AnalyticsConversion & ROIPersuasion Principles: Back to the Future

Persuasion Principles: Back to the Future

What online marketers can learn from Robert Cialdini's universal persuasion principles that work across cultures and circumstances.

The affiliate marketing industry is often not given the credit it deserves because fringe participants engage in questionable practices and cut corners to achieve results at any price. However, the vast majority of the industry represents a real can-do spirit and is at the innovative spear-tip of the constantly changing online marketing community. And that was evident when I attended Affiliate Summit West 2010 in Las Vegas, a conference that had record-breaking attendance of over 4,000.

A hallmark of the maturing show was the quality of the two keynotes by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., an internationally renowned persuasion expert and president of Influence At Work and Brian Clark of fame. Each referenced persuasion strategies that have been around since the dawn of civilization. In other words, the arena has changed – it’s now our hyperactive and connected Internet-based world – but human psychology has not. So, understanding and tapping into the basic makeup of people is always a good idea. Many Internet marketers try to reinvent the wheel because they think that online marketing is fundamentally different. In fact, for best results they should be lifting a lot of time-tested strategies directly from the old-school textbooks.

Dr. Cialdini, a very interesting man, is one of my marketing role models. He has researched persuasion techniques partially by putting himself through a wide variety of training and indoctrination environments where convincing others was paramount. He has also conducted formal university research studies to refine his findings. His books have sold in the millions of copies over an extended period of time; he’s simply the world’s highest authority on persuasion and influence.


Through his work, Dr. Cialdini established several principles of universal persuasion that work across cultures and circumstances. Think of these as automatic compliance mechanisms that, once set into motion, are very difficult to resist.

Dr. Cialdini’s career started as a sort of consumer crusader – educating people about the power of these compliance methods and suggesting strategies for resisting them. However, being the Ralph Nader of marketing does not pay very well. So, Dr. Cialdini switched sides and recast himself as an exponent of ethical persuasion, and now consults with some of the biggest brands in the world to make their marketing more effective.

According to Dr. Cialdini, the six universal principles of persuasion are:

  • Reciprocation: People tend to return a favor. Give to get: small unsolicited gifts results in outsized return obligation being placed on the receiver.
  • Scarcity: If I can’t have it, I want it. Perceived scarcity will generate more demand.
  • Authority: If an expert says it, it must be true. People tend to obey authority figures, or even just those with the trappings of authority.
  • Consistency: If people publicly take even a small stand on an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment. They will get behind their stated beliefs with action.
  • Consensus: People will look for “social proof” of how similar others acted in the same circumstances.
  • Liking: People are easily persuaded by people they like and are attracted to.

Dr. Cialdini, in the Affiliate Summit keynote, emphasized what happens under conditions of uncertainty. This of course is of particular interest to Internet marketers. So much of what we do happens under such conditions. The Internet, as an ever-changing communications network, creates uncertainty in its wake.

“Three of the principles of persuasion are particularly effective under conditions of uncertainty.”

Let’s revisit them in turn and see how they can be effectively employed:


What feature of your product or service is scarce, rare, or not widely available somewhere else?

“Under conditions of uncertainty, the loss of something is a very powerful motivator.”

A good strategy for persuasion is to tell people honestly what they stand to lose. Note that “new” is not a “friend” under conditions of uncertainty. All it does is to point out the risky and unproven nature of something, at a time when someone is craving proven and predictable solidity. When a headline of a magazine ad for the innovative Bose Wave stereo was changed from “New” to “Hear what you’ve been missing” it refocused people from novelty to loss aversion. The result was an immediate 45 percent increase in sales.

Many landing pages and Web sites try to puff themselves up and promote their best features. A much more effective approach is to use fear of loss, expiration dates for special offers, and negative consequences of not acting as the basis for the copywriting. With persuasion, you do not have to change structural or organizational aspects of your business, you just have to change the words.


“When people are uncertain, they don’t look inside of themselves. They look outside, to the counsel of legitimate experts.”

But authority and expertise must be established before you ask someone to act. Otherwise you will appear as a blowhard and self-promoter. You can either borrow authority from others, or present them with your expertise.

The third generation of the Bose Wave ad I mentioned earlier added a ribbon of testimonials from acknowledged experts (combined with the revised headline) and resulted in a 60 percent lift over the original.

To be credible, you must demonstrate knowledge and trustworthiness. No one can beat you as a communicator if you have these two elements.

That means you must present information in an unbiased way.

How do you establish trust if there’s no time to build trustworthy interactions? How do you produce instant credibility? There is a very good method for doing just that.

“Before the most compelling portion of your argument, mention the weakness and drawbacks of your product or service.”

Yes, you read that correctly: accentuate the negative.

Using this tactic:

  • Shows your knowledge of the pros and cons.
  • Establishes you as trustworthy because you’re willing to show the negative.

Unlike most online marketers, don’t mention your weakness at the end. Mention it early. Otherwise your strongest argument is “bouncing off of walls of disbelief.” Consider these time-tested and strong headlines:

  • Avis: We’re No. 2, we try harder.
  • L’Oréal: We are expensive, but you’re worth it.

Research from psycholinguistics indicates that for practical purposes “but” means “take the info I just told you and put it away; focus instead on what I am going to tell you next.” Just change the sequence of the words you use – and multiply your profits.


“When uncertain, people look outside of themselves to the actions of their peers under similar circumstances.”

We see it all the time – your role models are your peers. Much to the chagrin of many parents, the biggest influence on most teenagers is their circle of close friends. It almost doesn’t matter what your tribes are (and all of us informally belong to many of them). BMW owners, iPhone users, Burning Man funksters, and hip-hop listeners are much more likely to tune in to the behavior of like-minded people.

Two important aspects of such “social proof” are especially important:

  • “The many” others
  • “Comparable” others

“The many” implies that something is a hit or leader in your specific community or tribe. Once trends take off, the momentum of the leaders makes them very hard to overtake. So, any objective evidence of leadership within a particular tribe or subgroup is very important.

Comparability offers a sense of how similar someone is to me. I will not be influenced nearly as much by the actions of others whom I do not identify with. So, the closer the marketing can be aligned with my specific circumstances, the better.

In a landmark study, Dr. Cialdini changed the messaging on bathroom hotel signs (across three different price points ranging from inexpensive to luxury brands). The sign asked hotel guests to hang up their towels after use if they did not want them washed, and to leave them on the floor if they did.

Each request was identical except for the type of messaging used in the headline.

  • “Recycle and do it for environment.” This was the standard control and resulted in 38 percent compliance during people’s stay.
  • “Cooperate and join us.” Messages with this headline actually resulted in compliance that was 36 percent lower because it was perceived as a self-serving request on the part of the hotel to save on operating expenses. You can’t claim partnership; you must earn partnership.
  • “The majority of guests are reusing towels at least once during their stay.” This appeal to “the many” portion of the consensus principle resulted in a much improved 46 percent compliance with the request.

But how do you create a sense of comparability in this setting, when anonymous and random people stay at the hotel? What possible kinship of comparability can there be among them to further turbo-charge results? Well, as it turns out, even a tenuous kind of kinship is enough:

  • “The majority of people who stayed in this room are reusing towels at least once during their stay.” This combination of “the many” with “comparable” resulted in a stunning 54 percent compliance rate.

So, the use of appropriate testimonials is critical. And the testimonials should not be just from experts, but from peers. They should change order depending on target audience, and should not just be about the ones that you are proudest of. Lead instead with the most comparable circumstances.

Related Articles

Delivering consistently relevant experiences at scale

Analyzing Customer Data Delivering consistently relevant experiences at scale

1m Lars Fiedler, VP, Periscope By McKinsey
Analysis of Mary Meeker’s internet trends report 2018 - part 1

Analyzing Customer Data Analysis of Mary Meeker’s internet trends report 2018 - part 1

1m Tereza Litsa
Metrics to support 'your' digital monetization strategy

Analytics Metrics to support 'your' digital monetization strategy

3m Adam Singer
6 ways to increase your conversion rate using behavioral data

Analyzing Customer Data 6 ways to increase your conversion rate using behavioral data

9m Mike O'Brien
Influencer marketing: Eight tools to identify, track and analyze your brand's next biggest fan

Content Influencer marketing: Eight tools to identify, track and analyze your brand's next biggest fan

9m Tereza Litsa
Tools and tips for calculating the ROI of social media

Conversion & ROI Tools and tips for calculating the ROI of social media

9m Clark Boyd
How machine learning can help you optimize your website's UX

AI How machine learning can help you optimize your website's UX

9m Chris Camps
Why banks are becoming customer-centric organizations

Analyzing Customer Data Why banks are becoming customer-centric organizations

9m Al Roberts