The 6 principles of persuasion — and how to apply them to your website content
If any aspect of your website involves persuading visitors to take action, having a basic grasp of the psychology of influence and how to apply it in your copy and content, is pretty important.
Though we might not often stop to think about it (maybe it even makes us a tad uncomfortable to acknowledge it), we’re all constantly under the influence of our surroundings.
Every day, we make decisions based on incoming stimuli — and vice versa, one way or another our words and actions shape the experiences of others.
The art of persuasive writing and design for the web, is rooted in the application of certain psychological principles that drive many of our emotional responses and actions, in order to create compelling user experiences.
If you’re truly serious about writing copy that resonates and elicits action, you need to know how to apply these ‘psychological tools’ on your website, and beyond.
And one one of the best starting points, is Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion.
The 6 principles of persuasion
In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion Influence, Cialdini boils down the key psychological ‘tools’ we most commonly use to influence and persuade each other to take particular courses of action. They are:
- Reciprocation: the rule of give and take
- Commitment and consistency: getting a foot in the door
- Social proof: people like us, do things like this
- Liking: it’s easier to say ‘yes’ to someone that you like
- Authority: people trust experts (and celebrities)
- Scarcity: we want what we can’t have
Let’s take a closer look at each principle, and consider how they can be applied to your own website content….
Principle of persuasion #1: Reciprocation
“We are obligated to give back to others, the form of behavior that they have first given to us. Essentially thou shall not take without giving in return. There’s not a single human culture that fails to train its members in this rule.”
– Robert Cialdini
We’re all conditioned to follow the rule of “give and take”. For example, if a passing stranger says “hello” to us, though it may initially take us by surprise, we feel compelled to return the greeting. That’s basic social etiquette, right?
Cialidini provides a larger scale example to drive this point home. In 1974, Phillip Kunz, a sociologist at Brigham Young University, sent out 600 Christmas cards. The key detail: they were all complete strangers, picked out at random from local directories.
And yet, Kunz received over 200 mostly enthusiastic and thankful Christmas cards, in return.
Why did so many people respond to a complete stranger? In short, the rule of reciprocation.
How to apply the rule of reciprocation: be generous
If we dedicate our digital channels to generously helping people, rather than using them as sales pitch machines, we cement our standing as a ‘giver’ in the eyes of those we seek to reach.
Which inevitably, over time, builds a sense of obligation in the recipient, to eventually return the favour.
Offline, brands have traditionally applied the rule of reciprocation in the form of freebies and giveaways — physical product samples, discounts, and prize draws etc.. It’s a transactional, salesy approach, but it incontrovertibly gets ‘quick-win’ results.
But the digital age offers a different approach to triggering reciprocation. It’s more of a slow-burning strategy — but it delivers bigger results in the long-term.
You see, now that we all have a virtual printing press on our desks and in our pockets, content itself is an effective ‘currency’ of value exchange.
In other words, the content we publish on our websites, our blogs, and social media, has the power to enrich people with knowledge and skills, to provide answers to questions, and to outline solutions to their problems.
How do we feel when someone provides us with genuinely useful advice or goes above and beyond to guide us through a challenge? We feel a debt of gratitude to that person.
Be that person: the advice giver, the problem solver. Be generous.
Principle of persuasion #2: Commitment and consistency
“We have a desire to be, or appear to be, consistent with what we have already done.”
– Robert Cialdini
Once we commit to something, we’re far more likely to stick with it. Why? Because we want to be seen as consistent.
Psychologically, consistency in our commitments is how we align our external behaviours with our inner beliefs and self-image — and vice versa, breaking a consistent pattern of commitment is something we’re reluctant to do, as it threatens that self-image.
Put another way, consistency is signal of strength in our convictions. It’s for this reason that we’d all (coyly) admit to situations where we’d prefer to post-rationalise a decision that may not have been all that great overall… in order to avoid the indignity of admitting to an error and risk being seen as inconsistent or unpredictable.
How to apply the rule of commitment and consistency: build subscribers
Building a list of subscribers has such power in it. Here’s why:
A list of subscribers is a series of small commitments, paving the way to larger ones.
In the majority of cases, there is absolutely zero chance that giving ‘the big sell’ to a new website or blog visitor is going to convince them to buy your product or to donate to your cause.
But asking someone to sign up for your email newsletter to receive useful, usable content in return? That’s a more realistic ask (and acts as a vehicle for reciprocation). And what you have then, is a starting point.
In other words: a foot in the door.
When someone subscribes to your newsletter or blog updates, they have made a significant commitment (no matter how seemingly small) to being interested in you.
And when someone has expressed a stated interest in what you have to say — if they’re going to remain consistent to that commitment, they’re going to be receptive to what you have to offer, too.
Principle of persuasion #3: Social Proof
(A) means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct.
– Robert Cialdini
We’re a social bunch, human beings. Adhereing to what we perceive as the norms of ‘our tribe’, is hardwired into our nature.
Practically speaking, this means that if we’re uncertain how to act, we take our cue from those around us. Or as Seth Godin sums up: People like us, do things like this.
In Influence, Cialdini cites another infamous social experiment to demonstrate the power of this instinct. Experimenters planted a participant in a crowded public setting and instructed them to suddenly and ostentatiously fix their gaze up into the sky. Steadily, a growing number of bystanders would join them, looking up to see what the others were staring at. In some instances, huge crowds would form driven by the behavioural cues of others… but all looking at nothing in particular.
Social proof in action.
How to apply the rule of social proof: share testimonials and case studies
You can craft the sharpest messaging and value propositions around your products and services — but nothing is more powerful than letting your customers or supporters do the talking for you.
This is why collecting testimonials and case studies is so powerful.
Publishing compelling stories about your brand, told through the eyes and straight from the mouths of your audience, is the surest way to instill prospective customers with the conviction: people like me, do things like this.
Principle of persuasion #4: Liking
Few people would be surprised to learn that, as a rule, we most prefer to say yes to the requests of someone we know and like.
– Robert Cialdini
The fact is, more often than not we end up committing to a particular product, not because we think it’s the best in the market — but simply because we find the brand, and the people associated, attractive and likeable.
Cialdini uses the example of “Tupperware parties” to demonstrate the rule of liking. These were basically social get-togethers (engineered by a Tupperware sales rep, of course) used as an opportunity for friends and neighbours to share, discuss and endorse Tupperware products.
People were far more likely to buy the product if its virtues were being communicated between familiar and friendly faces (rather than by an unfamiliar sales rep).
How to apply the rule of liking: grow fans — and a personality
The way you look, the way you communicate and act, and what others say about you, all play a part in whether or not people like you.
The same is true with brands. An organisation becomes liked due to a few factors.
- you scrub up nicely: a distinctive visual brand identity, translated into a good-looking website and attractive content assets
- you sound human: an authentic brand tone and voice that your prospective customers/donors/supporters relate to and identify themselves with.
- you have active fans who say good things about you (either organically via social media, or more formally via referral programs).
In the digital age, acting like a faceless corporation doesn’t really cut it, in the eyes of your audience.
How your brand looks, behaves, and acts, is key. Your content shapes those things.
Principle of persuasion #5: Authority
Follow an expert
Ultimately, selling a product, getting subscribers, or receiving donations, is all about building up trust. And generating authority around your ask, is a lead-in to that.
Any conscientious person has a deep-seated sense of duty to authority. In fact, people will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts. The Milgram experiment famously demonstrated this theory.
And authority is built by demonstrating professional credentials and expertise.
In other words, convincing our audiences that we represent a safe pair of hands, is half of the job of convincing them to take any affirmative action in relation to our products and services.
How to apply the rule of authority: build badges of trust
Badges of trust come in a few common forms:
- Endorsements: which expert voices have good things to say about you?
- Success stories: case studies and testimonials speak for your product or services better than you ever could yourself
- Credentials: are there any titles, awards, or achievements you can share on your site?
- Origins: are there elements of the brand’s history that add weight to its public standing? E.g. ‘We were started by an ex co-founder of Twitter’ is instantly going to give that company serious perception props (if it’s true)
- Data: do you have statistical evidence to back up the quality and performance of your products? E.g. Scientific reports, customer satisfaction data etc.
Principle of persuasion #6: Scarcity
The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.
– G. K. Chesterton
People will desire something more if it’s perceived as less available — either now, or in the future. This is the principle of scarcity.
If a customer has the choice between definitely getting something now, or only possibly getting it in the future, they’ll often opt for the latter.
Tactics such as this heighten anxiety over the possibility of missing out and therefore generate a sense of urgency to act as soon as possible.
How to apply the rule of scarcity: limit numbers or time
This tactic is pretty simple, and is particularly relevant to those running ecommerce sites. It breaks down into two variations.
Option one: limit numbers. The basic principle behind the ‘Only x items left’, and ‘Hurry, while stocks last’ tactics.
Option two: limit time. The basic principle behind the ‘Flash sale’, and ‘For a limited time only’ tactics.
Copywriter and content strategist
Joseph supports organisations to achieve their business goals and serve customer needs — by publishing clear, purposeful, and value-adding content, through:
- copywriting for the web
- web content optimisation
- content and UX strategy consultancy