Pre-Suasion: A Marketer’s Way to Influence, with Dr. Robert Cialdini

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

Marketing. It’s the art of influencing, persuading and gently nudging people towards your product or services. To learn the science behind it, I’ve had a chat with the grand master of influence and persuasion – Dr. Robert Cialdini.

Have a listen to the interview on iTunes, SoundCloud or simply keep reading for a summary of our chat.

What took you so long to write this book Pre-Suasion, which is the prequel to Influence?

Well, a long time ago I did write Influence and it focused on what to put inside a message to move people in our direction. And it proved to be so successful that I didn’t want to just plant a set of bushes around the tree that Influence had become, I wanted to wait until I had the seed for another tree. And that took me a long time before the idea for Pre-Suasion came along, which is about the process of arranging your audience to be sympathetic to your message before they encounter it.

What are privileged moments and how can marketers take full advantage of these?

Privileged moments are the moments that we create immediately before we present an idea or proposal or recommendation so that people are attuned to that idea, recommendation, or proposal before they ever encounter it. And we do that by creating a mindset in them that is consistent with the goal of our message.

Here was a study that I like to talk about. It was done by some marketing researchers who walked up to individuals and asked them to participate in a marketing survey for no compensation, only 29% of them agreed to participate under those circumstances.

But if the researcher first asked a pre-suasive question, “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?,” people thought for a moment and almost all of them said “yes.” Then the research said, “Well, could you help us with our marketing survey?”

And now 77% agreed. So you can go from 29% to 77% assent, right? By changing the state of mind that people were in before you asked the question. Put them in mind of their helpfulness and they want to be helpful as a consequence, they want to be consistent with that view of themselves that you’ve now raised to consciousness.

Why would online photographs of fluffy clouds help to sell furniture?

This has to do with the way that we’ve moved recently into digital marketing, e-commerce, and so on. Of course someone who wants to use a pre-suasive moment to move people in a direction of their yet to be delivered message, right? Should recognize that the first thing a visitor sees to a website is the landing page, and probably the background images on that landing page. There was a study done in which an online furniture store sent half of its visitors, just as a test, to a landing page with the background wallpaper depicting fluffy clouds.

They sent the other half to a landing page with background wallpaper depicting coins, money. Those who saw the fluffy clouds in the background then rated comfort as the most important feature in selecting a piece of furniture, a sofa for example, right? They then searched the site for comfort-related features and ultimately preferred to purchase comfortable furniture. Those who were sent to the landing site with coins rated price as the most important feature, searched for cost-related aspects of the furniture, and preferred to purchase inexpensive furniture.

So what occurred first before they were ever even introduced to the material and the details of the offerings themselves was that people were put in a mindset either for comfort or for cost that directed them subsequently into the material, caused them to search in a biased way through it, and become more inclined toward that initial concept that was installed in their mind pre-suasively at the very beginning of their contact with the site. Now there’s one other thing that’s interesting about that. No one recognized that they were influenced by the coins or the clouds. They said, “Of course not, I decide based on my own preferences.”

If priming is so important, should your USP be the first thing to read when people visit your website?

It should be. Because we’ve just detailed in that clouds or coins study that that then channels their attention in a way subsequent that allows the rest of the site, right? To present its strongest elements. So you can focus people on a particular idea that may be your strength. Is your strength comfort? Is your strength cost? You can focus people on that material in a way that will make them recognize and process that information more quickly more deeply.

Why can our perception of what’s important be so easily shifted?

So let me just say generally what this process is suggesting is if a communicator shifts a person’s attention to a particular factor, that person sees that factor as more important than before because they are paying attention to it. Here’s the logic. Normally what we do is to direct our attention to the most important factors, the most important features in our environment. That’s what we typically do. So when we see ourselves paying attention to a factor, we assume that it must warrant that attention, it must deserve that attention. Because normally when we attend to something, it’s to an important feature.

We make the mistake of assuming that that’s always the case. Because the communicator can send us to a particular factor and focus our attention there for reasons that have nothing to do with the merits of that thing. They can do it by illuminating some aspect of that factor that draws our attention. Distinctive colors, for example, will do that. Placement on a shelf can do that.

There’s a study that shows that if you walk into a supermarket and there are three brands arrayed on the shelf, you will pay attention to the one in the center, and as a consequence be more likely to purchase the brand that’s in the center. That’s why brands spend so much money to secure particular shelf space in supermarkets. They know that particular placement directs attention, and attention implies importance, and people then buy in a way that’s congruent with the perceived importance of that brand.

What did the U.S. government do during the Iraq war with this technique?

There was something called the embedded reporter program. They put news journalists in the same settings to live with, to eat with, to travel with soldiers. And the consequence was those embedded reporters got the majority of front-page space on newspapers around the world, right? Because they were so close to the soldiers and to the soldiering that was going on. Which caused their reportage to be about the conduct of the war rather than the justification for the war in Iraq.

Why the U.S. was there was not the focus of their attention, but their attention was on who are these people I’m with, where are they eating, how long are they sleeping, how are they performing in battle. So it was about the operation of the war, which the U.S. actually did fairly well, not the rationale for being there in the first place. Remember the rationale was weapons of mass destruction?

That never appeared. It appeared in 2% of the reports of the embedded reporters. Whereas stories about soldiers and soldiering appeared in 71% of their soldiers. So this was where you wanted reporters focusing, and then readers focusing on their reports on this particular aspect. What was salient, what was prominent in attention was something that was a side effect of the decision to invade. It was a consequence, not the decision itself, which had real weaknesses. And what the U.S. government did was deflect attention from the weaknesses onto the strengths.

What triggers of pre-suasive moments are most effective?

Well, you have three kinds of triggers of pre-suasive moments. There are the words you can say. So for example, we gave one example of that, “Are you a helpful person?” Say the word “helpful,” cause people to reflect on their helpfulness, and then they behave in a way that is congruent with it. You can also do it with situations and you can do it with imagery, images.

A situational example has to do with a good demonstration of this in a study done in France. Researchers had an attractive young man approach young women who were walking through a shopping mall, right? Stop them, give them a compliment, and ask them for their phone number so he could call them for a date later on. When they were passing a variety of shops, a shoe store, a clothing boutique, a pastry shop, his success rate was very low, 13.5%. But when he was passing one particular kind of shop his success rate jumped to 24%, almost doubled. It was a flower shop.

So the setting of a flower shop and the association of flowers with romance put those young women in a romantic state of mind, and now potential romance was more important to them than avoiding potential risk. Because that’s a risky thing to give a stranger your phone number. Right? In a shopping mall. But in an amorous state of mind in the setting of a flow shop that became prominent in consciousness, that became more important, and they behaved in ways that were significantly consistent with it.

Now so let’s then talk about the last of these, which is images. And we’ve already talked about the images of fluffy clouds, images of coins, but here is the one that I think is the most powerful of all the studies I’ve reviewed. It was a study done in Belgium.

Researchers brought subjects into an experiment and one-third of them were shown photographs of household items. And in the background of the photograph there was an individual, a single individual, standing alone. That was for one-third. Another third saw those same photographs, but in the background were figures of two individuals standing apart from one another, separate. In the third group they saw those same two individuals standing shoulder to shoulder in togetherness, partnership, sort of cooperative pose.

Then in all of the instances the researcher got up from the table and pretended to drop a series of items onto the floor by accident. And the question was, “Who gets off the chair, down on their hands and knees, and helps the researcher pick up these items, of the three types of subjects?” And there’s no question. Those who saw the two individuals standing together in a togetherness, unity, cooperative kind of pose were three times more likely to help because the mindset of togetherness and unity that was installed.

Now here’s the most amazing thing about that study. Not that they were able to triple the likelihood of assistance, it’s that the subjects in this experiment were 18 months old. They were babies, hardly able to talk, barely able to reflect or review. And yet this process is so fundamental to human functioning, so primitive, that even 18-month-old children were mobilized by it.

When looking for a job, what takeaways from pre-suasion could you employ to incline your evaluators to be more favorable to your candidacy?

Yeah. Well, when we go into a job interview, frequently there’s an evaluator sitting across the table. Sometimes it’s a small team of evaluators, a panel. And we typically are trained to say, “Well, thank you for bringing me here today, I want to answer all of your questions.” I’m going to recommend that before we launch into the interview we say one more thing, “But I’m curious, why did you invite me here today? What was it about my candidacy that attracted you to my application?” And what you will find is they will then put themselves in a mindset of describing your strengths, what were the reasons that you were brought in, that your candidacy was seen to be attractive to this organization. Now when they go through the interview it will be with that mindset.

I have an acquaintance who claims he’s gotten three straight better jobs using that tactic. This applies to sales meetings, too, where you’re in competition with rivals and they’re coming in making presentations. You should ask ahead of time, “Why did you select us to come in today?”

What might you do then to increase the chances that your boss will support an ideal or an initiative that you want to be associated with?

Yeah, so you’ve now got that job that you wanted and you want to rise within the ranks and you have a particular idea that you think will be well received by the other employees and will increase the outcomes of the organization, but you need to get your boss’ support for it, maybe a budget or some kind of verbal support.

So what we typically are trained to do is to develop a draft of our idea, maybe a blueprint of it, and then give it to the boss and say, “I would love to get your opinion on this before I suggest it.” Right? “Before we move forward with it.” Asking for feedback from your boss is the right thing, asking for his or her opinion is the wrong thing to say, pre-suasively. Because the research shows that when you ask for someone’s opinion, he or she takes a step back from you psychologically and goes inside to find the answer. If instead of asking for an opinion we ask for the boss’ advice on our plan, he or she takes a step toward us.

In a kind of partnership state of mind when reviewing our draft, our proposal. And the research shows we will get more support for that idea if we ask for the boss’ advice rather than opinion. There’s an old saying, “When we ask for advice, we’re typically looking for an accomplice.” Now what the new research says is that if we get that advice, we typically get that accomplice. And what better accomplice, what better partner to have on an idea than someone in charge?

What’s the single most effective influence strategy?

I have a friend who’s a marketing professor who decided to find the single most effective influence strategy, the one that would be most effective across the widest range of situations and populations and circumstances. And I saw him at a conference a while ago, he caught me by the arm and he said, “Bob, I found it. I found the single most effective strategy for an influence professional. It is not to have a single influence strategy.”

That’s the mistake, to think that the same approach, even though it might be your favorite, is going to work in all situations, with all recipients, with all forms of history with you or your product or your service. That’s just naive. So you have to change your approach in each instance, depending on the circumstances and the audience.

Philosophically you could argue that, “Do we really need to influence and persuade?” You could say that we are trying to manipulate people?

I think that’s an important distinction between influence on the one hand, manipulation on the other. Manipulation is to use strategies of influence in a deceptive way, to mislead people into assent. Influence is to use strategies in an educational way, you inform people into assent.

I saw a study from Beijing, China, shows you the cross-cultural reach of this particular tactic, which is that people want to follow the lead of similar others, “What have other people like me done in this situation?” So what the owners of a string of restaurants in Beijing did was to simply put a star next to certain items on their menu that signified, “This is one of our most popular dishes.” And each one immediately became 13% to 20% more popular just by pointing to something that was true.

That’s what I mean by influence, and I’m happy to be a recipient of that influence. If I come to that restaurant, I want to know what’s the most popular. Because now I know what people around me like me have decided is the best option here and I’m more willing to say “yes” to that option, more willing to get a good outcome, more likely to get a good outcome as a consequence.

The UK tax service (HMRC) employs some of your research and techniques, what were their results?

So for example, the same principle of what we call social proof, telling people honestly what the majority of others around them are doing. They sent a letter to people who were delinquent on their taxes telling them they were delinquent and specifying the negative consequences, the fines and penalties, that would be associated unless they sent their money within a specific time. And that letter produced about a 67% compliance rate. If they simply said, “The majority of citizens do pay their taxes on time,” that went from 67% to 73% compliance. And if they said, “The majority of citizens in your community pay your taxes on time,” in other words similar others, it went to 83%. By just pointing to something that was true was enough to produce the desired response.

I think the UK is doing a terrific job with what it calls its Nudge Unit, that produces all kinds of experiments that allow people to see information that makes them choose healthier options, more beneficial options, saving more for retirement, eating more healthy food, and so on, just by pointing out certain kinds of information in an influential way.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertcialdini.


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