Any piece of brand or marketing communication seeks to persuade audiences to do something. Now a new book promises to reveal the science behind the art.
As copywriters, persuasion is what we do and language is how we do it. As an agency, we've helped top brand agencies and companies influence audiences and regularly teach a Guardian Masterclass on how to write persuasive copy. We reviewed Robert Cialdini's Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion and found it to be a real page turner. It's safe to say we were intrigued when his new book emerged last year promising 'A revolutionary way to influence and persuade'.
But what is persuasion, exactly? William Bernbach was one of the twentieth-century's most successful advertisers, so he knew a thing or two about how to get people to do things. But his much-quoted claim that "advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art," doesn’t ring so true in the twenty-first century.
The rise of behavioural economics (borrowing liberally from social science and psychology) has supplanted classical economic and theoretical explanations of why people buy stuff. In other words, we’re seeing the rise of persuasion as a science.
But the problem for brands and marketing is that, for the most part, business people and those in advertising still consider persuasion an intuitive art. This has resulted in a paucity of hard science on the topic. Enter Cialdini, psychologist and bestselling author.
So what’s it all about? Whereas Yes! focused on what to say to audiences, Pre-suasion is all about when to say it. And when is the best time to influence people? Before they even realize they are being influenced, of course.
The big idea in Cialdini’s text is that of the opener or primer. Primers work in two ways. First, they establish the power of the first piece of information or stimulus encountered in a decision-making process. Second, priming involves using one piece information or stimulus to effect how a subsequent piece of information is received, reviewed and acted upon. To take a simple example, recent research in the field has shown that playing a piece of classical music influences people to think the wine they’re drinking is expensive. That’s priming in action.
In a nutshell, pre-suasion is about manipulating attention. Cialdini sums it up neatly as follows:
“The basic idea of pre-suasion is that by guiding preliminary attention strategically, it’s possible for a communicator to move recipients into agreement with a message before they receive it.”
This requires thinking about persuasion not as a single event, but an affective sequence where images, objects and messages are linked to another. Using associative ideas, images and words to prime audiences’ attentions mean that when you come to persuade them, they’re much more likely to do as you desire.
But what associations should brands and communicators be using to pre-suade? Well, Cialdini is fond of a list, and he follows up his six weapons of influence in Yes! with a further six ways to manipulate attention in Pre-suasion. They are:
1. The sexual
Sex sells – no surprise there. But the key thing to remember is that sex only sells when it has a coherent association with the product itself. That means perfume and clothes – but trying to sell your new range of vacuums with sex appeal is going to fall flat.
2. The threatening
All good copywriters know that the fear, uncertainty and doubt triptych (coined in the unlovely acronym, FUD) can be a powerful communication tool. Cialdini’s insight, based on research he conducted, is that threatening associations and pre-suasions work best for messages that offer people the chance to fit in. This is because threatening associations prime audiences to be more perceptive to being part of a group - the old ‘safety in numbers’ chestnut.
3. The different. Every brand wants to be different, but Cialdini links the power of difference to human survival. He says that when we encounter something different, it produces an ‘orienting response’ that focuses our attention on the distinctive stimuli. It’s our mind saying, ‘that’s a bit out of the ordinary, let’s take a proper look and see what we’ve got here’. Once you’ve got your audience to take a closer look, then it’s time to persuade.
4. The self-relevant. We’re far more sensitive to messages that seem relevant to us. If you’re in any doubt, think back to Coca-Cola’s Share a Coke campaign. They took the most popular names in each country they operated in and printed them on their products. The product remained exactly the same, but the brand gained 25 million Facebook followers as a result. Sales in Australia rocketed to 250 million in a nation of 22 million people. And in the US, Coke enjoyed the first rise in sales in over a decade.
5. The unfinished. According to Cialdini’s research, once a task or narrative runs to completion, attention dissipates because the brain has achieved the closure it craves. Because of that need for closure, messages that arrive unfinished are powerful attention-holders. The idea comes from the Zeigarnik effect, a well-established theory in psychology that appears to show that unfinished or interrupted tasks are far more memorable than completed ones.
6. The mysterious. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa: it’s the most famous painting of all time – but why? According to Cialdini, the masterpiece holds attention so powerfully because of the mysteries it contains: who is the woman? Why is she smiling?
But how do these six pre-suasion techniques work in practice? Cialdini offers some compelling scientific examples.
In one study, subjects were exposed to violent language before participating in a task where they had to deliver electric shocks to a fellow subject. Those exposed to violent language beforehand delivered shocks 48 percent more intense than those who hadn’t!
Less unsettling and more useful for brands, is another study which attempted to get customers to try a new soft drink. Half were asked for their email, to sign up to receive a sample, of which 33 percent volunteered. The other half were first asked if they were adventurous: 97 percent said yes. Following that, 75 percent of those who self-identified as adventurous gave their email addresses. That combination of the self-relevant association - number 4 in Cialdini’s list - coupled with a primer that planted the idea of adventurousness in respondents’ minds resulted in a huge spike in email sign ups.
What’s the difference?
Pre-suasion is a fascinating read, but I can’t help but feel the content has been covered before, both inside and outside the field of business. Cialdini places enormous emphasis on the importance of difference, as what is distinctive focuses the attention. In 1916, Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure argued that ideas, images and messages only have meaning because of their differential relation to other ideas, images and messages. When Cialdini urges us to ‘leverage the power of difference’ he echoes, however unknowingly, Saussure’s theory.
Brands have been building their identities using Saussure’s ideas for a century, probably without knowing it. Think about the importance brands place on ‘differentiation’, being ‘distinctive’ and ‘positioning’ themselves and their messages relative to their competitors.
Or to take a precursor from the world of business, Jeff Walker’s much-lauded Product Launch Formula, with its emphasis on ‘pre-prelaunch’ and ‘prelaunch’ stages, anticipated much of Cialdini’s thinking around pre-suasion and the importance of priming.
Pre-suasion a fine book, and well worth reading for anyone in the branding game, especially with its concrete evidence of the effect of priming on audience behaviours. The one thing to take away is that when, where and how you get people’s attention is just as important as what you say when you have it. The examples of pre-suasion given are legion, everything from upping exam performance to selling life insurance to making good on that resolution to go for a morning jog. But Cialdini’s first two efforts, Influence and Yes! remain the essential persuasion bibles. In those texts, Cialdini makes genuinely novel - and useful - contributions to the science of persuasion.