How do you get a person to buy a product or service? Psychology holds answers to questions that have preoccupied marketing departments for decades, particularly surrounding how to influence people and how people respond to attempts to influence their behaviors.

“Persuasion is no longer just an art, it’s an out-and-out science,” said Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. “Indeed, a vast body of scientific evidence now exists on how, when and why people say yes to influence attempts.”

Cialdini has synthesized years of research on social influence into six universal principles for understanding attempts to influence human behavior. These can be used by businesses and consumers alike to better understand the inner workings of purchasing behaviors, as well as which appeals are more or less likely to succeed.

  • Reciprocity – Humans often feel the need to return a favor or reciprocate kind gestures. When it comes to consumers, this might be fostered by offering a free sample or generous discount, for example.
  • Commitment – Once someone is engaged with something, they are more likely to stick with it. In business, this means cultivating brand loyalty; once someone is working with a product or using a service, they are more likely to commit to paying for it again.
  • Pack mentality – The more people who do a certain thing, the more likely others are to do it as well. When brands can demonstrate their popularity or satisfaction across a wide customer base, other consumers are more likely to buy in as well.
  • Authority – People are more likely to listen to an expert than just anyone off the street. So, while pack mentality is important, having a relevant expert speak to the effectiveness of a brand’s product or service is essential to converting new consumers as well.
  • Liking – People who are similar to the target consumer are more likely to persuade the consumer to buy. People from similar demographics, whether in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic class, religious inclination or even just the same interests, are far more effective at persuading consumers than those they perceive as vastly different from them.
  • Scarcity – People tend to want what they perceive they cannot have. Making a product or service seem exclusive or as if it will go out of stock if they don’t act quickly often makes it more enticing to the consumer and increases the likelihood that they will buy in.

Armed with these six principles of influence, companies can more adeptly navigate their potential consumers and convert more to sales. However, Cialdini warned against crossing the line between influence and manipulation. To do so, he said, could spell disaster in the long run.

“People, companies and marketers need to ask themselves whether the principle of influence is inherent in the situation – that is, do they have to manufacture it or can they simply uncover it?” he said. “No one wants to be a smuggler of influence. Claiming to be an expert when they’re not, exploiting power – those eventually will have negative consequences.

“We can focus too heavily on economic factors when seeking to motivate others toward our offerings and ideas,” he added. “We would do well … to consider employing psychological motivators such as those we have covered here.”

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