It is a question that keeps chief executives, marketing directors, shop owners and market traders awake at night: how do you persuade people to buy your business’s products and services?
The thousands of answers to that question include holding a sale, giving away free samples and creating a memorable television advert.
Yet one business thinker, Dr Robert Cialdini, author of the bestselling 1984 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, says that these thousands of methods can be distilled down into just six principles: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consensus, commitment and liking.
Because these principles can be recreated, they can be used like a recipe. Although influence and persuasion have been around for over 4,000 years since Ancient Greece and Cialdini’s book is nearly 30 years old, its ideas are still valid today and are used by businesses and organisations around the world
One place that businesses come to learn about these principles is Manchester Business School where Dil Sidhu, who was taught by Dr Cialdini himself in the US, lectures on the science of persuasion.
The six principles
So, what do Cialdini’s principles actually mean in practice?
Reciprocity – the idea of treating someone as you are treated – will be familiar to anyone who has ever bought something on special offer. The theory is that because you have received a substantial discount, you will feel warmly disposed towards the manufacturer and continue to buy the product when the discount ends.
The scarcity principle is very straightforward: we only have a few left at this incredibly low price, so don’t miss out.
Businesses often use the principle of authority to persuade customers. Think of the adverts for toothpaste brands that feature dentists warning of the dangers of not brushing regularly.
If everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t you? This is the idea behind the consensus principle. It is why we choose to eat at a restaurant that is almost full rather than at an empty one, and why a certain pet food claims that eight out of 10 cats prefer it.
Commitment is the idea that once people have committed to something, usually publicly, they are then more inclined to go through with it.
Sidhu cites the example of a cancer charity in the US. “There is a knock on your door, and there is a person standing there with a clipboard. You expect to be asked for money, but that is not what happens,” he says.
“Instead they have just one question: ‘Do you think cancer should be beaten in our lifetime?’ And, of course, there is just one possible answer to that. They then ask you to sign a petition, to be sent to politicians, asking for just that and then they leave and you close the door.
“Two weeks later they are back, saying ‘You probably remember me. What we found is that the cost of research for cancer is escalating every day. Thanks for signing the petition. Would you consider contributing to the cause?’ Most do.”
The final principle – that of liking – has been used by generations of “Avon ladies”: people are more likely to buy from people like themselves.
These six principles are very powerful, says Sidhu, but they can be misused.
“When you’re using approaches like this, make sure that you use them honestly – by being completely truthful, and by persuading people to do things that are good for them. If you persuade people to do things that are wrong for them, then this is manipulative, and it’s unethical,” he says.
Sidhu feels that the real power in Cialdini’s principles is that they can be taught, both to individuals and businesses. “Cialdini is not trying to create any personality change,” he says. “These things have worked for so many years and because these principles can be recreated, they can be used like a recipe.”
The art of persuasion
In his Manchester course, Sidhu shows students quickly how the principles work.
“We get people to work on the six principles in an area they know little about – the reuse and recycling of hotel towels. You have seen the hotel stickers which say please reuse the towels or put them in the bathtub.”
The students are asked how they would react to being told that other students have decided to recycle their towels. The two-year study showed that when guests are told that others recycle their towels to help the environment, there is a 40 per cent increase in the number of those who recycle.
“We find that the results from the students are almost identical. I say to them, imagine how powerful that concept can be in a business that you know a lot about,” says Sidhu.
Are we, then, in the pockets of businesses, being manipulated without our knowledge?
Sidhu says that students, after hearing the principles, often ask whether they will be effectively able to hypnotise people into buying something. His answer is an emphatic “no”.
“You cannot persuade all of the people all of the time,” he says. “Take the charity fundraiser. No matter what they do, some people will slam the door in their face.”
At that point, persuasion becomes an art rather than a science.