Use the weapons of influence to supercharge your lean startup

#TBT to a business classic today: Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion — because good advice never really goes out of style. If you’ve missed this gem across the years, don’t worry; you probably already know many of the “secret weapons” of persuasion through tactics you’ve seen in the wild. But do you know the cognitive basis behind them?

Let’s take a closer look at each of the six weapons of influence, and how savvy businesses use them to get a subliminal edge with their customers.

1. Reciprocity

While you’d never plea the golden rule directly with a modern consumer, discounts, giveaways, trials and similar promotions appeal to this same ideal under the covers — aiming to leave the impression that you’re generous, kind, and willing to be first party in the relationship to give something of value.

As Cialdini notes, the resulting tendency is that “people repay people in kind,” biasing potential customers to interact, and hopefully transact, with you.

Nowadays the value you’re often giving is information, and that’s the basis of content marketing. Just be sure to include (tasteful!) calls to action in your newsletter, blog, podcast, etc. so that there’s a clear line for your potential customer to follow you back to your offering.

2. Consistency

Nobody likes to admit to a sunk cost. The venerable free trial not only builds on reciprocity, but by giving us a low risk opportunity to learn and return, we start the journey to mentally committing. Freemium businesses like Slack now employ this tactic virally, starting with small steps and individuals building powerful habits, and eventually sweeping through an organization.

Cialdini also digs into the idea of voluntary and public commitments as another way to increase accountability. While in an enterprise environment this can easily be mapped to contracts and partnerships, with consumers look to co-creation and customization as ways to increase engagement while they’re still in the courtship phase with your business.

3. Social proof

Testimonials are a must for any lean startup — and relevant ones to your customer base, at that. I’ll want to see someone like me agreeing that your product meets my needs, to better convince me to follow their lead. For apps, glowing reviews and star ratings in your app marketplace of choice are key.

While a direct referral is often the gold standard here, and tapping into social networks can reduce the inertia to getting them, authenticity matters; fatigue around social spam has set in for users and platform providers alike. Tread carefully with those promoted tweets.

4. Liking

The push towards friendlier, open brands that actively engage their customers (through social media, surveys, etc.) isn’t just about increasing feedback — when done right, it’s an opportunity to cultivate a likable personality to back your services. “People like those like them, who like them,” Cialdini writes, reminding us that it’s always easier to refuse a stranger than someone with whom you’ve established a rapport.

If you’re not favoring the long road of community building, even simple acts like saying “thanks” or “happy birthday” compound over time. A little flattery goes a long way — Dale Carnegie would agree!

5. Authority

Per Cialdini, “people defer to experts who provide shortcuts to decisions requiring specialized information.” Where it makes sense for your business, certifications and independent reviews can fill this need — and why you’ll so often see a vanity row of press logos on the landing pages of SaaS startups these days. Each is a marker of credibility.

More than simply amplifying the reach of your marketing message, these engagements help answer for the wary viewer: what’s your experience in this area, and why should I trust you?

6. Scarcity

It’s easy to forget that Gmail, Facebook, and other popular internet services were invite-only in their respective beginnings. The allure of early access, and belonging to that special tribe, is a fantastic way to engineer demand when you’re just getting started. Product Hunt is a great example of a hybrid where the “best” features (commenting, hunting) are reserved for the in-crowd.

Content marketing has an angle here as well; access to exclusive information can be a worthy reason to give up an e-mail address to a newsletter, for instance, and tools like SumoMe make this pattern easy to implement. Just make sure the price of admission is worth it!


When applied thoughtfully, the classic weapons of influence can help shorten the distance to “yes” with your own customers. Now that you’re in the loop, see if you can spot these tactics being used on you, too!