An Incredibly Condensed History of Persuasion and Sales

Virtually all Web sites have a persuasive purpose — to get someone to subscribe, register, inquire, or buy something. To better grasp the concept of persuasion and sales, we must observe the evolution of sales.

Each step in that evolution seems to make purchasing easier for the buyer and harder on the vendor. Friction buyers feel is removed, making the purchase process smoother.

Depending on your religious persuasion, you may believe the first sale involved an apple. Even if you don’t, sales is certainly the world’s oldest profession, even if it involved some inexact form of barter exchange.

In ancient times, someone had chickens but wanted a cow. Someone else had cows but no chickens. They’d decide how many chickens a cow was worth and exchange the two. Obviously, the system was inefficient. One party might have needed ducks, not chickens.

Then came trade fairs and open marketplaces. Many trades could be made simultaneously until each person got approximately what he came for. Until money came along, goods and services were difficult to value. Barter required many trades and go-betweens.

Then, money became the standard. It became easier to exchange value when every product and service had a monetary value assigned to it by the free market. You either paid the value or didn’t.

Eventually, vendors decided it made sense to aggregate in one area, so all buyers could meet them. This created a larger market for the vendors but also opened them up to competition on price and selection. Merchants developed reputations for expertise in one product or service line.

The market evolved to a point where open-air vendors established specialized stores. Stores could offer greater convenience and more inventory because they no longer had to travel. Stores became bigger and were concentrated in commercial districts.

Then catalogs appeared. They offered specialty products stores couldn’t carry and remote shopping for buyers who didn’t have stores nearby. The Sears catalog was transported along railroad stations. It brought the far away close to buyers, who could shop from home.

Then, of course, came malls. Now, in addition to a large selection of stores that offered one-stop shopping, buyers could be fed and amused (in a way, returning to the common market idea).

If people wanted to buy from home, why not take the old barker style of selling and present it to them through their TVs? That’s exactly what QVC and HSN offer. These elaborate televised catalogs were a huge success with buyers. They could now buy with a phone in one hand and a remote in the other.

In the late ’90s, the Internet promised to change everything. It would trump QVC and HSN with interactive, on-demand catalogs, available 24/7, 365 days a year. It had unlimited options, lots of competitors to choose from, and the strangest things you could imagine (think eBay) waiting to found. It was one more evolutionary step for buyers.

The bottom line: Each step in the evolution forced merchants to work harder to remove friction from the buying experience in a systematic way. The Internet offers a virtually frictionless way for consumers to buy. We must work that much harder to persuade and inform buyers, only one click away from our competitors across the globe.

As a merchant, it’s your choice. Will you do the hard work? Will you leave it to the buyer? Or will you let your competitor do the work? It’s up to you. The buyer is always one click away from “goodbye.”

Meet Bryan at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose. Also, join us at ClickZ’s upcoming AdForum.

Vote for your favorite product or campaign from July 20 through close of business August 2.

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