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Masterspeak 2017

"Engines of 'influence' work exactly the way power flows when you flip a switch"
Psychologist and the 'Godfather of Influence', Robert Cialdini, shares vital marketing insights

N Mahalakshmi & Rajesh Padmashali

Tempe, Arizona/ July 17, 2017

Intrigued by what makes salesmen exercise influence and win over customers, Robert Cialdini embarked on an unlikely journey that put him on the path of remarkable discovery. He hasn’t sold a thing — barring more than three million copies of his book Influence: Science and Practice that came out of his research — but knows exactly how people can be influenced and is often regarded as the ‘Godfather of Influence.’ Among Cialdini’s clients are Google, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline and his latest book Pre-suasion has become a New York Times bestseller. His treasure trove of insights came from attending many, many sales training programmes across dozens of industries which revealed to him the nuances of different trades and gave him an opportunity to understand the winning ways under different circumstances and context of business. The six principles — reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking and consensus — that he inferred as universal have proved to be timeless. Based on those very principles, Cialdini mesmerises us with how a small change in messages can cause huge increase in the degree of influence. Listening to the cool deliberations from the soft-spoken, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University was especially refreshing, amidst the 100°F heat in Tempe.

Can you give examples of simple alterations in prose that can have profound outcomes? 

Here’s one that I like very much because it occurs in a place that we all recognise, a restaurant. Owners of restaurants have a problem, at least in the United States: no-shows. People book a table and then don’t appear. There’s a restaurateur in Chicago, who figured out a way to tackle this problem. He just changed two words in what his receptionist said when taking the reservation. Previously she would say, “Thank you for calling Gordon’s restaurant. Please call if you have to change or cancel your reservation”. You’ve heard that many times, I’m sure. But Gordon asked her to add two words, “Thank you for calling Gordon’s restaurant, will you please call if you have to change or cancel?” Then, she was instructed to pause, let people say, “I will” and make an active commitment to it publicly. No-shows at Gordon’s restaurant dropped by 67% for those two words. What I like about that is how costless it was. It’s a simple use of two words, but it wasn’t any two words though, like “Please, please call”. These two words engaged the principle of desire to be consistent with what we’ve committed ourselves to publicly. 

Here’s another example only involving one word. Suppose, you have an idea for a new plan, an initiative or some change and you want to get the support of your colleagues or even your boss. You will often present an outline of your idea and ask for feedback. Frequently, we make a mistake asking that individual for his or her opinion. Turns out that psychologically, when we are asked our opinion, we take a step back, go into ourselves and introspect. We separate from the requester. But instead of asking for an opinion, if we ask for that person’s advice, he/she takes a step towards us because we have created a partnership frame of mind, where the idea is collaboration and cooperation. Research shows that an individual will be more supportive of our plan if we ask for advice rather than opinion. 

That really works like magic. What’s the secret to influence? 

There are very large engines of influence that exist in each of us and I talk about six of them in my book — reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity. All we have to do is activate those in a particular individual and then the power flows. We don’t have to be formidable ourselves in terms of strength. We can commission the power that already exists in that person in the form of these principles. That power has been installed in people by their parents and the socialisation process that they’ve undergone. 

Here’s the best analogy I have. If you go to a stadium, there are big lights all around. Someone merely has to flip a switch, and it illuminates the entire environment. It’s not because of the effort involved to flip that switch. The power was in a big unit of energy located somewhere in the stadium. Flipping the switch simply activated that power. It channeled it into the right place.

Is there a process to thinking about writing effective communication lines?

First of all, this is no surprise, we have to think about the goals of the reader, the message’s recipient. What are this person’s challenges? And then we have to think about which of the six principles of influence might already be there in the situation that could help that person achieve the goal. Let’s say, a person wants to be more successful. If we have evidence from legitimate authorities giving advice on the best step to take to be successful, that’s what we have to bring to the surface. Essentially, a principle that naturally fits in the situation. If scientific voices have said that, this is the best pain reliever or an expert says, this is the best strategy for saving for retirement, we bring that to consciousness. On the other hand, if the person wants to avoid losing an opportunity, then we have to see if there is real scarcity of that opportunity involved and if so, that’s what we bring to the surface. We are the detectives of influence. We should go into a situation and recognise what are the goals of our audience and which principle exists naturally in that situation that would facilitate that goal. Our job is to uncover the clues to solving a problem, it’s not to manufacture, counterfeit or fabricate it.

Out of these six, are there some that are more powerful than the others, or are they situational?

It is dependent on the goal of the recipient. If people want to reduce their own uncertainty in an unfamiliar situation, they don’t look inside themselves for answers. They don’t want to look at a commitment they made in the past because they don’t have the right answer. They look outside themselves and at two places — authority, it reduces uncertainty about what should be done and second, they look at their peers in a principle that we call social proof. It is the idea that people decide what to do in a situation by looking at what those, like them, around them are doing. So in this scenario, the evidence of what the authorities or their peers have done are the principles that can be applied. 

If they’re trying to decide something else or if the goal is to not miss out on something, then we should use scarcity to the extent that it exists. If they’re trying to build a relationship with us, then we should use ‘liking’ to drive them in our direction.

Can you give examples of marketers who exemplify or have used each of these principles? Let’s take reciprocity first.

Reciprocity is the principle that says people feel an obligation to give back to those who have given first. There was a very successful promotion program run by a company that wanted to build its appreciation. It wanted people to feel more positive and grateful for what they had done. But instead of saying what it did for them, the company said, “This is what we have done for the communities in which we have been working” and also talked about all the community-oriented programs it had done. They made a mistake by showing examples of what it had done around the world, and they did not get very good responses. So, we advised the company to show what it had done in the community in which they were sending the message, and they got skyrocketing positive responses.

There’s another example that’s more sales-related. It is a study in which researchers had the manager of a candy shop meet new customers as they came in, greet half of them warmly and then say, “Please, take a look at what we have to offer”. For the other half, he greeted them warmly and gave them a piece of chocolate. They bought 42% more candy because they got that piece of chocolate. You can explain that they tasted the chocolate and said, “Wow! This place is great, they make good chocolate here.” Many of those 42% didn’t buy chocolates but bought something else. It wasn’t that they loved the chocolate, but they felt grateful for having received it and now they had to give back.

There are big retail stores like Costco where they often have free samples of various kinds that always produce skyrocketing sales, from people who have tested it. If they haven’t taken it themselves, then they don’t feel obligated [to purchase]. 

How does loss aversion work?

By telling people what they will lose and not just what they will gain from a product, you harness a psychological motivation called loss-aversion. This won the Nobel Prize in economics for Daniel Kahneman, a few years ago, for the concept Prospect Theory. 

Scarcity is an idea that makes people want more of things they have less of. Here’s an example, the Bose Acoustics Corporation had a new product a couple of years ago, the Bose Wave Music System. They were very proud of it and had an initial advertisement that listed all of its advantages, but that was not a successful ad. At the top was the word ‘new’ and they asked, “Alright, can you change this ad for us because it’s not been successful?” We recommended only changing ‘new’ to ‘here’s what you’ve been missing’. Now, all the new features were things you were going to lose out on or not get access to. This idea of describing what would be lost is related to scarcity because loss is the ultimate form of scarcity, and people resist this idea.

In a supermarket, they did a study, where researchers put signs under various kinds of brands that said, ‘Only X number of items per purchase, no matter what the brand was’. That increased purchases by 100% because the idea of not being able to get it made people want it more.

Informing people of what authoritative voices are saying causes them to move. Turns out, there’s another feature of the most effective kind of authority, it’s not just competence or knowledge — it’s trustworthiness. The single most effective authority voice is a credible communicator, someone who has knowledge and trustworthiness. One thing advertisers sometimes do is establish their honesty by mentioning a drawback or weakness in their product. Here’re a couple of examples: Twenty-five years ago, Avis Rent a Car began an ad campaign with the slogan, “We’re number 2, but we try harder”. They were a distant second place to Hertz. But that produced a 700% increase in market share in one year. More recently, L’Oreal Cosmetics did an ad campaign, “We’re expensive, but you’re worth it”. It produced a 300% increase in market share because they began with a demonstration of honesty and the next thing they said was believed to a greater extent. So, authority works that way.

Then comes, commitment and consistency. I saw an article from Sweden to get individuals to buy more eco-friendly bananas and they tested two kinds of signs against one another. As people approached the bananas, there were some eco- and not eco-friendly bins with a sign above that read, “The price of our eco-friendly bananas is the same as the other type”. That produced a significant increase in purchase, it’s something we all know. But another sign resulted in more purchase. It said, “Hello, environmentalists. We have eco-friendly bananas as well as those that are not”. So they gave people a label saying ‘environmentalists’, and people behaved in the way consistent to that. That’s even more than giving them evidence that the price was right. 

Liking is another principle. We want to do business with people we know and like — it’s very powerful. One of the things we can do is point to genuine similarities that exist between us and the individual we like. Marketers can say, “We understand your situation, we have similarities and we’re all striving for one thing or another.” That essentially brings out that commonality to the surface. 

The other thing is compliments. Simply complimenting people causes them to like us more and move in our direction. I think that’s something that we see a lot of marketers doing. In sales, especially, people are told to find something praiseworthy about an individual and comment on it, and they find better results from it.

Finally, there is social proof or what we can call consensus. A good example is the recent research we did in hotel guest rooms where we asked people to reuse their towels and linen. It’s a sign that exists in 65-70% of the hotels that I go in. We’re asked to hang up our towels and reuse typically to save the earth, resources and environment. But, we know, they also want to save on expenses. 

We thought there might be a more effective way to get people to do that by telling them honestly that the majority of individuals visiting the hotel do hang it up at least once during their stay. That produced a 29% increase over the standard request, “Do this for the environment”. Now, when we added not just what the individuals did in the past, but also that the majority of those who stayed in this room reused their towels, we got a significantly greater effect. That’s because people want to do what those like them have done. We’ve learned over many years that those people who are comparable to us are the best standards for choosing who to listen to. 

For example, marketers often will tell us, “We’re the largest or fastest growing”. There was a study done in Beijing, where in a restaurant if the manager put on the menu a little star next to certain dishes saying ‘one of our most popular dishes’ it immediately became 20% more popular. This is because of its popularity, not the quality of the food or the description. So, if you genuinely are the fastest growing or largest selling, you would be a fool not to say so and think people would automatically recognise that because they don’t, they miss it. I have this problem with my book, Influence, which has sold several million copies now. And every time it sells another million copies, I have to push my publisher to say so on the cover. But they say no because it’s going to cost money and they would have to reprint that cover. And, I always have to point them to chapter three in that book and remind that it will make them money! Because, when people see that three million people have chosen it, that means it’s a good choice for them.

Can you tell us some of the things that are often ignored by marketeers, which maybe critical for the success of marketing campaigns?

Well, this has to do with my new book called Pre-suasion and a piece of persuasive real estate that has gone almost untended by marketers, that is the time immediately before we deliver our message. That piece of real estate would serve us well if we could build a launching pad for our message on it, so that after our audience has experienced the moment before we make our case, we have put them in a frame of mind consistent with the central element of our case. 

That’s a mistake I saw when I was working undercover in these training programmes. The best performers, copywriters, salespeople and fund raisers were spending more time and energy thinking about what they did immediately before they made their case or sent their message.

The best metaphor I have is that of a gardener’s. A gardener knows that it doesn’t matter how good a seed is if you haven’t cultivated the ground. That seed will not bear the fullest fruit. So that’s what the top performers were doing and their inferior contemporaries weren’t recognising the power of ‘pre-suasion’. It is about how and when to make people receptive to what you’re going to say next. And you do that in a two-step process. Again, using the idea of a detective and an ethical person, you identify your message: what is it inside your message that is your best feature, your strongest argument, the most powerful aspect of what you can offer people, that will make it wise for them to say yes to you. Is it reliability? Is it the opportunity to get something unique? Is it security? Then, you go to the moment before sending that message and put that idea in people’s minds. This will cause them to prioritise everything related to that idea in their consciousness. 

Let me give you an example from a study. Researchers in this very B-school worked with an online furniture store. They arranged for the visitors to this store’s website to be directed to one of two landing pages: one landing page had fluffy clouds in its background paper, the other had small coins. Those who encountered the clouds related softness and comfort as more important in buying a sofa. They searched the site for information on comfortable furniture. Those who saw the pennies, rated cost as more important in deciding what kind of sofa to purchase. They searched for price-related information and bought less expensive furniture. That’s the essence of ‘pre-suasion’, where you put people first determines what they value about what you present to them next.

What aspects of human psychology can be used to build effective digital campaigns?

It would be those very six principles. Here is something that has been very gratifying to me.My book Influence talked about six principles and was written in the mid 80s when there was no internet or digital marketing. But that book has become the cornerstone for digital marketing. Those six principles are about the human condition, about how we work as citizens of our societies, how we operate. But because of digital technology, one of those principles has become much more accessible and therefore, effective: social proof. We now have the ability as consumers of information to get evidence of what many others like us have done, decided and reported on the basis of the choices they made. We use those reviews to make decisions.

I saw an article that said 98% of people, who regularly purchase online, first consult user reviews before making a choice. So this principle of social proof is only being more powerful.

Have you found anything that works or doesn’t work particularly with millennials?

With millennials, not that we have to throw any of the principles, but, the scarcity principle seems to apply to a greater extent than it did to other generations. Have you heard the term FOMO: fear of missing out? This applies to millennials. Where there are opportunities to tell millennial consumers about scarcity or dwindling opportunity, those should be incorporated into your message.

What’s been the best part of your professional journey ?

We always thought of persuasion as an art — something that people are born with, a kind of natural talent. They have to say just the right thing at the right time. But, what about the rest of us? Turns out there is a science to persuasion as well that can be learnt, incorporated and employed so the rest of us can transform ourselves to be just as effective as the natural-born leaders. 

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