Thursday, 25 February 2016

Cialdini's six principles of persuasion, part 1

The way product description (text and image) are presented to a customer on an e-commerce site goes a long way in determining if that client will make a purchase or not. The use of certain words/phrases and strategies have been shown to influence users more than others. Cialdini's  principles [1, 2] are strategies that have been shown to result in a change of users' attitude and behavior.

According to Cialdini, persuasion is governed by principles that can be taught, learned and applied. If these principles are applied effectively, they can lead to higher positive response to persuasion. He came up with 6 principles that influence change in people. These principles are: authority, social proof, scarcity, consistency and commitment, liking, reciprocity. In this write up, I described the first 3.

1) Authority
People tend to be more receptive of people in authority. Recommendations or reviews made by people in authority are more likely to be believed.

According to Cialdini, there are several authority symbols. Title is a common one. Because it takes years of work and achievement to earn a title, people tend to respect and believe people with certain titles like Professor. Cialini buttressed this point in his book, Influence, science and practice, where he described a friend of his who is a professor at a well known eastern university. Because this friend  travels a lot, he finds himself chatting with strangers at bars, airports and restaurants. He usually has interesting conversation with them until they find out he is a professor and these strangers become respectful and accepting. Another authority symbol is clothes. Clothes like police uniform, religious attire and hospital whites can trigger compliance in people. Personally, I'm more inclined to obey/believe a priest in white collar than say a regular guy in jeans and t-shirt.

One way authority can be implemented in e-commerce is in the description of products. Including book reviews from authority figures could persuade people to buy such a book. An example of this is in Amazon is the use of text like "New York Times bestselling author" to describe authors. People that see New York Times as a symbol of authority could be persuaded to buy such a book. An example of this is shown below.

2) Social proof (Consensus)
This principle states that "we determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct". In other words, people follow the lead of similar others. According to Ciadini, "people rely heavily on the people around them for cues on how to think, feel and act". Going by this principle, one is more inclined to do something if others are doing the same thing.

In Amazon, persuasion through social proof is evident in their use of the feature "Customers who bought this item also bought". A customer who bought item A could be persuaded to buy items B and C because other customers who bought item A also bought items B and C. A screen shot from is below.

3) Scarcity
This principle states that "opportunities seem more valuable to us when they are less available". People are more motivated by the thought of losing something they already have than by gaining something new of the same value. One way of implementing scarcity is by using the limited number tactic. Telling a customer that an item is available in limited number could persuade that customer to buy the product. Another way of implementing scarcity according to Cialdini is by using time limits like deadlines.Creating and publicizing deadlines for product sales could generate interest that may not have existed before.

For items in short supply, Amazon displays the number of items in stock.

While these appear to be valid persuasion tactics, it will be interesting to see how effective real customers think they are. Carrying out a user study where users rate these strategies seems like a valid research direction. 

[Please note that this article was not peer-reviewed and forms my personal opinion. The comments however are not mine and do not describe my opinion.


[1] Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (Vol. 4). Boston: Pearson Education.

[2] Cialdini, Robert B. "Harnessing the science of persuasion." Harvard Business Review 79.9 (2001): 72-81.

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