Friday 12 September 2014

Secrets of persuasion: how to become a messaging Jedi

Wouldn’t you like to peer into the subconscious of your audience and know exactly what messaging would convince them to do what you wanted? Well, now you can...

It doesn't matter whether it’s an informative product description, a quirky slab of web copy or a carefully crafted spontaneous tweet; pretty much every single piece of copywriting is an attempt to persuade.

With this in mind, you can imagine our delight when, leafing through the wares of Herne Hill’s excellent Oxfam Bookshop, we came across a title which claimed to offer scientific evidence of what persuasive techniques work best – and why.

The persuader’s Bible
The book in question is called Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion and it’s written by UCLA management professor Noah J Goldstein PhD, influence maestro Steve J Martin and psychology of persuasion academic Robert B Cialdini PhD.

For copywriters and their clients, it’s Cialdini’s input that’s most revelatory. He’s the guy behind the persuasion and marketing smash-hit, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Released in 1984, it’s since sold over two million copies. Sure, that’s not quite Gone Girl, but it’s not bad for what’s essentially a snazzy textbook.

Jot these down
In Influence and again in Yes! Cialdini outlines the six ‘universal principles of social influence’. Reading through them, it’s easy to see how elements of each one could underpin effective brand messaging.

-       Reciprocation
o   we feel obliged to return favours performed for us

-       Authority
o   we look to experts to show us the way

-       Commitment & Consistency
o   we want to act consistently with our stated commitments and values

-       Scarcity
o   the less available the resource, the more we want it

-       Liking
o   the more we like people, the more we want to say ‘yes’ to them

-       Social proof
o   we look to what others do to guide our behaviour

Of the six principles, it’s ‘social proof’ which has thrown up the most interesting insights so far. (We’re only up to chapter 6). Take the following example.

Fluffy white wisdom
In these environmentally enlightened times, no hotel bathroom is complete without a little sign imploring us to reuse our towels. As you’re probably aware, most establishments go down the ‘help our planet route’ - which stands to reason, right?

Well, to test his ‘social proof’ principle, Robert and his team made an alternative sign printed with the message that ‘the majority of hotel guests recycled their towels at least once during their stay.’ They placed this one in half the bathrooms at their hotel and kept the original ‘environment message’ in the others. 

And the results are in…
Those in rooms with the social proof sign were 26% more likely to reuse their towels. As Cialdini observes, that’s ‘not a bad improvement based on a factor that people say has no influence on them at all.’ i.e. what other people do.

That's the thing. Faced with this brief, the vast majority of copywriters wouldn't have dreamed that the social proof message was more powerful than the environmental contribution. In fact, they almost certainly wouldn't have considered the social proof message at all - when clearly it's a winner. As Cialdini delights in informing us, ‘people’s ability to identify the factors that affect their behaviour is surprisingly poor’.

“Baa Baa” ß All of us
Faced with a choice, it’s seems we’re all highly influenced by information about what most other people do. This final example from the glamorous world of American pharmaceutical infomercials illustrates this nicely.

Side effects may involve purchase
Worth chewing over. Buy it here.
Colleen Szot is the J.K. Rowling of this infomercial world. She recently shattered a 20 year sales record… by altering a few words.

She changed the traditional, ‘Operators are waiting to take your call’ to, ‘If operators are busy, please call again’. It’s a subtle switch but an important one. All of a sudden the viewer is thinking, ‘if they’re busy that means that other people watching this are calling to buy. I’m not crazy for being interested. Where’s the phone?’

Don't trust your instincts        
So, a green plea that doesn't make the environmental case? A call to action that implies the viewer might have to spend time dialling and redialling? Yes! proves that the most persuasive messages aren't always the most intuitive.

Use the force
That’s what’s so great about this book: it isn't opinion. It’s not about the tone or the nuance. It’s messaging as science – not art.

Copywriting is all about persuasion. And now we have some scientific facts about what actually works. Let’s use them…May the force be with you.

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