The 6 rules of persuasion used in marketing

As marketers, our bread & butter is trying to persuade people to buy our product or service. Trying to convince people (individually or an organisation) to take action (& do our bidding), it makes sense to try and understand how humans tick, by finding out how and why we make decisions.

But we don’t always do this & we make it hard on ourselves, by not taking the time to do research at the beginning. Trying force an action with a gimmick may work in the short term but will not breed longterm loyalty.

But what if we did take the time at the beginning to dive deeper and understand the need of the customer & then the psychology of persuasion. This way you put yourself in a much better position and you will also be surprised at what people respond to, thus helping you to attract customers and then retain them by fostering a long-term relationship that’s mutually beneficial (you providing value in terms of a product or service & them financial).

But it must be noted that these rules are very powerful and can trigger mindless compliance, use them with care and not to manipulate. With great power comes great responsibility.

These 6 rules are dealt with in great depth in Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and upon reading, you will start to look at the world in a different light. Professionals the world over, have read his book to much acclaim from; salespeople, marketers to charity fundraisers. The Journal of Marketing Research says “For marketers, it is among the most important book written in the last 10 years”

His book was first published way back in 1984(revised in 1994 & 2007 respectively), has been listed on the “New York Times Business Best Seller List”, Fortune Magazine listed it in their “75 Smartest Business Books” & CEO Read lists it as their “100 Best Business Books of All Time”.

Now to the meat, the 6 rules of persuasion that Robert goes through:

  1. Reciprocation (give, give, give, ask)

This rule means that we feel obligated (even the phrase “much obliged” indicates this) to someone who does you a favour first, e.g. a neighbour welcoming you into the area by giving a gift of wine and chocolates, you may feel you need to return the favour by agreeing to minding their dog for the weekend when they ask, just to remove the feeling of being obligated.

In marketing this is the tactic behind “free samples” you may feel obligated to them after taking their free sample & may reciprocate by buying their product at a later date(e.g. when you see it in the supermarket). But you should have something valuable to offer your customer, so ideally give, give, give & only then “ask”. If you deliver  sufficient value when you ask for their custom they will respond in kind.

But the key here is do not try and trick them, short term it will work & they will purchase “once”, if only to remove the feeling of obligation but they will not again(e.g. bait & switch). But provide real value & they will repeat purchase & this will give you the opportunity to build a long-term relationship.

2) Commitment & consistency

Once we commit to something verbally or on paper we are more like to follow through for the sake of consistency.

This is the tactic behind “Amazon Wish Lists”, you are more likely to purchase the item after first placing it in your wish list. We desire to look consistent in all our actions such as what we think, say & do. We try to align everything we do e.g. when we are told to write down our goals or say them someone, we have committed to them & also brought this rule into play to aid us. The flip side is that we also don’t want to lose face(inconsistency) by not following through, consistency is highly valued in society “they are a man/woman of their word”. So once you/the organisation commits, make sure to follow through for the sake of being consistent and respected.

3) Social proof

Once we know many other people have bought something (be it a product or service) we are more likely to also purchase. This should be no surprise, as we regularly look to our friends and family for advice on what to buy. As Eileen Lee rightly commented “Social Proof is the New Marketing” 

This tactic can be seen as “canned laughter in TV show” on product packaging with “as seen on TV”, in business testimonials on websites “as used by  X company & displaying their logo” to personal reviews on Google/Yelp/Forums or boards. Other ways we see social proof being leveraged is for example night clubs making you queue outside, or joining a club only to be put on a waitlist,(even if they weren’t full/booked out) by doing this it make them seem overly popular to others hence you want to join & there is the exclusivity/premium element as well.

4) Liking

This one is simple if we like someone we are more likely to be persuaded to buy what they are selling, purely because we like them and we don’t want to disrupt the friendship by saying no to them. People like others who are similar to them, so find out what your audience likes and be human. Liking by association is another factor.

This tactic can be seen used by designer clothing shops to car advertising using attractive staff in the shop promote the brand as more desirable the same as attractive female models use to sell cars in adverts. The item is associated with these people make them seem more desirable.

5) Authority

We are taught from a young age to respect authority figures in our society from parents, doctors to police (or influencers in the case of marketing) as they have an informed and respected opinion. So when an authority figure endorses a product or service we think “well if they put their name to it must be good” & we promptly purchase. Of course this exactly the type of action the promoting company wants by using authority figures.

These tactics can take the form of expert recommendations, trade body memberships, celebrity endorsements, qualifications etc.

6) Scarcity

Supply and demand, if there is a limited supply there is more demand for it & “Limited supply” items are also the most attractive options. We are also loss averse and we feel a loss more keenly than any gain.

We don’t want to lose out on something if we know it will not be available again. This is the most abused rule, we have seen this tactic used everywhere and we are quite sceptical of this one.

This tactic can be seen on with “only 2 rooms left, book now” or “only 2 items left, order now to avoid disappointment”.

Other examples include: “50% off today only!” or “2 for 1 this mothers day, don’t miss out!”

Another version of this is using a countdown timer paired with “when they are gone, they are gone”. So unless your stock actually has a limited supply don’t be tempted to abuse this offer as your customers will get wise & once you lose their trust its very hard if not impossible to win back.

I hope this article has been of interest to you, experiment with these tactics and as above do not use them for mindless manipulation. If you feel I have missed anything please let me know in the comments below.

Reference Book:

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition
by Robert B, Cialdini, PH.D.