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The art and science of customer persuasion

The art and science of customer persuasion Jay Levenger

A reasoned argument can change minds. But emotion is what drives action.

Yet we are often unaware of the emotional forces that motivate us. We believe we make our decisions rationally, particularly big decisions. We say we'll list the pros and cons and evaluate them. But do we really? The decision to purchase a home can be affected by color -- or realtors wouldn't repaint their listed homes in neutrals. Hiring decisions are made based on an emotional connection with a job candidate -- and not tangible job performance -- far more often than managers realize.

Because we don't recognize our own emotional motivations, we marketers too often downplay the role of emotion when we ask for action from our customers.

Marketers can sometimes feel they are selling a commodity product and there's not much more to do besides provide the lowest price possible. But there are still many, many emotions at play in making a purchase decision -- even with commodities. The wise marketer will be aware and take advantage of all of them.

Research has established several principles of persuasion, and marketers have seen them play out in reality. Robert Cialdini's 1984 book, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion," listed six principles. We'll outline them here, along with the implications we see for marketers.


This principle says that we will do something because we like the person (brand) making the request. This principle is what brand building is all about. Advertisers even measure "brand liking" under the assumption that this is foundational to eventual sales.

How many sales does Apple make on the basis of brand liking? It gets the benefit of the doubt when launching new products because previous experience has been so positive. Most marketers have a long way to go on this dimension. We need to earn the trust of our customers. We have the tools to develop a human connection. We just need to use them.


We assign a higher value to things we perceive as scarce. That's why we have things like deadlines on sales, limited quantities available, only the first 50 responders may attend, and many more urgency drivers like them. This is also part of the appeal of many luxury items.

Artificial scarcity is what has made the diamond industry -- particularly the De Beers monopoly -- so successful for more than a century. While other commodities have seen price fluctuations over the years, diamond prices have climbed since the Great Depression, even though diamonds themselves are not truly rare.

Is there something you can offer that will make your brand look more valuable than competitors?


Also known as "social proof," this principle says that people tend to follow the crowd. This is why it works to see products listed by popularity on a website, for example. It's also why Kickstarter campaigns seem to either snowball or die. And why every business seems to claim to be "the market leader" in anything.


"I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV." People generally follow the advice of experts. This is the reasoning behind content marketing in B2B organizations.

It may be a little meta, but HubSpot does a brilliant job of this. They are inbound marketers to inbound marketers. Their stuff is irresistible and proves they know what they're talking about. And it goes to show that -- at least in the B2B world -- blogs are not dead. They're a way to establish authority.


If you want someone to do something, you need to do something for them. In marketing, we can call this an incentive or an offer. Incentives can be positive or negative, tangible, or emotional. They can be contained within a product or we can attach them to it. This is a rich area to explore, if you're interested in having an impact on consumer behavior.

In research we've done for health insurance marketers, we've found that 69 percent of consumers welcome proactive outreach from their health plan on ways to help them stay healthy. This type of outreach has great power when it comes time to ask members to renew.


People will buy things because of what that choice says about them -- and about the group they want to belong to. You may buy a certain brand because it will make you feel you are a good parent (thank you, Jessica Alba). Or you may buy a particular car brand because it tells others you are successful.

One extra principle

When we have tested the most effective ways to connect with customers on an emotional level, we have discovered a seventh principle to add to Cialdini's list that we call relativity.

Comparison with available alternatives provides a shortcut for consumer decision making. The selection and presentation of these alternatives can greatly influence decisions. This technique has been particularly effective in helping our health insurance clients successfully drive sales conversions.

This is just the beginning of how we look at the emotions that drive action. Our initial goal is to connect, but ultimately it's to acquire more customers and deliver greater lifetime value. A good marketer needs to work with all of these principles -- and a great marketer will test these ideas at every opportunity.

Jay Levenger is the director of strategic planning at HackerAgency.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Jay Levinger is HackerAgency’s Director of Strategic Planning. He uncovers audience, brand and competitive insights to help the organization develop overarching program strategy for its clients as well as for new business...

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