive relationships with thousands or millions of fans, and that good will can transfer to your company when they post about it.
For more information on how to execute an influencer marketing campaign, check out this guide to Influencer Marketing.
Another tactic you can use to increase people’s liking towards your brand is hosting webinars with organizations of a similar or greater size to your own. The positive reputation of the other company’s brand will become associated with your brand and vice versa.
When I worked at Osmosis.org, we ran webinars with organizations like The Association of College and University Educators and the Physician Assistant Education Association.
The webinars we hosted with these major organizations in the education market helped associate their brands with the Osmosis brand, which helped more people like our product (or at the very least have an interest in learning about it).
To run a webinar with a respected organization in your field, consider contacting someone from their marketing department with a pitch that makes it clear how you can help them. Even if your company is much smaller than theirs, you may still be able to assist them by putting them in front of key prospects, promoting their product to your customers, or some other way.
If you pitch a larger organization on doing a webinar with you, expect that they may not put much effort into promoting it. That’s okay! Because of the association between your brand and this other company, you should put as much effort and resources into promoting it as possible. Plus, if you make the webinar successful, they’ll want to do other events with you in the future.
The Principle of Social Proof
Social proof means that people’s decisions and beliefs are influenced by how other people believe and act in specific situations. You increase the odds that someone will purchase your product or service by showing that many other people have bought or used it.
In Influence, Cialdini states that social proof is most influential under three conditions:
- Uncertainty. When people are unsure of what to do, they are more likely to act like the people around them.
- “The many.” As more people perform a given action or have a given belief, we become more likely to do the same action or hold the same belief as them.
- Similarity. People are more likely to act and think like their peers.
Applying The Principle of Social Proof to Online Marketing
Companies apply the principle of social proof to their online marketing in a variety of ways.
First, let’s look at how online businesses use live social proof notifications to improve their conversion rates. What are live social proof notifications? They look like this:
Essentially, they’re well-placed notifications that show how people have recently used or engaged with your website or product. Remember the last time you walked by a busy restaurant, felt fomo, and decided to go in? These notifications recreate that experience for your website visitors to encourage them to buy or sign up.
Another way you can use social proof to improve your conversion rate is by adding evidence of your top customers and media mentions to your landing page. For example, look at how the Demand Curve landing page shows the logos of a dozen of their well-known enterprise and startup customers:
Adding the logos of your top customers or the best known publications that have covered your company to your landing pages will help you establish trust with visitors. For more information on building high-converting landing pages, check out this guide.
The Principle of Authority
People often have mindless deference to authorities “as a kind of decision-making shortcut.” The most famous example of people’s deference to authority involves Stanley Milgram’s experiments from the 1960’s. In Milgram’s experiments, many psychologically healthy people delivered dangerous shocks to another person because an authority figure told them to do so.
Symbols of authority such as titles, clothing, and other items can cause people to act favorably and automatically to an authority’s directives. That being said, credible authorities (ones that are known as being experts and trustworthy) tend to be the most persuasive.
Applying The Principle of Authority to Online Marketing
The principle of authority can be tricky to incorporate into online marketing. But, we have a couple of ideas for to do it.
First, if your company works in an industry that’s highly regulated or high stakes, such as healthcare, defense, cybersecurity, or education, then on your website’s team page you should list your teammates’ educational credentials to build your credibility.
Going back to Osmosis.org, a company we looked at earlier, they operate in the health education industry. Because both healthcare and education are highly regulated fields, they have taken care to add their team members’ academic credentials to their about page:
If you operate in an industry where expertise and authority matter to users and customers, consider doing the same thing to convert more visitors into customers. You can and should also signal your team members’ credentials whenever you present information about them in additional contexts such as presentations, videos, articles, or other media.
The Principle of Scarcity
In the book Influence, Robert Cialdini writes, “According to the scarcity principle, people assign more value to opportunities that are less available.” This principle makes sense at face value.
Human beings have a tendency for loss aversion, meaning that they are more motivated by the thought of losing something than the thought of gaining something of equal value. So, if someone stands to lose access to an item or opportunity because of a limited quantity or deadline, they are more likely to act to get it.
People also act due to the scarcity principle because of the fact that difficult to get things are typically more valuable and can serve as a shortcut for their quality.
This principle is more likely to affect people when two conditions are met:
- An item is newly scarce, which heightens its value.
- An item where people have to compete with one another to get it.
Applying The Principle of Scarcity to Online Marketing
Etsy has one of the most clever tactics for incorporating the principle of scarcity into their online marketing. Take a look at the screenshot below, which we’ve taken from their website:
Do you see what we mean? It’s okay if not. In this picture, and throughout the Etsy website wherever and whenever it’s relevant, they show visitors which items are almost out of stock and if a particular item is so popular that multiple people have it in their carts.
This tactic is brilliant on multiple levels. First, we know that people assign more value to items that are less available. By showing when items are about to become out of stock, Etsy invokes the principle of scarcity.
Next, we know that this psychological principle becomes more effective when people have to compete for an item that has a limited quantity. On their website, Etsy shows that people are competing for popular items by displaying how many people have them in their carts. While this tactic is effective on its own as well, when it’s combined with a low-inventory item like in the image above, it likely leads to much higher conversion rates.
If you run an ecommerce store, you should consider looking for an application that allows you to implement this type of scarcity tactic. If you do, you may see your conversion rate skyrocket.
Another way you can implement the principle of scarcity in your online marketing is through limited time deals or promotions. Take a look at how StarterStory offers an expiring promotion on their premium content in the picture below:
When a deal has an end date and the price of a product or service goes up, people take action to avoid missing out (remember that due to our tendency for loss aversion, we are more motivated by the thought of losing such a deal than gaining something of equal value).
You often see many brands and even software companies offer limited time deals around Black Friday or Cyber Monday. These promotions work because visitors have to act fast in order to take advantage of it before it expires.
In addition to offering limited promotions on your own website, you can expand your audience for them through online deal marketplaces like Groupon (for physical and local products) and AppSumo (for software and digital products).
These marketplaces aggregate and host limited time deals that encourage prospective customers to buy fast. If you want to quickly increase your sales, you should consider working with one of them to run a promotion.
The Principle of Commitment and Consistency
Most people have a desire to “be and look consistent within their words, beliefs, attitudes, and deeds.” People tend to want to be consistent because it’s highly valued by society, it provides a beneficial approach to daily life, and offers a valuable shortcut through a complex world.
To encourage people to take a desired action, you should first secure an initial commitment to something related to it. Once people have made this commitment, they will be more likely to perform the desired action if it helps them remain consistent with the commitment.
Commitments are a powerful lever of influence for several reasons, including the fact that people often add new justifications for commitments they’ve already made and reminders about a commitment can “regenerate its ability to guide behavior.”
Applying The Principle of Commitment and Consistency to Online Marketing
Companies have used contests or competitions to build commitment and consistency into their marketing campaigns with great effect. Let’s look at two examples.
Shopify used to run its Build a Business Competition. In it, new online store owners had the chance to win fantastic prizes by generating the most sales over a certain period of time.
The company got new users to commit to growing their online stores to have a chance at winning these prizes. Then, after making this commitment, new store owners wanted to work hard to remain consistent with it (and to have a shot at winning).
While it looks like the company no longer runs this competition, for a time, it helped them get many more people to start online stores, which fueled their platform’s growth.
With this challenge, Gumroad asks new creators to commit to creating a product over the course of 14 days. Then, it sends them an email lesson every day to guide them through the process. Wanting to remain consistent with their commitment, many people who sign up for the challenge end up building a new product to sell.
This challenge helps Gumroad consistently add new sellers to its platform, which allows it to grow its gross merchandise value (GMV) and revenue.
You too can run a challenge or competition to take advantage of the commitment and consistency principle to grow your business.
To do so, think about common hurdles or challenges that prevent people from using your product or succeeding in your industry. Then, create a short email or video course designed to help them overcome those obstacles.
Finally, build a landing page for the challenge where you can collect people’s contact information (to deliver them the course and follow up about using your product) and ask them to commit to take one or several concrete steps towards success. If possible, after they make the commitment, incentivize them with swag or a freebie to share it on social media as doing so will strengthen it.
Continue to follow up with participants throughout the challenge to encourage them, see where they run into problems, and provide assistance.
The Principle of Unity
If people consider you to be one of them, they will say “yes” to you more often than not. This is the principle of unity.
People can feel unified and a sense of togetherness among many different dimensions such as race, ethnicity, nationality, family, and religious and political beliefs.
When discussing the principle of unity, Cialdini describes three conclusions that researchers have reached on unified groups:
- Members of a group “favor the outcomes and welfare of fellow members over those of nonmembers.”
- Members of these groups use the beliefs and actions of others in the group to guide their own beliefs and actions.
- These tendencies have come up during evolution of the species to help our groups and ourselves.
The feeling of a unified group can come from common genetics, common places (home, region, etc.), acting together, reciprocal exchange, joint suffering, and co-creation.
Applying The Principle of Unity to Online Marketing
To apply the principle of unity in your online marketing, look for opportunities to showcase a wide range of people and companies that use your product. Case studies are one good way to accomplish this objective.
You can produce case studies that show how companies of many sizes from a wide variety of industries have succeeded in using your product. By giving visitors the widest possible perspective on how different types of organizations or people have gotten value from your product, you will increase the chances that you connect with them on some group level.
To learn about creating effective case studies, we recommend that you check out The Ultimate Guide to Marketing Case Studies.
Using the Principles of Influence with Care
As you now know, the seven principles of Influence from Robert Cialdini offer a powerful way to improve your online marketing. And, as the famous saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
We implore you to use these social psychology principles in an ethical and honest way. For example, if you don’t yet have social proof for your product, please don’t create fake social proof. Or, if you don’t have any genuine authority figures on your team, please don’t make any up for the sake of building your credibility.
If you use these ideas in an unethical way, people will eventually find out and look at your company much worse for it. We hope that ethically incorporating these lessons from Influence will allow you to grow your business faster.