50 secrets from the science of persuasion

I recently read “Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion” by Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini (Profile books, 2007). Written by a USA/UK team, it summarises a wide range of published scientific experiments, some of which are very recent, and draws out lessons for managers and workers in marketing/sales. It’s similar in its themes to Cialdini’s previous books on persuasion, but definitely aimed at the business community rather than researchers or students.

If I say it’s been dumbed down for managers, I risk irritating any managers who read this… well, I’ve gone and said it anyway.

Below are my one-line summaries of the book’s evidence-based tips. They aren’t meant to substitute for the book itself (which is a recommended read, except for some annoyingly twee aphorisms) but if you already know about persuasion research, this may be a helpful guide.

  1. Convey that your product is popular, to benefit from social proof.
  2. Make social proof specific: use a comparison group that your target audience will relate to.
  3. Avoid inadvertently giving social proof in negative messages.
  4. Beware the “magnetic middle”: when reporting on average behaviour, be aware that above-average people may take it as an excuse to lower their performance.
  5. Don’t give customers too many similar options or they might not choose at all.
  6. If you give a “free gift” with your product, emphasise the real value of that gift, otherwise it will be assumed to be of low value.
  7. People don’t like purchasing the most expensive or the least expensive option, so if you want people to pay for your most expensive product, introduce another one that is even more expensive.
  8. Scary messages only inspire people to act if they specify what should be done to respond to the threat: otherwise they inspire denial and depression.
  9. Do people favours pre-emptively and unconditionally, and they will reciprocate down the line – maybe even later in the same conversation [but don’t do good things only for selfish reasons!]
  10. Personalising a request (e.g. adding a handwritten post-it note to a printed document) makes a response much more likely.
  11. A “free gift” that is personalised and unexpected is much more effective. (Restaurant patrons tip more when given mints by the serving staff, rather than allowed to pick up mints on the way out)
  12. Reciprocity works better if you do someone a favour pre-emptively, rather than promise a favour if they do you one first.
  13. Recipients of a favour view it as less valuable over time. Givers of a favour view it as more valuable over time. Hence if you did a favour for someone a while ago and want them to help you out, you might differ in your assessment of what is owed.
  14. Make a small request before a big one, i.e. foot-in-the-door technique.
  15. Labelling technique: before a request, label the requestee as the sort of person who complies, e.g. telling a child that she seems the sort of child who is diligent with homework.
  16. Ask people whether they are going to comply with your request: this boosts compliance because of consistency effects.
  17. Elicit active, written commitments rather than passive commitment.
  18. Older people desire consistency more than young people, so persuasive messages aimed at older people should be framed appropriately.
  19. Benjamin Franklin’s technique: get someone to do you a small favour which is specific to them, and they like you more.
  20. Frame requests in terms of a small amount of what you want (e.g. charity fundraiser saying “even a penny would help”).
  21. In auctions (e.g. eBay), a lower initial price leads to a higher selling price.
  22. Get someone else to promote your expertise. Even if they are a paid agent, they will be more credible than your own self-promotion.
  23. The most talented person, working alone, can do worse than a team of less talented people who co-operate, so long as they avoid the problems with joint decisions. Hence, even if you are the smartest, seek perspectives from other people.
  24. People trust authority. This can lead to “Captain-itis” as subordinates fail to challenge bad decisions. So leaders should actively solicit dissenting views.
  25. Groupthink can block out important (but unwelcome) information, fixing the group on a disastrous path. So do not penalise dissent, listen to independent voices and encourage team members to voice doubts.
  26. A “Devil’s Advocate” (someone required to take a negative position as part of their role) is not nearly as effective as a genuine dissenter, so tolerate and even encourage dissent.
  27. Training that’s based on avoiding error is more effective than training that’s put in terms of success rather than errors, so seek out examples of things that have gone wrong and use them.
  28. Mention a small drawback of what you are offering. This conveys honesty and makes the rest of your message credible.
  29. When identifying a drawback, mention it along with positive attributes that are directly related to that drawback (e.g. a restaurant describing itself as small but cosy)
  30. Organisations that attribute failure to internal causes (and say what they plan to do to deal with that problem) have more public trust than those that blame it on external causes.
  31. People assign more severe blame to human error than technical error. Hence when an error is technical, it is important to convey that quickly and clearly.
  32. People are more receptive to requests from people that they share trivial attributes with, such as having a similar-sounding name.
  33. People are drawn to things (locations, professions) that are similar to their own name. So do not give your product an ugly, unpronounceable name.
  34. Mirroring (of verbalisations or body language) promotes liking and hence their responsiveness to your requests. Given a request, repeat that request back in the person’s own words.
  35. People respond more positively to a genuine smile than a fake smile. If you can cultivate positivity towards someone, they will pick up on it and respond more positively to you.
  36. Scarcity is a powerful motivator, so if you are offering something scarce, make that clear.
  37. Frame messages in terms of potential loss rather than potential gain, to take advantage of loss aversion. A potential loss is about two and a half times as persuasive as a potential gain, so “If you don’t take this uoffer, you could miss out on £40 of savings” is as persuasive as “If you take this offer, you could get £100 in savings.”
  38. “Because” can be an effective persuasion word even if it is not accompanied by any meaningful justification.
  39. People judge the attractiveness of an option by the ease with which they come up with reasons for that option. So give them an easy task, such as “name one advantage of our product”. Hard tasks, like “name ten advantages of our product” can backfire.
  40. Make messages easy to read. Overly complex language is rated as less credible. Messages in easy-to-read fonts or handwriting are rated as more credible than difficult-to-read messages. People are more favourably disposed to a company when its name (and its stock ticker symbol) are pronounceable.
  41. Ideas expressed as a rhyme are rated as more credible than the same ideas without the rhyme.
  42. Contrast effects apply in the area of quantity of information. I.e. give a small amount of information about one product, then a larger amount of information about another product, and the recipient will overestimate how much well-informed they are about the latter product (and will feel more positively toward it).
  43. People are motivated more by being given an incomplete task than a task which starts from scratch. E.g. a loyalty card with 8 slots, two of them already filled, gets more use than a loyalty card with six slots, all blank.
  44. People respond positively to products that have an unusual, unexpected name as it encourages people to think about the product’s attributes.
  45. It’s not enough for an advertising campaign to be well-recognised: you have to connect the campaign to the product. Consumers need memory aids.
  46. People who can see themselves (in a mirror or on a CCTV screen) behave more in accordance with their professed values. Even putting a picture of a pair of eyes on the wall reduces some anti-social behaviour.
  47. Mood affects buying and selling behaviour. Sad buyers pay more than neutral people, and sad sellers sell for less.
  48. When dealing with emotionally charged issues, people are blind to quantities. They might offer the same amount of money for 50 or 100 of a good.
  49. Sleep deprivation, fatigue and distraction heighten gullibility. E.g. door-to-door salesman states the price of his wares in pennies and immediately says “It’s a bargain!” People are more receptive to the “bargain” claim after the unexpected, distracting statement.
  50. Caffeine makes people more favourably disposed to persuasive arguments (but no effect on weak arguments).

E-influence:

  • Negotiation via email is much more likely to come to an impasse than face-to-face negotiation.
  • Writers of emails systematically overestimate how likely the respondent is to read the correct tone.
  • Mass emails with a specific request are unlikely to be responded to, because of the diffusion-of-responsibility effect.
  • Customers appreciate being able to make price comparisons, so put your competitors’ prices on your own site.
  • Background images on web sites can subliminally prime people to think about certain aspects of what they are looking for. E.g. coins in the background make them think about cost-effectiveness.

Global influence:

  • Different persuasion techniques have different strengths depending on the culture you’re in. E.g. reciprocity stronger in the USA, authority stronger in China. You can’t just move your working practices to another country and expect that they’ll continue to succeed.
  • Find out if you are communicating with someone from an individualistic culture or a collectivist one, and phrase your messages appropriately.

Critical thinking note: In the interest of brevity, I’ve summarised the tips in the broadest, most optimistic way possible, going beyond what’s scientifically proven. Your situation might be different from the scenario described in the research reports.

Update: An NPR audio podcast in which Robert Cialdini talks about the book

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  1. #1 by Kelly Watson on May 30, 2008 - 5:13 pm

    This is a great refresher on some of the ideas covered in “Influence,” and you have some fascinating new stuff in here as well. Thanks!

    I’ll have to check the book out for myself…

    Kelly Watson
    http://www.wordwisemarketing.com

  2. #2 by Martin Poulter on December 26, 2012 - 1:12 pm

    Update December 2012: There’s a nice counterpart blog post to this, with 17 more persuasion tips, at http://conversionxl.com/17-lesser-known-ways-to-persuade-people/

  3. #3 by syndax vuzz on January 13, 2015 - 12:27 am

    Reblogged this on syndax vuzz.

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