Use Cialdini’s Six Weapons of Persuasion in Email Marketing

What’s the secret to getting people to do your bidding?

This is the question Robert B. Cialdini, an experimental social psychologist, asked.

To find the answer, he embarked on more than 30 years of psychological experiments, which included disguising himself as a sales trainee to infiltrate the advertising, PR and fund-raising worlds with one goal: to uncover their persuasion techniques.

His findings are in the book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” which was first published in 1984; it’s been updated three times since then.

This book has become the bible for so-called “compliance professionals” – sales reps, fundraisers, advertisers, recruiters and more.

It can also be the persuasion bible for email marketers ready to move on from the basics.

Cialdini’s book distills three decades of findings into six main principles of compliance.

In this post, I’m going to lay out the six principles of persuasion, how they work and how anyone can apply them in email marketing.

1. Reciprocation

People who feel indebted to you will more easily comply with your request.

Why it works:

When you do something nice for others, they feel obligated to return the favor. Often, the “payment” doesn’t even have to match the value or scope of the original gift.

You’re probably already using the principle of reciprocity in your email marketing. Think about it: how did you get subscribers into your mailing list in the first place? With the promise of a free PDF, webinar, or other resource?

Now that you’ve provided an incentive to your subscribers, most of them feel indebted to you, are more likely to read your emails and comply with other requests you make.

Another way of going about the reciprocity principle is to earn your right to ask by continuously giving. In terms of email marketing, that means every email you send should give your readers something of value, even if you’re asking for something in return.

You can do this in one of two ways:

  1. Make a sequence of emails so you’re giving more than your asking, for example:
    • Email #1 – give
    • Email #2 – give
    • Email #3 – ask
    • Email #4 – give
    • Email #5 – give
    • Email #6 – give
    • Email #7 – ask
    A giving email is one that serves only the subscriber and shares information, tips, insights, tools and resources beneficial to the reader. Many product launch email sequences follow this strategy.
  2. Combine giving and asking in each email, but give more than you ask. For example, the first part of the email could be a purely informational article, followed by a brief pitch of your product or service. Observe how many enewsletters use this approach.

2. Commitment and Consistency

People will comply if what you’re requesting is consistent with a belief, decision or commitment they’ve already made.

Why it works:

Once we’ve made up our minds about something, we tend to act in ways that justify that decision. That’s because society values consistency while regarding inconsistency as a weakness. To keep up with this consistency you’ll really want to make sure you choose the right email platform from the start.

The key to applying this principle is to make a request that’s aligned with your subscribers’ prior commitments.

To make it easier to do that, track your subscribers’ behaviors by segmenting them according to their apparent interests or prior decisions, then make offers consistent with previous behaviors.

Another way to apply this principle is to get subscribers to make a commitment consistent with the request you’re about to make. For example, send a survey and make customized offers based on their responses.

You can also create commitment by building a community for your email subscribers. Over time, as they identify themselves as members of your community or “tribe,” they’re more likely to comply with requests consistent with membership.

3. Social Proof

People are likely to follow orders or requests if many other people are doing the same thing.

Why it works:

We tend to believe that the way everybody else behaves is the correct way for us to behave as well.

You can use social proof even before a person signs up for your email list. For example, the headline on Copyblogger’s sign-up page is:

“170,327 Smart Online Marketers Have a Head Start …
Don’t be Left Out!”

In addition, you can use something similar within the email itself. Take a look at this quote from a product launch email series:

“Honestly, it surpassed anything we had imagined and frankly the results SHOCKED even us.

Just look at the numbers

  • 17,000 WebinarJam clients
  • 30,000,000 people registered for their webinars.” (Andy Jenkins and Mike Filsaime, March 30, 2015)

If you have numbers to show – and they’re even mildly impressive – then by all means use them in your emails. Social proof can come in the form of:

  • How many years you’ve been in business
  • How many customers you have
  • How many widgets you’ve sold
  • How many times your content was shared
  • How many people read your blog

You get the idea.

4. Liking

People are more likely to follow you if they like you.

Why it works:

It’s hard to say “no” to someone we like or consider a friend, because we want to make a good impression and preserve the friendship.

The key is to get your subscribers to like you in the first place. To start, your emails should sound human. Write conversationally – think business conversation, not street talk – avoiding jargon and legalese.

Alternatively, show the human side to your company or organization. Let subscribers know who’s writing to them, and show an agreeable photo of the author.

Another approach? Get the people who make up your business to share who they are though personal anecdotes or stories that relate to the rest of your email.

One of the most successful emails I wrote for a client, for example, began by showing photos of employees’ pets. Another popular email referenced the owner’s birthday; it had the highest open rate of all emails we’ve ever sent.

People tend to like those who are similar to them, so if you can identify traits, qualities or experiences that you share with your readers, emphasize those in your emails and other content.

Familiarity will also boost the chances that people will like your business, which backs the argument for sending emails more frequently. Don’t send emails so far apart that subscribers forget who you are!

But it takes a healthy balance. Be sensitive to your subscribers’ desires. One of the best approaches I’ve seen was executed by Danny Iny of Firepole Marketing, who ends his daily emails like this:

P.S. I hope you’re enjoying these daily doses of Firepole goodness (including blog posts, podcasts, and exclusive Q&As that aren’t found anywhere else on the web), but if it ever feels like too much, and you just want a digest of the week’s content (minus the Q&As), you can always switch to a short weekly summary:

(And notice how his friendly, thoughtful tone increases liking?)

You can also increase liking through association. You know those car ads with sexy women? By just seeing seductive women posing beside the cars, men supposed the car to be faster, more expensive looking and even better designed versus men who saw the same ads without the women.

This isn’t a cue for you to start inserting photos of seductresses in your emails (unless, of course, the images are relevant …). But you can apply the same principle by associating with people your subscribers look up to. Ask, whom do they already like? Mention those people, when relevant. If you meet those influencers in person, make sure to snap photos and share them with your subscribers. Because apparently, other people’s good qualities rub off on you just by you being physically together. Right?

5. Authority

People tend to follow someone in authority.

Why it works:

We’ve been trained from childhood to obey authority figures, from parents to teachers to police officers. By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve learned to follow authority so that order (and therefore peace) is maintained in our society.

How can you use authority in email marketing?

Consider, for example, who signs the email. Your CEO may be the highest authority in the company, but he or she may not necessarily be the most authoritative figure on all topics. If the email is about the latest upgrade in the company’s software, perhaps your chief engineer would be the better authority.

So when you make claims, quote experts to help prove your point. Don’t say your widget is four times faster than the competitor without citing tests carried out by the experts at MIT.

Including titles, awards and other citations in your email footer or signature can help build your authority.

Finally, remember that sending professional, high-value emails builds your authority among subscribers.

6. Scarcity

People are more likely to do something if they believe the opportunity to do so may not come again.

Why it works:

We don’t like to miss out, so we want to do something while we have the chance.

Scarcity is a persuasive element you’re familiar with. It’s usually presented in one of two ways, and you can use either one in your offers: limited time or limited quantity. My email inbox is full of scarcity tactics:

“Today only! 20% off any Naturalizer purchase” (Naturalizer, April 6, 2015)

“LAST CHANCE for EASTER Savings – EXTRA 30% off Everything!” (The Children’s Place, April 4, 2015)

“We have already sold off hundreds of copies since we first offered the book to our subscribers. So I don’t think the stock will last much longer. And since we will never go back to press on this, once the books are gone, that’s it. So grab your copy while supplies remain, click here now.” (Bob Bly, March 17, 2015)

If you make time-sensitive offers, it might be worth including a countdown timer with your emails and landing pages, and see if that drives more potential consumers to act.

Ideally, you want to integrate scarcity into every offer – but never ever lie. Don’t say you have limited copies of something if it’s not true. If there’s no element of scarcity to your offer, try pointing out the opportunity cost of foregoing your offer. For example:

“The sooner you sign up, the sooner you can remove toxins in your home!”

“Hurry, before your competitors get their hands on this technology.”

A final word (of warning)

These principles are so powerful – often resulting in an automatic, mindless compliance – that Cialdini refers to them as weapons. You may find this hard to believe because it seems people have gotten savvier.

Yet these principles still work.

In the great words of Peter Parker’s uncle, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Because of their influence, the principles must be used with care, and should never be used to manipulate. Doing so could lead prospects to distrust and dislike you, whereas using these techniques ethically and sensibly will leave you with have happier customers.

You can – and should – test these persuasion tools in your own email campaigns (And let us know what results you get!).
Remember to use the tools in line with email marketing best practices.