Cialdini Wants You to 'Presuade' Customers Before the Real Pitch

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Are you doing enough before your marketing messages go out to acclimate and attune potential customers to the information to come? That's the question being asked by bestselling author Robert Cialdini in his new book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.

Yes, this is the same person who wrote the now-famous Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion 32 years ago and helped coin the phrases, "scarcity" and "social proof." In that book, he outlined The Six Principles of Influence (also known as the Six Weapons of Influence): reciprocity; commitment and consistency; safety in numbers; liking; authority; and scarcity.

I just listened to an excellent interview of Cialdini by Michael Stelzner on his Social Media Marketing podcast from the site Social Media Examiner. (Hence, our podcasts-are-effective theme continues into another week.)

Stelzner asked Cialdini, "How do we know what question to ask or talk about to prepare recipients to be more open to our next request?"

"First we have to decide what our major strength is," Cialdini replied. "What is the feature of our message that most would benefit somewhat from choosing what we have to offer? Reliability, durability, cost, quality? Then we go to the moment before we deliver that message and present an idea or image that is consistent with that strength."

He then referred to an experiment conducted by an online furniture store, which offered high-quality comfortable furniture, as well as lower-end inexpensive furniture.

"They sent half of their visitors to a landing page with a depiction of fluffy clouds in the background," he said. "Why? Clouds are associated with comfort. The visitors who saw that landing page rated comfort as the most important factor for making a choice of furniture. They searched the site for features related to comfort and, most tellingly, preferred to make a purchase based on the comfort of the furniture involved.

"Another set of visitors were sent to a landing page that had coins—money—as its background. They rated cost as the most important feature in purchasing a sofa. They searched for price-related information, and they preferred to purchase inexpensive furniture.

"But here's the scary part," Cialdini continued. "Those marketers were able to create a comfort-oriented buyer or a price-oriented buyer [simply] by what they presented with them immediately before their choice. So we know what our solution is. Our task is to put people in a state of mind that attracts them to that dimension, that strength."

It makes sense, and the new world of data is only going to amplify this theory. If Smithsonian Magazine wants me to renew, they would look at a lecture or film I attended and get my mind thinking that way. If it's an e-learning event or webinar, a publisher would, of course, check what I've attended in the past.

The difference here is that Cialdini wants marketers "to present this image or concept at the outset, at the top of their material not inside the case they're making. [Otherwise,] it's too late to get optimal influence. We have to make people primed or ready before they experience it—[get them] sensitized, attuned to that particular concept."

Cialdini said that another place we can be sensitizing people to our offer is at the bottom of a page or email where you'll often see a quote or slogan. "There should be a saying there associated with the reason for opening ourselves up to change. One I like [by British author L.P. Hartley] goes: 'The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.'"

It's also important that people don't feel manipulated and are indeed doing the right thing for themselves, he said. In the furniture experiment, the customers were asked afterward if the clouds or the coins made any difference in their choice, not one thought that it did.

"What is it that I have to offer that will make it most wise for people to choose us?" Cialdini asked. "It's not the thing that gives us the biggest profit margin or what's easiest for us. But what will lead people in the direction to make choices in their best interests, not just ours. If we're moving them in the direction that steers them to good choices, then they're going to register that offering along the dimension that will benefit them."

In another example, Cialdini cites a message he received from someone who read the book. "My sons sell popcorn outside of grocery stores to get funds for the Boy Scouts," the message said. "As people exit, [they] say, 'Would you like some popcorn?' Most people shake their heads and walk on by. They had just left the grocery store. If they wanted popcorn, they could have gotten it inside."

Cialdini said the man then recited to him the part about identifying your strengths. "What is it that we really want?" So he changed the question to, "Do you support the Boy Scouts?" Now people said yes. "They came over and bought popcorn or at least left a couple bucks," the man wrote. "The key to our message wasn't popcorn. We weren't selling popcorn. We were selling the Boy Scouts."

Cialdini believes that any way you can establish trust before the sales pitch is worth doing. "We want people to be open to change because we have something brand new for them"—if you can "pre-suade" them to see you as a trustworthy source of information, then it will be that much easier.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…