6 Scientifically-Backed Ways to Persuade Your Customers

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All sales and marketing is an exercise in persuasion. Regardless of what, where, and how you sell, you’re essentially trying to persuade your customers to consume more.

Persuasion is built on some relatively simple fundamentals. Master these fundamentals and you won’t need any tricks to turn users into customers, and customers into fans.

Below, I’ll cover the six key principles of persuasion and how you can use them in your business.

The six principles of persuasion

It is impossible to talk about persuasion without mentioning Dr. Robert Cialdini and his bestselling book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.”

Cialdini, a professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, studied the underlying principles that govern persuasion:

  1. Reciprocity: We are more likely to follow someone if they’ve given us something in exchange first.
  2. Scarcity: The rarer a person or object is, the more desirable it becomes.
  3. Consistency and commitment: Once people commit to something, they are less likely to be persuaded by a competing offer.
  4. Social proof: How much other people like a person or object affects its desirability.
  5. Liking: People are more likely to adopt likable products, ideas, and people.
  6. Authority: People, businesses, or products in a position of authority are more desirable and persuasive.

In the next section, I’ll cover these principles in detail. I’ll share some studies and show you how you can use these principles to persuade your customers.

How to persuade your users

How well you can convince and convert your users will often depend on how effectively you use the persuasion principles outlined above. In fact, once you understand these principles, you’ll be surprised to see how frequently successful businesses use them in their marketing.

Let’s look at six ways you could put these principles of persuasion into practice.

1. Give something away (principle of reciprocity)

The principle of reciprocity states that “people repay in kind“—they do for you what you do for them. Beyond social psychology, this is also seen in economic theory.

Three ways to use reciprocity to persuade

If you want something from your customers (an email address, a referral, or even a sale), you must be willing to first give something away. The more value your customers derive from your actions, the more they’ll want to reciprocate.

You see examples of this principle at play in businesses every day. Grocery stores give away free food samples to get you to spend time (and eventually, money) at a kiosk. Charities frequently give away small gifts in exchange for donations.

In an example shared by Dr. Cialdini, the Disabled Veterans of America charity nearly doubled their number of donations by including free personalized address labels in its mailers.

Your business can put this principle to use in several ways, such as:

Give away free content:

Give your target audience an eBook, blog posts, or even software in exchange for something of value.

HubSpot Academy offers a perfect example of this strategy. As Seth Godin notes, by giving away high-value content for free, HubSpot is able to demand its audience’s attention in reciprocation.

HubSpot Academy contentHubSpot Academy offers a wealth of content, all of it free and much not even requiring an email address to view (Source)

Give away something free in exchange for a referral:

A common tactic in referral marketing is to offer customers a reward for their referrals. If customers are hesitant to “spam” their friends, you can sweeten the deal by including a reward for their friends as well.

For example, in its “Share the Love” referral promotion, ModCloth offers both the referrer and the recipient $10 off:

ModCloth referral program

ModCloth’s referral program offers two levels of reciprocity, giving discounts to the referrer as well as the referee (Source)

Ask for something tangible from loyal customers:

Remember—reciprocity is not altruism. There should be an expectation of reciprocal action from your customers as well.

If you’ve given away substantial value to your customers, ask for something in exchange. Highlight the value they’ve received to make the pitch more persuasive.

For example, The Guardian places this prompt at the bottom of its articles. Note how the copy asks for a favor of support instead of pitching it as a sale. Note the social proof in the form of a reader comment as well.

How to support The Guardian

The The Guardian pitches its paid offering as a way to support the organization (Source)

It’s important to note that what you’re asking for should be of similar or lower perceived value as what you’re giving away. You can’t ask for a $100/month Software-as-a-Service sale in exchange for an eBook, but you can ask for an email address.

2. Bring out your brand’s personality (principle of liking)

This principle—that you are more likely to be influenced by someone (or something) you actually like—is the persuasion principle that’s the most visible in everyday life. Whether it’s the slick salesman or the charming colleague, we’ve all been swayed by someone with a likable personality.

“Studies have shown that liking influences viewer response to advertising in several ways, suggesting that this measure is a valid predictor of sales performance,” researchers wrote in a Journal of Advertising Research paper.

Two ways to be more “likable” through digital media

Make your brand more approachable by infusing a dash of personality into your brand and you’ll reduce the resistance people have to your message.

There are many ways to do this, but here are two to get you started:

Use better copy:

Far too many businesses (particularly in the B2B space) hide their brand personality behind a layer of abstraction and business talk. When’s the last time a B2B landing page made you laugh or cry? What’s the last B2B landing page you even remember seeing? In the attempt to be inoffensive, these businesses end up being not memorable.

This doesn’t mean that you have to pummel the reader with bombast. Even a hint of personality in otherwise drab industries makes you stand out.

Case in point: First Round Capital. This startup accelerator ditches conventional startup-speak and uses a casual tone in its copy.

First Round First Round Capital’s “philosophy” page captures the company’s values with conversational copy (Source)

Give your business a human face:

Human beings are hardwired to recognize and remember faces. This is why your eyes are immediately drawn to faces on web pages.

Use this to your advantage by giving your business a more “human” face. Reassure your users that there are real humans behind your business.

Here’s a great example from creative agency Duncan Channon. The first thing you see on the website is the agency’s elaborately dressed employees (the single most important resource for an agency) in a screen-spanning image.

Duncan Channon websiteDuncan Channon’s website features a screen-spanning image of the agency’s employees (Source)

If you were a potential client, you’d land on the site and immediately think that there are real people behind the scenes (and not an army of contractors).

3. Show what others think about you (principle of social proof)

Social proof is the idea that people tend to choose things that already appear popular. The more complex the decision, the more people will look to confirmation from their peers before making a choice.

You’ve likely experienced this yourself. If a restaurant has a long line outside, you assume it will have good food. If a product has a large number of positive reviews, you’ll choose it over a lower-rated product.

One paper describes social proof as an “information cascade“—the decision of one person influences the decision of the next person, and so on.

To use the principle of social proof in your marketing, show users what others think about you and your products. Legitimize their choice by affirming your product’s quality, reliability, and effectiveness.

Two ways to show social proof

Social proof from authority figures:
When trusted authority figures—celebrities, domain experts, etc.—recommend a product, they transfer a part of their trust to the product. Think of the “Oprah Effect.” A mention on Oprah’s show often leads to an immediate sales bump for any product.

To use it, cultivate recommendations from authority figures and display them prominently on your site. You can do this in the form of reviews, testimonials, or even mentions.

For example, FitBit’s website has a section where it shares all its reviews in leading publications:

Buzz about FitBit

FitBit has a dedicated place to share positive reviews and press mentions in leading publications (Source)

“Wisdom of the crowds” social proof:

If a large number of people appear to like a product, your customers assume that it must be good. A single user might be wrong but a large group must be right.

You see this form of social proof most in online reviews. Note how Amazon prominently displays both the average rating (quality) and the number of reviews (quantity) for all its products.

Amazon lists both the rating score (out of 5) and the total number of reviews prominently on each product page (Source)

Another way to use this tactic is to gather user-generated content and show it on product pages. For example, Ostrich Pillow shows pictures shared by its customers using the #OstrichPillow hashtag.

Ostrich Pillow shows pictures of its products in actual use by its customers on its homepage (Source)

The more types of social proof you can use—testimonials, reviews, ratings—the better.

4. Share your credentials and expertise (principle of authority)

If you were at a concert and a man dressed in a security officer’s uniform asked you to step aside, would you obey him?

The answer is likely yes. We look for cues of authority—uniforms, authoritative bearing, etc.—and cede to people who have them. Someone with the right credentials, training, or title must be right—or so we assume.

Authority springs from a number of things, but as this paper notes, its most important components are:

  • Legitimacy of the authority figure
  • Demonstrated expertise in relation to the problem
  • Clarity of instruction

Two ways to use these authority indicators on your website

Show your credentials and certificates:
Authority is a transferable trait, i.e. it can be transferred from one authoritative institution to another. When a doctor displays his certificates from a respected university, he is doing exactly that.

NewEgg has a dedicated page for sharing all its awards, certifications and rankings:

NewEgg builds credibility and authority by showing customers its rankings and awards from authoritative institutions (Source)

Create thought leadership and expert-focused content:

As mentioned above, you are more likely to trust and follow someone with strong domain knowledge. Use this to your advantage by creating content that demonstrates your expertise.

This can be through thought leadership or content that covers advanced-level topics. Share them on your blog and social media to show readers that you truly understand your industry.

Capterra’s blogs are a great example of this tactic.

Capterra's blog directoryCapterra shows off its authority in different business verticals by creating highly-focused thought leadership content (Source)

We do something similar at Workamajig when we share content on topics as broad as project management or as narrow as team building activities. The goal is to show readers that we understand their problems.

5. Get users to perform small actions (principle of commitment and consistency)

People like to be internally consistent. If they’ve committed to a belief, action or idea, they’d want to follow through with it even if there are alternatives available. To not do so would be to admit that your original belief or action was wrong.

This, in turn, influences how you make decisions. Decision theory states that people make decisions based on consistent rules arising from past experience, principles, and training/education.

Get users to commit to a small choice:
Using this principle to persuade your users essentially involves getting them to commit to a minor action. There’s a sunk cost fallacy at play here. If a user has already committed to a small action (say, subscribing to an email newsletter), he/she will be more likely to follow through to the next action step.

A great example of this can be seen in the choice-based opt-in forms you see on so many websites. By getting users to commit to a small choice—“Yes, I want the newsletter!”—you increase the chance of them following through to actually filling out the form.

Here’s an example from Social Triggers:

Visitors to SocialTriggers.com are treated to a pop-up where they have to make an explicit choice not to receive a free e-book (Source)

Think of ways you can get users to commit to experiencing your brand or products. Perhaps you can give out free samples, or make them sign-up for a free e-book.

Gradually escalate their commitment in terms of the “ask.” Start off by getting them to sign up for a newsletter, then ask them to attend a webinar before finally asking for a sale.

6. Make your products harder to get (principle of scarcity)

This persuasion principle is easy enough to understand: the more scarce something is, the more desirable it becomes.

Does this mean anything becomes more valuable when its supply is limited?

Not always. Your users’ level of involvement in the purchase decision impacts how they perceive scarcity. “Fans” and passionate users are more likely to see limited availability as a sign of value, while casual users will turn to an alternative choice.

As this study of wine buyers concludes:

“Product scarcity in the store can signal that the quality of a wine is high, either because the product is deemed exclusive or because the product is deemed popular… scarcity has little or no effect when consumers are less involved with the product category wine,” researchers write.

Thus, if you’re selling to passionate consumers or if your users are heavily involved in the decision making, you can use this principle to persuade your users.

Hotel and flight booking sites use this principle extensively. Booking.com shows customers when a property is in high demand and about to sell out:

Booking.com highlights scarcity by showing the current demand for available rooms (Source)

Use this principle carefully. Constantly limiting availability, especially for products without passionate consumers, can actually impact sales negatively.

How do you use persuasion in your sales and marketing?

Every business is essentially in the business of persuasion. It doesn’t matter what you sell, your ultimate goal is to persuade people to buy from you.

To master persuasion, you have to first understand its six underlying principlessocial proof, reciprocity, likability, authority, scarcity, and consistency. As you saw above, these principles have clear applications in the way you market your products and services.

Try using the tactics I shared above in your marketing. You don’t have to use them all; just start by adding some social proof to your website and doing something nice for your customers. Analyze the results and change your tactics accordingly.

How do you use persuasion in your sales and marketing? Share your insights in the comments below!

And if you want to learn more about how to leverage psychological findings in business, check these posts out next:

Looking for Marketing Automation software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Marketing Automation software solutions.

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About the Author


Jeff Pash

Jeff is a marketer at Workamajig where he helps creative agencies market and manage their businesses better. He writes about a range of topics ranging from the science of productivity to company culture.



Very interesting!

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