5 Shockingly Simple Ways to Influence Your Buyer

Dr. Robert Cialdini is neither copywriter nor marketer. He's a psychologist. He has a graduate degree from Columbia. He's also the author of the destined-to-be marketing classic, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion."

" I can admit it freely now," says Cialdini in the book's forward, "All my life I've been a patsy."

He wrote the book, he says, because it occurred to him that he, himself, had been persuaded over and over again to do and buy things he didn't want or need. He wanted to figure out how it had happened. And he wanted to share those findings so others could avoid the same fate.

A noble cause.

Our cause, I believe, is equally noble.

We're not REALLY out to use what Cialdini found to persuade people to do things they don't want to do. Rather, we're going to use what he found – at the risk of sounding like Yoda telling you to stay away from the dark side of The Force – for "good."

And by "good," I simply mean what I think the true purpose of advertising should be:

True marketing and honest advertising aims only to connect worthy sellers with interested buyers.

That is, responsible advertising builds relationships. GOOD, responsible advertising only hastens them.

And with that in mind, here's my spin on some of Cialdini's most interesting findings …


    In one of the experiments in Cialdini's book, a Harvard psychologist gives a subject a stack of papers and tells him or her to approach a line cued up at a photocopy machine.

    The subject is supposed to say, "Excuse me, I've got five pages. May I jump in and use the machine?"

    In 60% of the attempts, the line let the subject jump in and make copies.

    But when the second sentence was changed to "May I jump in and use the machine, because I'm in a rush" … an astounding 94% gave the go ahead!

    Why? Because reasons persuade reasonable people. Or so you would assume. But in the experiment, even when the words after "because" were changed, the request still succeeded. Even when the "reason" was no good reason at all! ("…because I need to make some copies.")

    This simply suggests what I've said before. People search for reasons to justify their actions. Even if what you're providing SOUNDS like a reason but isn't, it can almost be good enough.

    After reading about the above experiment in Cialdini's book, I find myself using "because" in copy a lot more these days. Of course, I try to follow it with true justification too.


    If you've seen "Catch Me If You Can," the movie about the 1950s conman who built a career on projecting the IMAGE of authority (fake uniforms, fake logos, carefully placed lingo) … you know this one already.

    In medical circles, they call it the "white coat" or "stethoscope" effect. Cialdini gives more than one example where patients in hospitals ignore doctors who are out of uniform, but listen like school children to lab techs in scrubs or lab coats.

    Nobody likes to admit it, but we're inclined toward "shortcut" thinking. Stereotypes. And assumptions.

    Hence, the power of the uniform. Even holding a clipboard, according to Cialdini's research, can do the trick.

    If someone has the look of authority, it's often assumed that they ARE an authority. A lot of bamboozling in the history of commerce owes its success to this insight.

    You are not, of course, out to bamboozle. But you need to take this into account nonetheless … especially when you compile the credibility of whatever worthy service or product you're trying to sell. Make sure it looks the part. Or lose the sale.


    A student comes to your door and asks you to sign a petition … a soap company invites customers to write a "Why I Love Sudsy Soap" essay … your local supermarket gives you a free "I Shop at UberMart" bumper sticker.

    Who would have thought they learned these techniques from the interrogators working for the Communist Chinese? It's true. Sort of.

    During World War II, the Japanese tried to torture confessions out of Allied prisoners. For the most part, it didn't work.

    The Chinese, however, held essay contests.

    First, they asked American prisoners to admit to small things, e.g., "The American system isn't 'perfect' is it? Nothing, after all, is perfect."

    " Yes, that's true," the prisoner would have to concede. Then, the captors would invite the prisoner to list some of the ways America might not be perfect. Long lists were rewarded with small prizes (rice, cigarettes, etc.).

    The captors would invite the prisoner to read the list in a discussion group. And then hold essay contests – again in exchange for small rewards – to see who could make the best essay from the list.

    Small concessions. Kid stuff. But not quite.

    The concessions seemed painless compared to the torture the prisoners expected. But by the time the hook was in, the captors had the prisoners reading their statements on public radio. And after the

    war, back home in the U.S., telling others that maybe communism was a good idea for Asia after all.

    How could they, the prisoners, go back on what they'd defended so carefully … and publicly?

    The human mind isn't built for that. And here's where this bizarre little insight actually applies to LEGITIMATE marketing …

    If you've got a good product and a happy customer, give them a chance to boast about it. With gift offers for family and friends. Membership cards. Invitations to send in testimonials. And more. Same principle, but a more noble application.


    You don't have to take my word on all this. Read the research for yourself and you decide. I'm sure you're going to agree.

    Why am I so sure? Well, for one thing because I'm giving you the opportunity to do so. Almost all of us like to make choices for ourselves rather than have others make our choices for us. Likewise, if we're backed into a corner by a choice, even if we accept that decision … we're less likely to feel good about it or loyal to it later.

    Cialdini gives an example of kids in a playroom.

    Outright threats not to touch a certain toy ("Don't play with the robot or you won't get cookies.") stopped working when the observer stepped out of the room.

    Because it wasn't a choice. It was just a rule and a possible outcome, imposed without reason. Short term, this can get a result. But long term …or when it counts … those results don't always reproduce.

    However, when the reason was given and the responsibility for making the right choice was assigned to the kid ("Playing with the robot is wrong. If you play with the robot, I'll be very disappointed in you."), a shocking number of children wouldn't touch the thing. Even when left alone. What's more, they would take it on themselves to encourage new kids to make the same decision.

    Now, I don't have kids yet. So you really SHOULDN'T rely on my prodding. Take a look at the research for yourself and make up your own mind. But once you have, I think you'll agree that it's pretty convincing.

    That is, for better sales results, craft your offer so it's the customer who has to make the choice. Rather than you, the seller, trying to ram it down his throat.


    In the 1960s, dozens of New Yorkers heard a woman's screams. They leaned out their windows. They listened. They did nothing.

    Catherine Genovese was stabbed to death that night. And for years, the story was used as proof that people – especially people in cities – were getting more and more cold-hearted.

    New research suggests the problem wasn't a cold heart, but a confused one.

    38 people were interviewed afterward.

    They were terrified during the event and just after the event. But none of them knew what to do. They felt "helpless" as they tried to figure out what was happening.

    But, says Cialdini, in cases where the cry for help is specific and clear, people – even New Yorkers – actually spring to help. He even recommends, if you're in trouble, to immediately try to lock eyes with someone nearby and target them: "You in the blue suit, I need help!"

    In four staged experiments in Florida, a "fallen worker" near power lines was able to coax emergency aid 90% of the time from passersby. But when he said nothing, most gawked, looked panicked, then hurried past.

    It's not just in requesting help where this applies.

    It's just as true when pitching something positive, like an offer. It's surprising how often a pitch seems clear but leaves the prospect not knowing what was offered.

    Be clear. Write the offer first. Write to one prospect only and know what you're selling, as well as what it will do, precisely, for the prospect … even before you begin writing your first word of copy. Just doing that can make a huge difference in your results.

All the above is my spin on Cialdini's research. If you really want to read something fascinating, I suggest you pick up the original book. Of course, I leave that to you to decide.

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Published: July 14, 2003

5 Responses to “5 Shockingly Simple Ways to Influence Your Buyer”

  1. AWAI all ways bring very good information to help us be great copywriters. I hope that I will learn to use this in my writings in the future.
    Thank you AWAI


  2. This is incredibly useful information in this article. I will use it in all my letters

    David Adame

  3. Great research on influencing your prospect to purchase your product or service.

    I will definitely practice combining "power of because" with "inner choice." Being specific in your offer is also a "must do" to get the sale.

    Great article!

    Charles A Pennison

  4. The information in this letter applies not only to successful marketing but also to life in general. Most people feel more comfortable in a stressful situation if clear instructions are given. After all we are taught as children to obey adults. This concept is ingrained in our brain. But as mentioned above, the procession of things have to be logical and clear.

    Christina Steiner

  5. I liked this article, especially the point about crafting the offer first. I had just written a letter, and I was unhappy with it. When I looked at the end, I thought: "What do I actually want this person to do?" And the answer was: "Pick up the phone!" I could see my copy was much too weak, so I started over, writing the offer, as John Forde suggested, first. Sure enough, the rest just fell into place. Thanks for a great tip!


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