Mental Mechanics of Direct Marketing

What makes people say yes? Everyone enjoys getting their way, but in direct marketing there are some pretty specific and time-tested tactics, rooted in human psychology, that can be employed to hedge your bets for success. Many of those stem from the six basic principles laid out by author, professor and social psychologist Dr. Robert B. Cialdini in his New York Times bestseller, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Cialdini contends that by understanding the psychology behind why people agree to things they don’t necessarily want to do, we can find ways to convince them to do just about anything. That is indeed a bold statement, but he’s not far off. Allow me, if you will, to distill these six principles for you here and offer some insight into how to put them to work. But first, let’s pinky swear that we’ll use our newfound powers of persuasion for good, not evil.

No Strings Attached
If I insist on picking up the check when a friend and I go out to dinner, that friend is more apt to readily agree when I ask them to give me a ride because my car is in the shop. Give something away—a gift, sample, service, trial, information that’s perceived as valuable to your audience, or anything relevant to your product or service. This puts you in a position to ask for what you want later.

Why it works:
This tactic works based on what Cialdini refers to as Reciprocity. In a nutshell, when you give something away, you create a sense of indebtedness in the other person. Once they feel indebted, they’re more likely to feel compelled to do something in return—or at least be less inclined to say no if you ask them for something. One caveat here though. People don’t respond positively when they feel manipulated, so you can’t allow your gift giving to be just a cheap ploy to make a sale. Whatever you choose to give away should be exclusively for the recipient’s benefit, whether you end up getting anything out of it or not.

The Principle of Reciprocity in practice:
A new cupcake shop in town mailed a postcard redeemable for a free sweet treat to celebrate their grand opening. That sweet offer will no doubt have customers coming back for a reprised sugar rush.
Banks and credit card companies offer a ‘Personal Finance Guide’. It has a perceived value for its helpful tips on managing money and also generates leads.

Commitment to Consistency
People feel an innate desire to be consistent, and this can be used to our advantage in direct marketing. What’s the key to consistency, you ask? Commitment. Start with a small request that’s easy to say yes to in an effort to pave the way for a larger request down the road. Ask your audience to agree to answer questions in a survey, request some information or sample a product. Accepting a free sample can lead to a small purchase, which leads to a larger purchase, and so on. Once you establish a pattern of getting a “yes” from prospects, they’ll want to remain consistent so it will be hard for them to contradict themselves—even if they don’t agree with everything they hear.

Why it works:
According to psychologists, it’s a common characteristic that drives people to be consistent in all areas of their lives — words, deeds, habits, beliefs, values, promises, etc. Once we make a decision, take a position, or demonstrate an action, we subconsciously strive to make our future behavior match up with our past behavior. Donors feel hard-pressed to refuse a charity’s appeals once they’ve given once, and customers are often loyal to products they’ve purchased before, even if they’re more expensive than a competitor’s. We do those things because consistency is an adaptive behavior and a mental shortcut for making decisions. Life moves too fast to meticulously weigh every situation, so doing the same kinds of things in the same way every time aids us in making what are generally reliable, reasonable decisions. Cialdini calls this the Principle of Consistency. To tap into it, you also need to enlist the Principle of Commitment to get that initial “yes” and begin establishing consistent behavior. If someone makes a commitment, they feel obligated to follow through. Once you get that commitment, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, you alter a prospect’s self-image enough to kick in the Principle of Consistency.

The Principles of Commitment and Consistency in practice:
A cosmetics company offering a free restaurant gift card with a purchase will definitely attract buyers motivated by the gift card—buyers that aren’t necessarily prime prospects for the company’s products. If prospects feel that they gave your product or service a shot simply because they wanted the free gift, they will feel no sense of commitment and will not feel the desire to be consistent in their buying behavior. In this example, offering a free makeup bag or an add-on product like lipstick is more relevant to the product and therefore more likely to deliver the best quality prospects that become loyal customers. They’ll think, “I responded to this offer because it intrigued me and this is the type of product I’d find useful.”
Get prospects to side with what they already agree with by aligning your product with their established sense of consistency. State in your copy, “If you’re the sort of person who loves delicious cheeses, Fromage Fancy Magazine was created just for you.” Indicating that refusing your offer would be inconsistent also works. “No true cheese aficionado would ever be without the exclusive information that Fromage Fancy Magazine gives you.”

Keeping Up with the Joneses
Come on, everyone else is doing it. At a table full of friends, we all laugh at the same jokes. At the grocery store we shift to a different checkout lane when we see other customers doing the same. Humans are social animals, so we’ve got a hardwired habit of going along with others who we believe are similar to us. So, if you want someone to do (or buy) something, imply that others are already doing it. Testimonials, reviews and case studies are helpful here. Cite your status as a market leader, if that’s the case. And “seeing is believing”, so by all means show photos of people similar to your prospect happily using your product or service. Focus on the most easy-going, least opposing folks first (those who have demonstrated a preexisting interest in what you’re selling) and get them to publicly support you. Then with each new convert you win over, resistance begins to fade away.

Why it works:
To some degree, we all take a cue from others to help us decide how to act, and to judge whether something’s right or wrong. The more people are doing it, the more right it seems. It’s an adaptive behavior and we generally consider it a pretty good bet. After all, statistics seem to support it, so it even jives mathematically. The Principle of Herd Mentality, as Cialdini explains it, often works to its best effect when your prospect is not familiar with your product or company or uncertain about your offer or message. So if you’re the new kid on the block, Herd Mentality could very well help you sell some widgets.

The Principle of Herd Mentality in practice:
A plant nursery or shipper of fruit baskets mentioning the seasonal demand and limited availability of their products encourages advance orders. Popularity plus scarcity can pack a pretty powerful punch.
A restaurant displaying a seal of approval by a rating organization like Zagat or a “People’s Choice” award from the local newspaper on its website or ad works to put an official stamp on public approval.

Those principles of persuasion, when used well, have the power to help you succeed in your direct marketing efforts. Want to know the rest? Here’s a brief overview:

People will place a higher perceived value on something they believe is in short supply. A high demand for a product coupled with a limited stock can produce lines around the block. Think the Apple Store when they release a new product that everyone wants to be the first to get a hold of.

People often side with those they like, so the more affable someone is, the more influence they have. Work to gain friendly supporters with strong social ties. This is especially effective for tapping into online social networks.

We tend to look to those in authority when making important decisions, so an alliance with the right authority figure can add credibility and support to your objective. Celebrity endorsements can conjure the “halo effect” by borrowing positive feelings that the public has toward the well-known figure. That’s why for years, celebs have been enlisted to help hawk whiskey, watches and all sorts of products and services.

Understanding your audience and what moves them to action is the first step to sales success. Now that you possess the tools to convert leads to sales, how will you make your prospective customers or clients say yes?

Source: Cialdini, Robert B., Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition. New York: HarperBusiness, 2006. Print.