The Psychology of Persuasion

Any good marketer worth their salt will develop a campaign that gives you mind-blowing conversions. In our line of work, most of the campaigns involve building online armies of activists. To assemble that army, we need to compel people to join the cause—we need them to convert. That’s why our conversion rate and the cost of those conversions is one of the most important metrics I look at when we’re running campaigns. The proof is in the pudding: if our conversion rates suck, our campaign sucks. It’s that simple. And if conversion costs are too high, we’re not running the most effective campaign possible. We also pay attention to conversion rates because in reality, conversion rates are a measure of persuasion. It’s a measure of influence.

How the brain works

So, what does it take to run a persuasive campaign? It takes a bit of psychology. To persuade someone, we need to know how the brain works—how people think and feel. Thankfully for us, there is a huge library of academic research to pull from to analyze the science of persuasion. Here’s what we know.

1. We’re naturally cynical

Our cynicism starts at a young age. We learn as early as the age of 4 that we cannot take what someone says at face value and we need to analyze the speaker’s own interests to evaluate the validity of their claims. In fact, young children are less likely than adults to give people the benefit of the doubt. Despite conventional thinking, we actually get less cynical as we age. Imagine what grumpy old men were like as kids!

What it means

Lead with motive and be completely transparent about it. It’s pretty tough to BS people these days, so don’t bother. Our messaging needs to be as raw and as honest as possible. We must acknowledge why people might be cynical with us and our motives head on. By doing so, we may even get the benefit of the doubt.

2. We coalesce in tribes

We all live in our own bubbles to some degree, and embrace the echo chamber, exposing us to the false-consensus effect. We selectively expose ourselves to opinions that align with ours. We start to assume everyone else shares the same opinion, and with time, we begin to think that the collective opinion of our tribe matches that of the larger population. With time, It’s tough for us to respond positively to a dissenting view. When we see it, we assume the person disagreeing with us is defective, if not a complete idiot.

What it means

Realistically, our campaign can’t reach every tribe, but we can certainly speak each tribe’s language and use it to get our message across in a persuasive manner. We wouldn’t use Parisien French when trying to persuade people who have spent their entire life in Saguenay, for instance. We wouldn’t talk about carbon taxes when speaking to oil workers in Alberta. We need to mind our tribes.

3. We can distort reality

Whether people are emotional or logical thinkers makes a difference. The Amplification Hypothesis states that displaying certainty about an opinion will harden that opinion and have a stronger chance of persuading. If we express uncertainty, we achieve the opposite effect. The type of message we use also plays a role in how we harden or soften an attitude. Using a logical (cognitive) argument on someone who is emotional (emotive) will have little impact. The reverse also holds true. If you want to impact an emotional person, use emotive arguments. If the person is a logical thinker, use a cognitive attack.

What it means

In practical terms, this means that if we want to persuade someone, we need to align our projected attitude with theirs. If we’re not aligned, we’ll only cause friction and fail to persuade. That’s why no one message fits all. When communicating to our target audiences, we need to use the most precise and affirmative message, targeted specifically to the right group. If we miss the mark, we’ll only create resistance.

4. We can move the masses even if we’re in the minority

It might be tough to admit it, but humans easily go along to get along. According to Conversion Theory, ‘in groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their own cause.’ Majority members may be going along because it’s just easier, or they don’t see a legitimate alternative. There are at least four factors that give the minority its power:

  • Consistency: never wavering from your message.
  • Confidence: knowing you’re right.
  • Unbiased: being fair and reasonable.
  • Resistance: holding true to your convictions in the face of opposing social pressure.

What it means

We have no chance of winning if we’re not fair and reasonable. Even if we’re in the minority (the losing side of the campaign), we need to develop clear messaging that positions our side as the voice of reason. It might not win the day instantly, but a methodic and measured execution of this strategy will undermine the opposition. When we’re the target of minority attacks, we need to mobilize with lightning speed to expose the minority’s methods and verbalize their message.

5. We can temporarily speed up the persuasion process

Academics call this ‘priming.’ Priming involves putting out a stimulus that influences in the immediate-term. With this method, we introduce new thoughts or bring old ones to the surface as a reminder, offering a poignant argument that drowns out other arguments, even if for a limited window of time. For example, researchers Bargh and Pietromonaco showed some people neutral words and hostile words to others, briefly on a computer screen. Both groups were then asked to assess a character with ‘ambiguous’ behaviour. The group primed with hostile words interpreted this character’s behaviour as being more hostile. It’s the same effect that has us noticing other cars just like the one we bought.

What it means

Used ethically, we can subtly influence a desired outcome. Subtlety is critical—obvious priming will cause the adverse reaction. But if we have a relevant story or anecdote to point to when making our case, it may open up the mind to our argument. We have to remember, however, that priming is a temporary device. To persuade for the long-term, we need to use the other methods I’ve outlined in this post.

As campaigners, we need to provide people with value. We can ask, ask, ask without giving something in return. Some of the Internet’s top solopreneurs have mastered this skill, always providing a free download or content upgrade before asking for someone’s email address. While that’s just one practical implementation, the opportunities are endless. We need to pause and think about what we can give our supporters or consumers in return for their favour.

6. We feel a duty to return favours

Except for that one self-absorbed individual in your life (and if you don’t have one, it might be time to look in the mirror), we all live and die by this social norm. If someone gives something to me, or helps me out in any way, I feel obligated to return the favour. The Reciprocity Norm is so powerful that the initial giver can ask for something in return without waiting for me to offer it voluntarily, or ask for more than was given. How deep is this compulsion? Researchers Kunz and Woolcott sent Christmas cards to a random list of people they pulled from a phone book. All strangers. Most recipients sent a card back! Many continued to send cards years after the fact.

7. We want want few have

We really want to keep up with the Jones’. It’s that simple. It’s part of a convoluted process we use to ‘control our world.’ Choice is freedom, and if what we desire becomes scarce, we’ll regret not acquiring it, which only makes us desire it even more. And if we know others desire the same thing, our own desires increase. It’s a vicious cycle. So, the next time you’re browsing through your favourite retail store and it’s advertising a big sale that ‘ends today,’ you know it’s making use of the Scarcity Principle. How deep is this instinct? Researcher Stephen Worcel offered subjects cookies in a jar. One jar had ten cookies; the other had two. Guess which one subjects preferred? Yep, the cookies from the jar with only two cookies in it, even though they were the same cookies. We just can’t help ourselves.

What it means

This is another tactic some of the Internet’s top marketers have mastered. They’ll often sell a webinar, offering customers a very limited amount of time to join (e.g. 48 hours). It’s a play on the ‘you don’t want to miss this opportunity of a lifetime’ principle. This approach might not be appropriate in all circumstances, but when appropriate, it can be a powerful way to yield influence.

8. We can be influenced by low-credibility sources

This is a media relations tactic that Ryan Holiday mastered and outlined in great detail in his must-read book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. The basic approach is this: get a story placed in a blog that doesn’t have the same journalistic standards as the major news outlets. The key is to target blogs that these same news outlets get their story ideas from. The news outlets then pick up and build on the story, resulting in your story running in news outlets with reputable names and large readerships. It’s a play on the Sleeper Effect. When the message gets separated from its low-credibility source, the message may gain more credibility.

What it means

The message is the medium. Where and when appropriate, we need to make the message more impactful—even more dramatic—than the vehicle being used to deliver that message. A good story is a good story, regardless of where it gets reported first. Our campaign needs a compelling story; with it, our campaign will resonate.

9. We have a lot to learn from politicians

Yale University conducted multi-year, multi-project research into persuasive communications and found that the source of the communication (the speaker) should be credible and attractive to the audience. The message should not appear to be designed to persuade and should in fact present two-sided arguments (refuting the ‘wrong’ argument).

What it means

You might shudder at the thought, but we can learn a lot by watching how politicians communicate. The good ones look good, talk through their opponents’ arguments, even acknowledging that their opponents’ arguments may seem reasonable before poking holes in their arguments. It’s a fight to present oneself as the most common-sense candidate of the lot. I know it’s convenient for me to argue this as a former political staffer, working at a firm comprised mostly of former political staffers (of all stripes), but when you’re in the business of building a brand in the space of months, or at most a couple years, you need to be persuasive in everything you do and say. You may not like politics, or politicians for that matter, but don’t be so quick to dismiss the value this industry has in teaching us how to run persuasion campaigns.

10. And yes, sadly, humans can persuade with manipulation and deceit

This is one of the worst ways to run a campaign, but it’s worth talking about because it is one instinctual method used by humans since the beginning of time. It seems to be the method used by those who have nefarious motives. And even though they always get caught, it doesn’t seem to stop them. Someone using this method to persuade is deliberately breaking at least one of these four conversational maxims:

  • Quantity: The information presented will be full and free of omission.
  • Quality: The information will be correct (i.e. the truth).
  • Relation: The information will be relevant to the debate at hand.
  • Manner: The information will be presented in a clear and easily understandable fashion.

Yikes. It’s no wonder people are naturally cynical about government. How many governments are guilty of violating the above maxims? Ugh, let’s not answer that question. Moving on!

What it means

Let’s remember our first point – we’re all naturally cynical. I’d wager we’re more cynical than ever before. It’s in our blood to question what we’re told, especially if what we’re being told is causing us to change our mind. We want to corroborate evidence. We can detect manipulation in body language. The lesson here is pretty obvious: under no circumstances should we ever use this method to shift public opinion. Sure, we can try, and we might experience success with it, but eventually, it will blow up in our face. There are so many different ways to persuade people in a transparent and ethical manner. Stick to those, and avoid this method altogether.

Getting Conversions

So we know how the brain works. But how does this affect our conversion rates? Well, to pull from Roger Dooley of Neuromarketing, we can look to the playground to help us understand how to increase our conversions. Roger developed the concept of the Persuasion Slide.