Marketing Lessons: From The Social Psychology Of Persuasion

Social behavior and selling go hand in hand. Effective marketing, really, is little more than a reflection of known social persuasive methods. Social psychologist and author Robert B. Cialdini knew this better than anyone when he penned his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

In its pages, Cialdini discusses six pillars central to the social psychology of persuasion. Below, we discuss these pillars and show how you can apply them to build stronger marketing messages.

Pillar One: Reciprocity

In general, people try to return favors that are done for them. If a friend lends us money during a time of need, we thank them with a gift or home-cooked dinner to show our appreciation.  If a cab driver gives us the name of the best restaurant in town, we are likely to give him a good tip at the conclusion of the ride.

This basic social paradigm is known as reciprocity, and it forms the basis for some of the marketing strategies many of us are familiar with. One common application of reciprocity occurs when brands offer free product samples to their customers. In one sense, the customers evaluating how much they like the actual product in practice, but the often unseen social force of reciprocity is also taking place. Subconsciously, the free sample comes across as a favor; a good deed done for the customer that makes them feel motivated to return the favor by doing business with the brand.

In today’s social world, great customer service and social interaction can work the same way. Giving away free content, tips and tricks that solve customers’ problems, or holding contests and offering free prizes, set into motion the gears of reciprocity, creating an audience of consumers who are motivated to pick your brand over the competition.

Pillar Two: Commitment and Consistency

Everybody wants to be seen as a consistent person. In fact, a subconscious drive of most human beings is to achieve conformity between our beliefs and our actions. This means that if we commit to do something – either orally or in writing – we are more likely to follow through on the commitment even after the initial terms of the agreement have changed.

Once we make up our mind and commit to buy a product in front of another human being in a social setting, it becomes much more difficult for us to justify changing our behavior, lest we be seen as flighty, inconsistent people. This is why auto salesman can often get away with tacking on extra features that raise the sale price of the car after the customer has begun the purchase process.

Get a customer to commit to your brand and he or she is more likely to stick around. You can do this through the use of subscription-based opt-ins that require the user to register with your website. Trial license software is also very effective in this regard, as the user must commit to your product for a period of time, after which consistency says he will likely to pay to continue.

Pillar Three: Social Proof


Social psychological research has shown that we are all prone to being copycats. Simply put, when we see others take a particular action, many of us feel compelled to do the same. In one landmark study of social proof,  a researcher stood on a busy city street and stared up into the sky. Without saying a word, many passersby stopped and looked up in the sky to see what was going on. The group soon grew so numerous that the experiment had to be called off because it was obstructing traffic (even though there was nothing in the sky!)

In marketing, social proof used to be possible only by airing commercials that show other people using a brand’s products. However in the age of social media, companies need to strive to establish a palpable culture around their products by providing unique customer experiences. The focus should be on creating not just customers, but “brand advocates” that will freely go onto their social networks and broadcast to the world how much they just love using your products. After all, if we feel compelled to take an action when we see a group of strangers doing it, imagine how much more powerful the urge is when some of them are our friends and family!

Pillar Four: Authority

The urge to obey perceived authority has been proven by social scientists to be almost undeniable. Under laboratory conditions, psychologists have been able to successfully persuade test subjects to deliver dangerously high voltage electric shocks to unseen research confederates who acted as if they were being zapped within inches of their lives! All because a scientist dressed in the familiar laboratory coat and professional garments, assured it was safe and necessary.

Morbid as that last example might be, the underlying idea has been put to the test by marketers who use scientists, CEOs, and other trusted authority figures to talk to customers about their products. They understand that endorsements from men and women perceived to be experts in their fields often mean much more than any catchy sales message or radio jingle ever could.

In online marketing, this concept is no different. There are authority figures in every vertical, and your job is to find the ones that matter to your brand and seek their sponsorship or review. If you sell a weight loss product, a positive testimonial from a prominent personal trainer carries the authority effect. Aim to generate buzz – tweets, Facebook shares, blog posts, testimonials, etc – from a number of these figures.

Pillar Five: Liking

Its no secret that people try to emulate the people in life they like and look up to. Many go so far as to purchase products simply because the people they like use them. Behind every commercial in which Michael Jordan/Donald Trump/Charlie Sheen/etc tells you buy a particular product, there is a marketer familiar with this concept.  However, today’s businesses do not have to rely on such openly solicited attempts at an audiences admiration.

Using services like Twitter, an authentic recommendation from a popular business pundit or admired social celebrity can mean a rush of eager new customers. Get connected with the social celebrities and icons of your industry. Find who your audience follows and pursue their social sponsorship with zeal. The effect of reaching your audience in this way can be staggering.

Pillar Six: Scarcity


Perceived scarcity of resources nearly always generates demand. This phenomenon is the reason why coupons have expiration dates, blow-out sales only last the weekend, and websites put visible ticking clocks on their discounted offers.

You don’t need to go as far as the ticking clock method, (this can look pretty spammy when done without tact,) but creating scarcity – even when there need not be any – is an incredibly effective purchase motivator. This can work especially well if you’re planning a conference or high-priced training event. Holding registration open for a brief number of days, or stating that there are only a limited number of seats available for the taking will cause those who were on the fence about attending to spring into action!