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The ‘six weapons of influence’

A look at how the principles of persuasion will help drive growth for your store.
Two people on their smartphones with social media icons and symbols superimposed.

‘50% off.’ ‘Must finish today.’ ‘Only 3 left.’ Recognise these? These are examples of persuasion in action. Persuasion is powerful. Research shows that more than 90% of our decisions are unconscious. We buy with the heart, not the head. We think we are rational, but for most purchases, we are not.

The principles of persuasion provide a useful reference for understanding how to persuade a customer to buy and drive growth for your eCommerce business.

The psychological tactics behind influencer marketing and getting people to buy is all about harnessing principles of persuasion to convince people to make purchasing decisions.

Psychology expert Robert Cialdini explains that when we make a decision, we don’t actually consider all the available information. Cialdini’s book – ‘Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion’ provides a clear guide to affecting human behaviour using the art of persuasion. The book presents six key principles:

  • Reciprocity
  • Scarcity
  • Authority
  • Consistency
  • Liking
  • Social proof

These principles of persuasion will help your eCommerce store perform and understanding them will allow you to drive more revenue.

Let’s understand Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion more deeply – and see how we can apply them to our eCommerce business:

  • Authority: people react to authority figures positively – and, as a result, people follow instructions from authority figures or people with expertise. A great example of authority in action is when eCommerce stores say ‘selected by experts’ or ‘created/by XXX’ who is already famous. Likewise, people quickly evaluate an eCommerce store by its visual design. This is why when designing your site, pay attention to layout, typography, images and consistency issues, as it should portray expertise and authority.
  • Liking: people prefer to say yes to people that we like. Research reveals that we like people who are similar to us or even pay us compliments! This is at the heart of what makes influencer marketing effective – the influencer is like your eCommerce store’s target market, your shopper will have a strong level of positive engagement with the influencer – and thus they are more persuadable to buy from you! For those in or from Great Britain, a ‘Made in Great Britain’ label is an example of persuasion – it is saying to shoppers ‘buy from someone who is like them’, and, of course, it is applicable to all countries!
  • Social proof: we are more influenced by people we perceive as being similar to ourselves. Instead of being individuals, we look to others to know proper behaviour for ourselves in different situations. This is why social proof is super-powerful in eCommerce. Here are five ways to use social proof in eCommerce:
  1. Include customer testimonials on your homepage and product pages.
  2. Indicate the number of people who bought this product – ‘100 people in the last hour have bought this product’.
  3. Label products as ‘number 1’, ‘best selling’, ‘fastest growing’, ‘popular choice’.
  4. Recommend similar products: ‘people also bought…’.
  5. Show ratings and reviews.

One of the best implementers of Robert Cialdini’s principles is Booking.com. On many of its listings it uses the words ‘booked X times for your dates in the last 24 hours’, reinforcing the idea that ‘people like you do like this’. It is worth examining all of its product pages in detail for the type of persuasion principles in action.

Social proof on Booking.com:

A screenshot from booking.com of a hotel in Prague with an example of social proof that states 'Booked 4 times for your dates in the last 24 hours. See out last available rooms'(Click to expand)

  • Scarcity: humans have two main drivers – to avoid pain or to gain pleasure. At a psychological level, the scarcer something is, the more precious it seems. As a consequence, the fear of losing that ‘something’ (and the urge to get it) increases. Scarcity is probably the most powerful of the persuasion principles.

Again, Booking.com are the pre-eminent practitioners of employing the scarcity principle in lots of ways, using messaging such as:

  • ‘You missed it! We reserved our last available room at this property.’
  • ‘Our availability in Berlin is low on your dates – lock in a great price before it’s too late.’
  • ‘In high demand – only 4 rooms left on our site!’

Booking.com implies scarcity with its messaging:

A screenshot from bookings.com for a hotel in Berlin, with a message 'Only 4 rooms left on our site!'(Click to expand)

Here are ten phrases that you can use to create scarcity in eCommerce on your product pages and shopping cart pages:

  1. ‘Only 2 left in stock’ or ‘Back in stock’
  2. ‘Limited time offer’
  3. ‘Lock in this great price while you still can’
  4. ‘Purchased 28 times today’
  5. ‘15 people are looking right now’
  6. ‘In high demand’
  7. ‘Want it tomorrow?’
  8. ‘Up to 50% off until 4/30’
  9. ‘Pre-sale: will ship by Dec 1’
  10. ‘Today’s deal ends in: 6 Hours: 8 Minutes: 5 Seconds’

Note – there are apps in the eCommerce platforms marketplaces that will enable you to plug-in the functionality to use these words. Search for ‘marketing’ apps in BigCommerce or Shopify.

  • Reciprocity: people are obliged to give back to others in the form of a behaviour, gift, or service that they have first received. Reciprocity applies to all aspects of life, including eCommerce. One of the most successful influencer marketing tactics is to get an influencer to offer a special promotion code for a product or service. This is a kind of gift to the influencer’s fans and makes it much more likely that they will pay back this kindness by using the code to make a purchase. Here are other examples of reciprocity that you can use immediately:
  1. Surprise gift: include an unexpected surprise gift with customer orders to help establish customer loyalty.
  2. Give valuable content or insights: you know your products best of all. Your knowledge is valuable so give it away for free in the form of advice, tips and hints. For example, Blue Bottle Company offer ‘Brew Guides’ on their website – educational content that’s useful for people who want to learn the ins and outs of brewing their own coffee.
  3. Offer exclusives: all of us want to be part of an ‘inner circle’. We all want to feel special. One way to deliver this experience for your customer is tell them in advance about a special product or access to a new range before anyone else can.

Using the rule of reciprocity is the ideal tactic when asking users to subscribe or register for something, even if the user does not fully recognise that the rule of reciprocity is being used. In exchange for an email address, and the possibility of future sales, Ocado offers the reciprocation ‘perk’ of 30% off with free delivery. My Outfit offers a discount code for £10 off orders.

My Outfit offers a discount code in exchange for an email address:

A screenshot from the My Outfit website showing the prompt to sign up for the newsletter to get a discount code.

  • Consistency and commitment: we humans have a deep need to be seen as consistent – we will go a long way to avoid any gap between our words and our actions. If we say we will do something, we feel we must, even if following through is irrational.

Why is this? Humans are bombarded with hundreds of choices to make every single day. For convenience, we simply make a single decision and then stick to it for all subsequent related choices.

eCommerce stores can use this Cialdini principle by getting site visitors to commit to something relatively small (and usually free), like a guide or a special deal, to increase the likelihood that those site visitors will eventually see themselves as customers. That change in self-perception makes it easier to follow up with an offer for a paid product or service.

Likewise, ‘wish lists’ are great for building consistency. Getting reviews from a customer are also good as the customer can become an advocate. For larger items, split payment or ‘buy now, pay later’ can help reduce the perceived financial commitment and improve conversion rate.

Robert Cialdini’s persuasion principles are tactics that are used by many eCommerce store owners. Good influencer marketing relies on many of these tactics of persuasion as well.

Now that you know the principles of persuasion, you are going to start seeing them everywhere! Look out for the words like ‘must finish midnight’, ‘last few…’ – that is persuasion in action. Try them in your eCommerce store and see your revenue grow.

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