Press "Enter" to skip to content

Six Secrets of Online Influence

(I always check my stats! Here is a previous article that has “Topped the Charts” in hits last month!)

Actually, if your friends jumped off a bridge, you probably would go with them. Especially if you owed them one, had told them earlier you would do it, liked them, and saw any of them as a bridge-jumping expert. And definitely if the bridge was closing soon, with your time to jump running out.

So suggests Robert Cialdini in Influence, the classic book on persuasion first published in 1984 and republished this year. On a recent trip, I bagged a new copy and became immediately engrossed. Cialdini takes readers on a journey through the psychology of persuasion, demonstrating through facts and anecdotes how we’re easily manipulated—and easy to manipulate—through the application of six psychological “weapons of influence”: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity.

Reading the book, it dawned on me that we employ few of these weapons in interactive marketing. To help change that, here’s an overview of Cialdini’s weapons, followed by an example of how we can use them to profit online:


Ever wonder why charities give trinkets such as address labels and keychain identifiers? Because they know a seemingly simple yet astoundingly powerful fact: when you give people a gift, they’re far more likely to comply with future requests. More than twice as likely, some studies show. Why? We have a built-in need to balance social favours. It’s unconscious, reflexive and difficult to turn off, because it works so well in most circumstances. Takeaway: Give gifts to increase compliance.

Commitment and consistency

Beware that seemingly innocuous petition. When we commit ourselves to even the smallest position, our commitments can quickly snowball out of control. Why? Because we all have a strong drive for self-consistency. Telemarketers for charitable organizations know this. If they get you on the phone, they may first ask, “How are you doing today?” You might respond with a simple, “Great, thank you.” Prepare to be exploited. “I’m glad to hear that you’re doing great, because some people less fortunate could use your help.” Can you now say that you’re not doing so well? Takeaway: Get commitment to increase action.

Social proof

Imagine the power goes out in your neighbourhood while you’re driving home, causing traffic lights to flash only red. As you and other drivers approach them in this uncertain situation, what do you do? Of course, you all look to each other, trying to see what everyone else is doing. This behavior happens throughout your life, only rarely at such a conscious level. We constantly look to others for social proof, to know what’s correct behavior. The more unfamiliar or uncertain the situation, the more we’ll seek social proof. Women will know another example. Why are unfamiliar guys usually more attractive when they’re with other women, and usually less attractive when they’re alone in a corner? Bingo: social proof, because in the former case they’ve been validated. Takeaway: Use social proof to convince people of appropriate behavior towards your offering.


As a kid, my family had lots of Tupperware. But we generally weren’t big consumers. How did Tupperware do it? By exploiting the liking principle, which states that people are more inclined to do things for those they like. Tupperware party hosts invite friends, who buy product in large part because the host receives a percentage of the sales. So my mom wasn’t helping a faceless corporation; she was helping a good buddy. Takeway: Get people acting for friends rather than faceless corporations. (And, of course, learn to make people like you.)


Perhaps one of the most frightening weapons of influence is authority, because we’re programmed to obey. Most of us know about Stanley Milgram’s experiments, in which about 65% of subjects would shock someone to near death simply because a researcher demanded. You may be less familiar with numerous medical errors stemming from deference to doctor authority, including a case where a nurse placed ear drops in a patient’s anus because the physician had scripted “R ear,” which she misinterpreted as “rear” rather than “right ear,” and never questioned. This same deference applies in marketing. So much so that even those who just play doctors on TV actually, and oddly, gain authority in the public mind to provide medical advice. Takeaway: Have an authority—or in some cases even pseudo-authority—tell people what to do and they’ll be far more likely to do it.


After reading this far, how would you act if you knew this article would be permanently deleted from the web tomorrow? Would you be more or less likely to save it or print it? The scarcity principle suggests that you would be far more likely. (Assuming, of course, you found it valuable, and didn’t just read this far because you like my prose.) Furthermore, it notes that people are far more concerned about losing freedoms than gaining freedoms. For example, “Pay your bill or lose your telephone connection in three days” is far more likely to prompt action than “Pay your bill to continue your telephone connection past the next three days,” even though both essentially communicate the same information. Takeaway: Limit access to heighten demand.

So, how might we pull these influencers together for the interactive world?

Let’s imagine we were launching a new cell phone company. Perhaps one that wouldn’t charge more to call a friend than it would cost to drive and visit him in person. We could set up a website as follows, assuming a relatively unlimited budget:

  1. Reciprocation: Give all visitors a valuable download for simply visiting the site. Such as a $5 gift certificate at Tim Horton’s, since we all love coffee, and there are more Timmies in Canada than trees. The reciprocation principle suggests that visitors will now be far more likely to comply with your next request—particularly if you don’t make it a tit-for-tat request.
  2. Commitment and consistency: After visitors download their coupon, give them the option of completing a survey on their current cell phone provider. Say that this survey is simply to gain information for building a better cell phone company. But be sure to ask questions that get participants to admit negative aspects of their current service provider, and positive aspects of switching. For example, “How well does your cell phone provider listen to your needs?” And of course, “Would you consider another cell phone provider if the service offered better quality at more affordable prices?” Once visitors complete this survey, most of them will likely have committed to the identity of someone who is interested in a new cell phone provider. The commitment and consistency principle suggests that they are now ready to be snowballed into switching.
  3. Social proof: Is this a company you should switch to? Well, how many other people have switched? Give people an answer in the form of a regularly updated counter showing how many people have switched to date, along with selected testimonials. You can even use this counter in other media, such as billboards. Since the company is new, and therefore uncertain, the social proof principle suggests that this could be essential in spurring rapid switching, since it would show that others have done so successfully.
  4. Liking: After visitors have completed their survey, encourage them to tell their friends about the site. Tell them that for each friend who visits the site—even if they don’t complete the survey—they will receive an entry in a contest. Reiterate this in the email to their friend: “Give your buddy another chance to win Big Prize, and pick up a free $5 Tim Horton’s gift certificate just for stopping by! All it takes is a click. Take a spit-second to visit now!” The liking principle states that each friend will want to visit not only for the coupon, but also to help their friend win a prize.
  5. Authority: In order to drive home the point about saving money, the campaign should be associated with an authority figure in this area. While it might seem crazy, I would suggest a former federal auditor general, perhaps the well-known Sheila Fraser once her current stint is over. Why? If a former auditor general tells you, unequivocally, that you could save money by switching to the new company, you’d believe it. You could further drive this point home by offering a “Sheila Saver” calculator on the website to let people see just how much they could actually save. The authority principle, of course, states that Fraser will spur action, particularly since she doesn’t just play an auditor general on TV.
  6. Scarcity: Finally, we could motivate more rapid switching by providing a limited-time incentive, and positioning it as either a negative or positive. “Switch by September 30 and avoid provider-exchange fees” or “Switch by September 30 and receive a free Apple iPhone.”

Think it would it work? As your friend, I say: go ahead and try some of these ideas I’m giving away free. As an authority on the subject, Cialdini would likely agree. But be sure to act now, before someone else beats you to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *