Seven Ways To Be More Persuasive

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to get visitors to our sites, but how much time do we spend thinking about better ways to persuade people once they've arrived?

Such topics are often talked about in terms of conversion and split/run testing. However, I'm like to talk talking about something a little more subtle.

The gentle art of persuasion.

Is Your Web Site Persuasive?

Every site "sells" something. It might be a product, a service, an opinion, or an increased level of engagement. You might wish to sign up members. You might want someone to bookmark your site, and return at a later date. You might want someone comment on your blog post. How can we best achieve these aims?

In "Yes, 50 Secrets From The Science of Persuasion", there is a great example of how to inconvenience your customers in order to make a sale. Colleen Szot, a leading infomercial writer, changed three words in an infomercial line which resulted in a significant increase in the number of people who purchased her product. What is remarkable is she seemingly made ordering more of a hassle.

What were those three words?

Instead of saying "Operators are waiting, please call now", she said "If operators are busy, please call back".

It seems odd that informing the customers they might have to wait would work, After all, the revised line implies the customer might have to redial a few times. However, the change worked because it used the principle of social proof. i.e. if people are uncertain about looking to perform a social action, then they'll look beyond their own judgment for a guide on what action to take.

"Operators are waiting to take your call" conjures up a mental image of rows of bored operators waiting for the phone to ring. Nobody is buying. However, by suggesting the operators might be busy, we imagine that many people are buying the product. If other people are buying it, it must be good. Of course, this isn't logical, but it is how people act. They perceive there to be safety in numbers.

We can take these ideas and apply them to websites, too. Here are seven. These ideas are all documented in "Yes, 50 Secrets From The Science of Persuasion".

I'm not getting any kickbacks for mentioning it. I just really enjoyed the book :)

1. Establish Social Proof

Look at ways in which you can demonstrate other people have taken this course of action.

Typical examples on the web include personal recommendations and endorsements. More subtle indicators include a running total of the number of comments made, indicators as to the size of the community, and the number of people who have visited the site. RSS counters. Social network plug-ins, such as MyBlogLog . All indicators that other people congregate here.

Think of the web as a place.

This is another reason the brochure web site is dying a death compared to interactive sites. There are few social markers on brochure sites, and there is seldom a sense of place. People want to be where are other people are.

No one wants to eat in an empty restaurant.

2. Don't Give People Too Many Options.

In a study of over 800,000 workers, behavioral scientist Sheena Lyengar studied company sponsored retirement programs. The study found that the more choices that were offered, the less likely employees were to enroll in the program. Giving people too many options forces people to differentiate. This can lead to confusion and disengagement from the task at hand.

When you consider that an exit on the web is only one click away, it becomes vitally important that people do not become disengaged. Decide on a limited number of desired actions you want visitors to take, and focus people's attention on those few options.

3. The Middle Option

I've covered this tactic before in Predictable Irrational Marketing Strategies, but it's such a great persuasive technique, it can't hurt to revisit it :)

If you want to people to take a desired action, frame it alongside two less desirable options.

For example, let's say you're offering TVs for sale. If you offer a cheap TV and an expensive TV, you're forcing people to make a choice based on price. People will tend to pick the lowest price option if forced into a decision based solely on price. However, if you offer a third option the decision becomes less focused on price. It becomes a compromise choice based on both price and features.

Given this option, people tend to pick the middle option. Consider that the middle option was the expensive option in the first either/or offer :)

4. Scare 'Em

A persuasive technique favored by politicians. "Terrorists!". "Your Savings Will Be Wiped Out!". "Your Jobs Will Go Offshore!".

These threat messages work because humans are conditioned to look out for threats. It's a survival mechanism. You can incorporate this persuasive technique in a more subtle way, however.

People experience fear on a number of different levels, i.e. they may simply fear that by not having your product, service or blog in their feed reader, they may be missing out. Describe the threats your product or service can alleviate, and provide a clear, concise course of action the visitor must take.

This technique must be used carefully however, as fear can also lead to inaction. Hence the phrase "paralyzed by fear", which can also occur if you offer too many options. People are afraid they'll pick the wrong one.

5. Give Forward

Reciprocity is a strong human driver. We want to give back to those people who give to us as we feel obligated. Curiously, studies show that we don't even have to like the person to feel indebted.

One of the most ridiculous pitches in web marketing is the link swap email. Someone asks you for a link, and once that link is in place, they'll link back to you. Typically they want a prominent link from your site, in return for a link on a page buried deep in their site, alongside thousands of other links.

Not much of an offer, really.

Some people try and twist the idea by giving a link first, but will retract it if you don't reciprocate. Once again, this isn't really giving anything away.

A much better approach is to simply link out to the target site. Webmasters tend to follow links back to see who is linking to them. Your link becomes a subtle form of advertising. If you then praise that website, and offer great content, you're significantly raising your chances of getting a link back.

Ask not the question "who can help me", but "whom can I help?".

6. The Post It Note

Research shows that a post-it note attached to a document tends to increase response rates. Why? Partly it has to do with the bright post-it note acts as a highlighter, and partly it has to do with the fact someone has added a personal touch

You can see the post-it note technique creeping into web design. People use a post-it note graphics, like this one on CopyBlogger. There's also a design trend to add "hand writing" as a form of personalization. Check out a few examples on Smashing Magazine.

The more personalized a request, the more likely people are to agree to it.

7. Labeling

When Luke persuaded Darth Vader to turn against the dark side, he said "I know there is still good in you! There's good in you. I can sense it". This is known as labeling. BTW: That link has little to do with this point, but it is funny :)

I digress...

The technique is to assign a trait, attitude or belief to another person and then make a request of that person consistent with that label.

For example, if you were selling accounting books, you could suggest that people who buy accounting books are also big consumers of your finance titles. Then offer them a finance title. This also works in terms of social proof.

Your Turn

What are your favorite persuasion techniques?

Published: October 20, 2008 by A Reader in marketing


October 21, 2008 - 1:47am

Fantastic post, Peter!

After thinking about it, I don't have any persuasion techniques! So I just ordered "Yes!" I love that title, it made me want to buy it right away. And I knew I was being persuaded. Ha!
I'm going to checkout their free podcasts right now.

October 21, 2008 - 10:59am

Really awesome post, Peter.

The bit about handwriting/post-its is definitely a great idea. I've used that style in a few marketing items I've done this year.

Right now I'm using it for a pro/con list of each product on my web site. I've got a nice illustrated notepad with all the pros and cons written down in handwriting with ticks and crosses next to them.

October 21, 2008 - 11:09am

Peter you forgot the most popular and basic offer to persuade people - Give them something for FREE - Like an ebook or a report!

Dilip Shaw

yet another ben
October 21, 2008 - 12:16pm

It's a funny area. I often think about conversions being return visitors. These are the guys that liked what they saw the first time round and want some more.

Driving the visitor to then act on the site raises some interesting points, but maybe point 2 could be expanded to cover clarity more clearly?

Online, people are inundated with information, so simplicity and clarity in the persuasive message goes a long way...

Ben M

October 21, 2008 - 12:17pm

I think that most important is not to leave too many options and too many decision-making options. Simple web is much more effective than complex one, even if product has many parameters and customization options.


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