The 6 Principles of Influence (And How to Boost Conversions)

In 1984, Dr. Robert Cialdini wrote a book on the art of persuasion and how it relates to sales. Titled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, the book went on to sell over two million copies and be translated into over two dozen different languages. 

While the book ends on a note of the personal computer’s potential to push users towards faster decision-making, its advice remains salient even in the digital era and the days of eCommerce, landing pages, CRMs, CROs, bounce rates, and Amazon. 

The gist of the book can be crystalized in its six primary principles of influence – each of these six remains relevant in the field of modern digital marketing, and learning to harness all of them can help you improve your conversion rates and gain better revenue. 

A Primer on the 6 Principles and Conversion Optimization

First, let’s understand what conversion is in the context of modern digital marketing. Let’s say you sell a product online. You have a website that sells this product. Let’s say a user comes around and visits your website for the first time. Maybe they snoop around and look through your product pages. But they don’t buy anything. They do, however, sign up for your newsletter. That’s a micro-conversion

Let’s say that you published an interesting blog, and the email they received about it helped remind them of your business. They visit again, only this time, they finally make a purchase. You’ve now made a macro-conversion.

Meanwhile, you can use this per-user data to establish that you’ve had a 50 percent conversion rate for this unique visitor – two sessions, one purchase. In the grand scheme of things, you can extrapolate that information to determine your actual conversion rate – a hundred purchases out of a thousand user sessions means a 10 percent conversion rate. 

Optimizing your conversion rate simply means getting more sales per visit. Certain best practices help improve conversion rates. For example, a good landing page will often lead potential users to the item they were looking for, or at least improve the rate at which you achieve a micro-conversion, like a newsletter subscription, to later net a macro-conversion. 

There are hundreds of volumes written on the art of improving conversion rates online, yet most of the advice you’ll find ultimately boils down to the same six principles that Dr. Cialdini mentioned in his 1984 bestseller. 

As marketers, we work in the art of persuasion, and these six principles are critical to utilize as much as possible. If you haven’t heard your agency mention these in their strategy, you should consider if they know what they’re doing.

- Tyson Crandall, COO

1. Reciprocity

To give a little context, Dr. Cialdini is a social psychologist. This means that his advice on influence in the context of business, sales, and marketing stems from his experience researching human behavior, both as individuals and within a group. 

He begins his list of principles by bridging the gap between tribes and civilizations throughout human history through the primal urge within us all to fulfill social obligations and settle our debts.

According to Dr. Cialdini, reciprocity is the first principle because if we give a little, we are much more likely to get a lot back. Reciprocity is effective for multiple reasons. First, if it appears to us that we’ve been given special treatment – anything from inordinate attention to a personal gift – we feel compelled to reciprocate and return the favor in kind. In marketing, this relates to the age-old trick of providing something for free to entice people to make a purchase later. 

Some examples are much more effective than others. A coupon for a significant discount on your first purchase might encourage users to take that plunge, thinking they might only need one thing. A free sample at the grocery store might convince someone to take a whole bottle. And so on. 

Online, the principle of reciprocity can be applied to information, as well as discounts. First-time buyers might receive a better deal. Or they might feel compelled to buy from you as a long-term reader or viewer of your free content.

2. Commitment

Where reciprocity centers on the human need to reduce the imbalance of power between two people when a debt is created, commitment centers on the idea that a person’s self-image must maintain consistency between beliefs and actions. There are multiple facets to this principle.  

If we convince ourselves to buy one item in a set, then the urge to buy the whole set grows stronger. Committing to something makes us more likely to go through with the rest of the process. Marketing campaigns that capitalize on this feeling include those that utilize the mailing list not just as a way to get information out to a user but to help them identify as a customer, as part of the group, or as a member of an exclusive club. 

Second, the idea that we construct our self-image, we feel the need to confirm that self-image with our actions, including our purchases and allegiances. If you identify as a coffee snob, you might feel obligated to own certain coffee-making tools and accessories. 

3. Social Proof

The internet has validated this principle of influence more than nearly any other. The principle of social proof centers around the idea that popular things are popular for a reason, usually because they’re good. In other words, it speaks to our own inner urge toward conformity. 

Sure, hipsters exist. But even they are compelled by the popularity of the anti-mainstream and the image of pushing against the wave as an aesthetic. Punk can and has been commodified, time and time again, and demonstrates the power of social proof in a different way.

Capitalizing on this principle is simple. Reviews, recommendations, product “likes”, sorting by Most Popular, a Trending tab on your products or content, and so on and so forth. There are countless ways to drive sales by showing people what’s in, and what’s hot. 

4. Authority

We feel compelled to buy into things that have certain names attached to them. The power of a name is undeniable, as demonstrated time and time again in fashion and beauty industries. 

And as we live in the golden age of digital influencers, there’s no better time to demonstrate just how overwhelmingly profitable the principle of authority can be. A simple way to capitalize on this principle to improve your conversion rates is to partner with a popular influencer in your niche. 

5. Liking

Social proof is about conforming to the opinions of the majority. Authority is about conforming to the opinions of an influential figure. The principle of liking, however, is about recognizing superficial similarities in the person we’re being influenced by – or in digital marketing terms, being likable. 

This is where transparency is important. People may be more likely to purchase something from you when they’ve got a name, face, and story to attach to you. A good About Us page can help you establish your personal mission and vision and your business and build a personal rapport with the user through a simple piece of content. 

6. Scarcity

Perhaps the most famous principle is the final one: scarcity, or the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) in more modern parlance. FOMO is an overwhelming force in marketing and sales and one that continues to work despite the bad rap it’s gotten over time. People don’t like to be held hostage, and they really don’t like when scarcity is used artificially (in fact, that practice can backfire tremendously). 

But when used right, scarcity is a powerful motivator for conversions. Classic examples of scarcity in digital marketing include limited-time offers, limited edition products, annual or seasonal waves of goods and merchandise, limited slots on teaching or consulting opportunities, and so on. 

The Seventh Principle

Dr. Cialdini went into great detail on all six principles nearly forty years ago, but he’s written many books since. In one of his more recent publications, Pre-suasion, he continued elaborating on his principles by introducing a seventh one, perhaps more relevant in today’s hyper-connected online world than ever before. That is the principle of unity

Forums, message boards, chatrooms, and social media have led to the creation and proliferation of thousands of small, yet incredibly devoted and dedicated communities throughout the Internet. 

While the concept of the in-group versus the out-group is ancient, perhaps even primal, the fragmentation of the Internet has made it more important than ever for marketers to capitalize on the different in-groups that they may be catering to. 

This means theming your messaging and marketing more heavily around inside jokes, dropping greater benefits for long-term loyal customers, and incentivizing making your product a part of the customer’s personal identity, as just a few simple examples. 

Dr. Cialdini’s principles of persuasion are a great start to understanding the motivation behind each of the different ways in which conversion rates can be optimized. However, there are still hundreds of specific techniques to review before implementing them for your business. Some work best for certain industries and business models and less for others. If you want to learn more about creating a tailored conversion optimization plan for your business, contact us today. 

Developing influence can require time and energy in addition to running your business. If you’d like to strive for the best results, consider working with a professional team of digital marketers specializing in social media marketing and reputation management.

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