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Cialdini's 'Influence' book remains highly relevant for marketers

Robert Cialdini

Recently, Robert Cialdini was in the Netherlands to host a lecture in Bussum. We attended online and spoke to certified trainer Bas Wouters about the man who wrote a benchmark work for the marketing world, entitled 'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion'.

Bas Wouters - who at the time we spoke to him was on his way to an appointment with Cialdini - is a great admirer of the Emeritus Professor of Psychology Marketing at Arizona State University. Wouters is the sole Cialdini Method Certified Trainer in the Netherlands (there are only twelve of them in the world). He also wrote the book entitled 'Online Influence' together with Joris Groen, in which the work of Cialdini plays an important role. These days, he spends a lot of time dealing with the Online Influence Institute, a training center for people with online marketing ambitions. What Wouters and Groen have done is to incorporate Cialdini's work into a model that works for the online marketing business. They utilise the Fogg Behavior Model that consists of three facets: increasing motivation (via the Cialdini principles), enabling behavior and the use of a prompt (in other words the advertisement).

E-mail to Cialdini
Wouters sold his company Keukenplaats in 2016 and subsequently drew up some new plans. "During the time I sold kitchens, I learned that research in behavioral psychology is useful, and I always enjoyed teaching. I knew that Cialdini had certified trainers and so I sent an e-mail saying that it was something I'd really like to do." Wouters explains why Cialdini's work is so relevant for online business. "You see that nowadays, in terms of conversions, all sorts of trials are conducted with A/B testing, but only ten percent are successful. At one time, I worked as a financial advisor, and we wouldn't say to clients: come on, invest your money with me and ninety percent will disappear. So I looked for the overlap between what science has proven and what the business world can utilise. There is some 100 years of scientific research involved, which is what appeals to me enormously about Cialdini. You often see that people think that if it works for Amazon it'll work for them too - except they're not Amazon. It's much better to apply tried and tested principles."

Wouters thinks it's good that brands apply knowledge from behavioral psychology to marketing strategies, but you should always opt for your own variations. "At Keukenplaats for example, we would tend to hide all the serious reviews on the site. However, what I picked up from Cialdini is that social proof is very important, and thought: I have to get that evidence to people and not let them have to search for it. After I moved it to a much more prominent area, the conversion increased by 34 percent." Wouters feels that the great thing about Cialdini is that he actually put the principles of his own book to the test. "Not many people know that. In the late 1970s, he became a professor at Arizona State University. He taught and researched why people do the things they do, such as 'why does someone ring my doorbell, have a chat with me, and then suddenly, I find myself using a different energy supplier?' That fascinated him, so then he looked at the science behind it."

Car salesman
The first research into influence was conducted to explain how Adolf Hitler came to power, Wouters says. "How can a man with such ideas gain so many followers? After that, a great deal of research was carried out, so Cialdini had access to many years of studies, but he then realized he had to gain practical experience. He decided to go undercover for three years using a different name, and started working as a car salesman, at PR agencies, within cults, and he researched how the army recruited soldiers. After three years, he combined those findings with scientific facts, and ensuring that the rather dry study material could be utilised in a practical manner. All those things combined resulted in the six practical principles, to which he added 'unity' in 2017.''

Okay, great stuff. That was a bit of background about the man who greatly influenced your work, but we were looking to find out a bit more. Fortunately though, there was still an online press slot available for the conference where Cialdini was due to speak. He discussed his seven principles and who are we to deviate from those? He bestowed a nice compliment upon the audience in the Spant in Bussum beforehand: "The Dutch are my favorite audience in the world because you people also love facts." So here are those principles then:

The nicer and more sympathetic you find a brand, the more you tend to buy from it. Cialdini talks about a shampoo brand that sold a lot more bottles because it features the shape of a 'smile' (e.g. a curved line) on the packaging.

If an expert says it, it must be true. Use as many testimonials as possible; use exact figures and stats that are also correct (so it's better to say 99 percent of people than 100 percent of people when describing preferences/opinions etc.) because then people know that you've done your homework.

He clarifies this by using an example of an acquaintance who went to sell popcorn at a supermarket, with the proceeds going to a group of scouts. The person in question asked people who just came out of the store: would you like to buy some popcorn? This was followed by the explanation of for what it was for. The acquaintance asked Cialdini whether he knew why ultimately, his sales figures were a bit disappointing. Cialdini said: first ask if people like the scouts, and then say: you can help that group of scouts by buying some popcorn. After the switch in method, his sales figure shot up from 15 percent saying yes to 55 percent. So you always have to emphasize the key added value beforehand and the product afterwards.

4.Social proof
This is essential of course, and he provides the wonderful example of a study in Beijing where a restaurateur placed an asterisk (*) after his dishes. The asterisk stood for 'the most popular item'. There are all sorts of ways to do that. Suppose, for example, that 30 percent of people indicated they wanted to buy a new product. That doesn't really seem like a recommendation, but it does if, six months ago, 10 percent wanted it, two months ago 20 percent did, and now that figure's already thirty percent."

This can also be explained thoroughly through conducted research, involving a study into balloons at McDonalds. The balloons were shared with families both before ordering, and with the control group after they'd eaten. It turned out that people spent an additional 20 percent to show gratitude for the balloon.

People like to buy things that will no longer be available in the future. "You're looking to prevent any kind of loss.'' For example, research was done into the sale of a certain type of insulation film that reduced energy bills. It turned out that it was much more effective to emphasize what you'd lose by not using it than what you'd gain if you did.

The latter has everything to do with the fact that we all want to belong to something. "... Oh, so, you're a runner? Me too.... If you can do that, they'll say yes to you a lot more often."

Cialdini and Miedema
Okay, so Robert Cialdini wrote a book in 1984 called 'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion'. Many of the elements featured in it are still pretty useful to this day to apply to your marketing strategy though. Let's just say you're head of marketing at Nike and you have to sell the best available football boots to female footballers. The book's principles of course would still apply. So which principles would you benefit from the most? Social proof, unity and commitment would of course all be extremely useful. What if the best striker in the world, Arsenal's Vivianne Miedema, scored all her goals wearing Nike football boots? And what if she stated in a TV campaign that her teammates at Arsenal wear the same boots? Well, that would certainly work, so, basically, it's still a pretty useful book.

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