The Science of Online Persuasion – Part 1

Marketers have been trying to persuade people for centuries. From the street corner huckster to the modern day sales person, we are inundated, both consciously and non-consciously, with people working to influence our perception and convince us to take some type of action.

In this two-part series, I’ll take you through six principles of persuasion and how you can use these well-studied tactics to better message and position your online products and services. In part 1, we’ll look at the principles of Reciprocity, Commitment/Consistency and Social Proof. In part 2, we’ll look at the principles of Authority, Liking and Scarcity.

These six principles have been extensively studied by Dr. Robert Cialdini and presented in his very popular book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. While the book was originally written in 1984, these principles are immediately applicable to today’s digital marketing strategies and we use them here at for the A/B testing programs we run for clients.

Principle #1: Reciprocity
I was recently at the mall with my family. As they went off to do their shopping, I wondered by a candy counter. The lady behind the counter offered me a free piece of chocolate fudge which I happily accepted. While I had no intention of buying fudge before I was handed the sample, I ended up making a purchase. This is a real-life example of the principle of reciprocity.

When you do something nice for someone, they will feel good about that action and will be more likely to reciprocate at some point in the future (in my case, the reciprocation was immediate!)

Triggering the reciprocity mindset shouldn’t be tied to simple product/service discounts or free shipping. Instead, look for opportunities to personalize and add value. Give a positive experience to your site visitors and they will want to give you something in return. Here are a few ideas for engaging the feeling of reciprocity.

  • Free downloads (whitepaper, ebook) – test variations where registration is required vs just letting them download without filling out a form

  • Free resources like articles and selection guides

  • Free trial period on your product or service

  • If you aren’t an e-commerce site, are there any tools you can develop and give away (e.g., savings calculator)?
Principle #2: Commitment/Consistency
It is said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. This is the underlying principle behind commitment/consistency. People generally want to behave in a way that is consistent with their past behavior

Tied into this is the commitment principle. If you can get someone to make a small initial commitment up front, they are more likely to follow through with a larger commitment later.

Here are some ideas you can try based on this principle.

  • Find ways on your site to make the visitor commit to a small action (sharing content, signing up for a newsletter, etc.) This will make it more likely they will commit to a larger action, either in the same visit or in a future one.

  • Running contests and voting competitions are great examples of techniques that get visitors to make a small commitment. These individuals should be more responsive to future signups/registrations.

  • Using phrases like “Don’t miss out!” and “While quantities last” and “Only 24 hours left!” can help nudge a visitor to make a small commitment.

  • Actions can seem a lot smaller when everyone else seems to be doing it (e.g., Join 25,112 marketers and counting!)

Principle #3: Social Proof
As Amazon has proved over the years, 3rd-party product testimonials can be a powerful way to convince consumers to make a purchase. In a study conducted by BrightLocal, it was found that 85% of consumers read up to 10 reviews before they could trust a certain business. A Forbes article has mentioned that brands with polite but negative reviews can actually be perceived as being “more honest, down-to-earth, cheerful and wholesome” than one without any complaints.

Here are some ideas for adding social proof to your website and overall marketing strategy:

  • Expert social proof – approval from credible experts in the relevant field

  • Celebrities – approval or endorsements from celebrities

  • Users – approval from current/past users (ratings, reviews, testimonials)

  • ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ – “People who bought this also bought that” –“Best Sellers!”

  • Peers – approval from friends and people you know
Taken together, these three principles of reciprocity, commitment/consistency and social proof can work together, forming a strong non-conscious pressure to help motivate and persuade your visitor to take action.

In part two of this article, we’ll look at Dr. Cialdini’s last three principles of persuasion; Authority, Liking and Scarcity.
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