How to Use Persuasion in Sales & Marketing

While we like to believe we act rationally, psychologists have long proven this far from the truth. From Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow to Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, it is clear that while our external worlds have evolved rapidly, our minds are still constrained by evolutionary biology.

David Cialdini’s book Influence takes these foundational traits of human psychology and brings them into the business context by demonstrating how by understanding human psychology, businesses can learn how to effectively market and sell their products.

His six principles:

  1. Reciprocity: People tend to want to return a favour. This is part of the reason why brands give away samples, why content marketing can be so effective, and why taking a client out to dinner usually results in more business.
  2. Commitment: Once someone has made a small commitment to something through words, writing or action, they’re more likely to defend that idea. This is why free trials of a product are so effective — once someone has put time into learning the product, they feel committed to it. It’s also why getting your prospects to say “yes” in a sales conversation can help with conversion — just the act of saying “yes” to a question like “Would you like to save 5 hours a week?” makes them feel more committed.
  3. Social Proof: People want to do things they see other people doing. This is why putting testimonials and case studies on your website works. It’s also why salespeople should use examples of other customers who have your prospect’s specific use-case in sales calls.
  4. Authority: People tend to obey authority figures. For a disturbing example of this, look up the Milgram experiment in 1961. In a business context, Apple ‘Geniuses’ and Shopify ‘Experts’ aren’t just customer support — they’re professionals trained to solve your problems. When your business is in its early days you can borrow authority from the founders’ previous accomplishments (previous successful exits, working at Facebook, PhD in machine learning). Once you’re established you can show all the newspapers you’ve been featured in, and your #1 market share in the industry.
  5. Liking: People are easily persuaded by people they like. In marketing, this means creating a brand customers love. An example of a company doing this excellently right now is Drift, who strive to create a human brand, and use video and podcasting as a way of building personal relationships at scale with prospective customers. In Sales, it’s even more personal. A prospect is much more likely to buy from you if they like you, so try to find common interests with them and reveal part of your personality when on the phone.
  6. Scarcity: Perceived scarcity generates demand. This is why flash sales like Black Monday work so well. It’s also why the value of a car is higher when only 75 were ever made. Salespeople can use this to shorten sales cycles by giving prospects one time offers — 20% off if you sign in the next week.

Outside of Cialdini’s work, there are other cognitive biases you should know about:

  • Anchoring: This is when initial exposure to a number serves as a reference point and influences subsequent judgments about value. This is why you should always offer a more expensive version of your product, so that the version you are trying to sell appears cheap in comparison. You can also increase the number of items purchased by setting a limit eg a burger joint that limits add-ons to 12 per person will tend to increase the average number of add-ons a customer orders.
  • Loss Aversion: People tend to prefer avoiding losses over acquiring equivalent gains. This can prevent prospects from buying items if they feel there’s a risk they may not get enough value from them. You can tackle this by using tactics like the 100% money back guarantee.
  • Association: When we see two things together, we begin to associate one with the other. This is why so many adverts have sexual overtones — the advertiser what’s you to associate the product with something you enjoy, sex. It’s also why scented candles are shown in a clean, peaceful room and Diet Coke drinkers are so often having a great time on the beach in the sunshine. You want your prospects to envision what their life could be like with your product in it.

The great copywriters of the last century have all used these concepts to great effect when advertising products, and I’ve written more about using psychology when writing copy here.

Understanding our natural cognitive biases can help sales and marketing professionals build trust with their customers, develop lasting relationships, and encourage them to buy today.