Conversion optimization is really about influence. You are influencing people to convert. And influence is really about psychology. You are understanding how the mind works. And there’s nobody better to teach us about influence and psychology than Robert Cialdini.

Prepare to be blown away.

Before you choke on the name, flutter off to Buzzfeed, or look for a more compelling source of morning entertainment, listen to two influential appeals from me, Jeremy Smith.

  • If you read this and do what I tell you to, your conversions will increase.
  • If your conversions increase, you will become wealthier, more famous and better looking. (I’m at least 84% sure about the better looking part.)

My goals for this article are pretty simple:

  • I’m going to tell you who the heck Cialdini is.
  • I’m going to tell you what he said.
  • I’m going to tell you how to unleash influential awesomeness on your website.
  • Result:  You win with a higher conversion rate.

Introducing Cialdini and His Genius

Cialwhat? Who is this guy, and why does he matter?

With his Italian last name and super smart intellect, what does this Ronald Reagan/Arnold Schwarzenegger doppelgänger have to do with conversion optimization?

A lot.

Cialdini is to the science of modern persuasion what Henry Ford is to automobiles. He basically invented it. Technically, Aristotle probably did most of the real invention of persuasion, but Cialdini helped everyone out by writing this blisteringly awesome book. You need to read it yesterday.

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(Image from Amazon.com)

Robert Cialdini was a brainy dude who was the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. You don’t get to be professor emeritus by just graduating from high school. Cialdini did graduate from high school, but then he went on to graduate from college, graduate from college again, and graduate from college again (he has more than one doctorate), giving him more degrees than a thermometer, and invitations to teach other smart people at smart places like Stanford.

Basically, Cialdini is not dumb. And he proved it by writing some smart books. People liked the books so much that Bob sold more than 2 million copies, got them translated into more than two dozen languages, and hit the New York Times bestseller list. Fortune magazine put his book on their Smartest Business Books list, and Harvard Business Review called it “breakthrough.” Those are all pretty good indications that you wrote something pretty epic.

If you want to sound smart, just throw around Cialdini’s name. Just make sure you pronounce it correctly:  chal (rhymes with “pal”) – DEE – nee.

There. Go win friends and influence people at cocktail parties.

And speaking of influence, that’s why were talking about this guy to begin with.

Cialdini wrote this great book. It’s called (wait for it), Influence.

His greatest intellectual superpowers were released in the publication of a book called Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion (Harper Business, rev. 2006).

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In order to research and write 336 pages of raw genius, Cialdini did something pretty cool. He went undercover, posing as a job applicant, as a used car salesperson trainee, as a fundraiser, as a telemarketing observer, and other fascinating roles.

He wasn’t just doing in-the-trenches discovery. He was also doing research, testing theories, talking to smart people, and digging deep into the psychology of influence.

What he came up with was six key principles of influence.

What are Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence?

These six principles have formed the basis of conferences, workshops, books, businesses, and billions of dollars in sales. The grounding principle is that people can be influenced, and they will be influenced. You just have to know what creates that influence.

Here are the six principles:

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1.  Reciprocity

Think of this as “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” If you do something nice for someone, they’ll do something nice for you — return the favor, tit for tat … you get the idea.

People are wired this way. If you give someone a favor, they tend to feel indebted to you. They want to pay you back somehow.

So, if you mow your neighbor’s lawn while he’s on vacation, maybe he’ll watch your pets while you’re visiting family at Thanksgiving.

It works on a granular level, and it works on a big scale. Cialdini’s example was the 1985 earthquake in Mexico. Ethiopia, themselves dealing with crushing famine and internal strife, gave generously to aid Mexico’s recovery process. Why? Well, if you track back to 1935, you’ll discover that Mexico loyally defended Ethiopia when Italy came trouncing into their territory.

Tit. Tat. Reciprocity.

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2. Commitment and Consistency

Everyone has a self-image — a way of thinking of themselves. When people are presented with an idea or appeal that fits their self-image, they are very likely to convert. This phenomenon is called consistency.

In a similar vein, people who make commitments tend to follow through with those commitments. They have decided, through consistency, that a certain action coheres with who they believe themselves to be. Thus, they make commitments — small but definitive actions — that advance this ideal.

This is how Cialdini put forth his point on commitment and consistency. It has everything to do with a person’s self image.

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3.  Social Proof

The idea of social proof is already quite common in the online world. When Cialdini wrote about it in the 1980s, though, nobody had even thought of  Facebook testimonials or Amazon reviews.

In the experiments that Cialdini reported on, “social proof” was simply the idea that people will do what other people around them are doing. You’ve probably given into this kind of influence. You see a group of people looking up into the sky. What are you going to do? You’re going to look up into the sky, too.

It’s that simple. Monkey see. Monkey do.6

(Image credit: businessmanagementdaily.com)

4. Authority

The vast majority of the human population is made up of followers. They will respect authority figures who have an important message, an effective style, and a platform from which to speak.

Whether for good or ill, authority figures wield enormous influence. They can tell people to kill themselves or kill others. It’s happened before. They can tell people to donate to charity and clean up city streets. Influence by authority is an incredible source of power.

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5. Liking

The people most likely to buy from you are people that like you. If you train children to be salespeople, they should first try selling to friends and family. Why? Because they have established relationships with them. The friends and family love them, and they will probably make a purchase. Kid salesperson feels happy, and goes and sells to other people.

Likability is a huge form of influence. Successful salespeople are those who are likeable. They smile. They say nice things. They establish likeability in order to get the sale.

Physical attractiveness plays into this, too. Often, successful salespeople are those who are favored with good looks. Whether or not this bias toward attractiveness is justified, it still has an undeniable impact.

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6.  Scarcity

If people think that something is going to run out, they will rush to buy it. The “Limited Time Only” sales and “While Supplies Last” phrases are overt evidence of this method of persuasion.

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That was what Cialdini said. Now, how can we turn what Cialdini said into real actionable stuff that will make money pour into our coffers?

How to Apply Cialdini’s Principles to Increase Conversions

I’m going to go through each one of the six principles and tell you how you can springboard from the principle to an action.

1.  Reciprocity

To put reciprocity into action, give people something for free. Regardless of your industry or business, there’s probably something you can give away:

  • Your time. Offer consulting — a half-hour phone call, some advice.
  • Your expertise. Tell them things that they need to know — things that will help them.
  • An estimate. People want information before making big purchases. Tell them how much something will cost.
  • A gift. Do you sell physical goods? Then give people a little something for free — a sample, a useful household item, etc.
  • Content. Content is one of the most common forms of establishing reciprocity. You can find a bajillion free e-books, free webinars, and other forms of free content.

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These are all ways to create feelings that will lead to reciprocity.

2. Commitment and Consistency

If you, as a digital marketer, can understand someone’s self image, then you can create a pitch that resonates with your target audience’s self image. In addition, you can create a small commitment that will invite further commitments.

There are two specific set of approaches that could work here.

Create consistency:

Understand exactly who your customer is. Create a persona if that helps. Then, craft headlines and value propositions that speak directly to that person’s desires and self image. This forms the basis of your messaging and branding. You’re establishing influence by creating consistency.

Invite commitment:

Next, you need to ask for some action. One small action will pave the way to future bigger actions. Here are some little actions that you can ask for:

  • Follow on social media. If a person follows you on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+, they will not only be exposed to your brand more, they will be making a commitment in your direction. If they follow you on Twitter, they will be more likely to make a larger conversion commitment later.
  • Watch a video. If someones invests their time in watching your video, they have made a commitment. This is a great way to coax someone into a small commitment.
  • Fill out a form.When someone provides an email address, a name, a phone number, or other information, they are creating a small series of commitments that can lead them to greater commitment later on.

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(Image Credit:  Wider Funnel)

3.  Social Proof

Social proof is a crucial ingredient in online marketing. People will buy, see, do what other people buy, see and do.

  • Use testimonials. Testimonials are one of your greatest weapons in marketing. Use them freely and powerfully. This is influence at its finest.
  • Show Facebook likes and Twitter followers. Assuming you have some level of social following, display your numbers. If people know that your brand has some real following, they will be likely to respond to the social proof.
  • Create content that gets commented on. If you’re doing content marketing (and you should be), then strive to write content that gets people’s feedback. Strong discussion around your content marketing pieces will create even greater social action.

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(Image source MarketingCharts.com)

4. Authority

In the online world, it is possible to construct your own authority through content marketing.

In the words of marketing expert Don Draper:

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If you have a well-defined niche, then it is possible to become the authority in that niche. With more content, more presence and more information, you will begin to grow your platform, assert your expertise and gain the recognition and respect of others within that niche.

The next logical step is recommending, advising or telling people what to do and how to do it. Conversions will follow.

5. Liking

Online relationships are not completely absent of the chemistry and likability that comes from offline relationships. In fact, you can create an even more likable persona online, because you don’t have to worry about people catching you in a bad mood or on a bad day. You can intentionally put forth the likable image that you want.

Here are some ways to make people like you:

  • Use people pictures. People like to see other people. Studies show that high-converting images are those that show people’s faces.
  • Use a normal human voice in your writing. Stay away from formal speech and jargon-laden content. Just sound normal. Use the first-person voice when you write your blogs, and be a person on social media, not a strained “corporate” voice.
  • Create a positive and active social presence. People interact online. It’s the virtual watercooler of today’s workforce. Be there, be active and be friendly.

Cialdini discussed physical attractiveness in his book. In the online world, we can use the idea of “attractiveness,” even if it’s not the idea of human, physical attractiveness, to gain customers and conversions. Create an attractive web design, a good logo and smart graphics. This kind of attractiveness will help enhance your likability.

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6.  Scarcity

The scarcity technique is pretty easy to implement online. Make your offer, but then pull it back a little bit with a “oh-but-we’re-running-out” message. Here are some ways:

  • Put a timeline on it. If it’s a webinar, for example, tell users that signup is closing on Friday at noon. If it’s a sale, put an expiration date on it.
  • Put a number on it. Alternately, you can declare that your webinar will be capped at 500 attendees. Your sale is limited to the first 200 buyers.

Scarcity doesn’t need to be a reality. People simply need to think that something is scarce in order to be compelled to act.

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Conclusion

Cialdini’s principles can and should affect every area of our digital marketing experience. From landing page design, to branding, to social interaction — we have a lot to learn from this brainy psychology professor.

What principle of influence do you think is the strongest? What action will you take?